Dreams Deferred: Free Speech and Meritocracy in American Higher Education

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For all the current public concern about censorship and free speech in higher education, it’s hard not to notice that the speech that’s being protected is that of powerful white men and their allies, especially white supremacists.

Harvard University recently rescinded two separate fellowship offers to qualified candidates. One, a graduate fellowship in American History; the other, a Visiting Fellow position at the Kennedy School of Government. It matters that both are women who have been in prison. It matters that one woman is black, and that another women is trans, and that both have been subjected to violence and denigration. But print and social media have seized upon Harvard’s change of heart: here’s a fellowship! Oh wait, nope. Looks like Harvard hasn’t done due diligence, which hurts their public image.

Once is an accident, maybe. Twice could be chalked up to bad luck, or increased public scrutiny thanks to the Internet and a 24 hour news cycle. Surely we would need more data to see a pattern.

But Sean Spicer remains on Harvard’s invited list. So does Corey Lewandowski and a host of other Breitbart alums and Trump cronies.

There are already multiple think-pieces and op-eds invoking the specifics of Michelle Jones’ and Chelsea Manning’s rescinded offers from Harvard. Both have been in prison. It’s easy to clutch pearls when reading about rape, abuse, and accusations of murder or treason. Whether Americans are willing to believe in redemption, or even just opportunity, after incarceration, seems uncertain. Add in racism and transphobia (Jones is black; Manning is trans) and the odds diminish. Certainly both women represent unique life experiences—part of what makes their perspectives so valuable as well as fraught. Critics of these women’s Harvard invitations talk about heinous crimes and moral breaches.

But beyond the specifics of these two cases, beyond shock that Harvard pulled fellowship offers to two qualified women out of fear of backlash from funders, politicians, and media, is a plain truth: higher education has never been based solely on whether students and faculty “deserve” to be there. College is not a moral proposition.

Higher education in the United States has been sold to the public as a stepping-stone to success. Work hard in school and you’ll succeed, with a college or graduate degree as the key to a bright future (read: job security and wealth). But within higher education, there’s little wealth for faculty and staff, and even less job security. As colleges follow the business model, administration responds to powerful consumers, who shape what is allowed in the classroom and beyond. These powerful consumers are the twinned business and political interests of the powerful. Colleges and universities serve the powerful. They reinforce the status quo. The idea that higher education is a noble or fair place, an ivory tower, a place for lofty academic and moral principles, is a fiction.

As early as the 1970s, sociologist Randall Collins wrote about the credential society. He argued that rather than temples of higher learning, colleges produced credentials that graduates could trade for jobs. When the economy crashed in that same decade, the credentials were also subject to stagflation. The main way to grab ahold of the shiniest credentials? Coming from wealth and power, or at least middle-class security.

That’s nothing new. U.S colleges and universities have been producing leaders—that is to say, reproducing class privilege—since the 17th century. Colleges are not independent institutions. They’re subject to the larger social, economic, and political context. It’s not always obvious; actually, the system depends on the public believing that access higher education is based on virtue, that advanced degrees signal talent and hard work. There is certainly talent and hard work aplenty—but that’s not what guarantees admission for students, nor high-profile posts for scholars and practitioners.

Colleges are not safe spaces. For most students, staff, and faculty, fear of backlash is real. “Backlash” includes death threats and doxxing. While Berkeley bends over backwards to host “alt-right” (read: avowed white supremacist) speakers without any academic credentials, actual scholar Anna Tsing’s talk at the same school was canceled by the university library to free up space and resources for speakers like Milo Yiannopolous. Anthropologist Tsing’s work, widely respected, addresses freedom and survival during global catastrophe; Yiannopolous makes YouTube videos and provides a playbook for bullies when recess is over.

There are many more examples of the scholar-versus-white-supremacist game at America’s top colleges and universities, and it looks like scholars always lose, unless they are also white supremacists. It’s not about free speech. It’s not about robust dialog. And it’s certainly not about meritocracy.

Talking about whether Jones or Manning “deserve” Harvard affiliation, or Harvard funding, assumes that higher education is based on merit. The point is not whether both women are paragons of virtue, or whether they “deserve” to be at Harvard. The point is that America’s top educational prestige brand—Harvard—is subject to political pressure. The point is that America’s favorite dream—that of meritocracy—is not one supported by higher education. Not now, and not in the past, either. That may not surprise many of us inside the academy, but it should warn those still hopeful that cream rises to the top that, well, it’s all easily spoiled.

Jones is now in a PhD program at NYU. Manning has tweeted that she’s OK with being disinvited—Harvard has never been an easy place for those most marginalized. So scholars and activists sometimes win. But not on merit alone.