What is Academia? / Kim Calder and Evan Kleekamp

Plato, Aristotle, and others. Image from Igreja de São Francisco (Évora, Portugal)

Contrary to the narrative espoused in academic circles, we define academia as a space structured around the needs of the wealthy. The academy congeals around and protects those who already wield socioeconomic power. The academy follows a linear, and thus paternal, order sustained through fraternal, and thus tribunal, agreements. The peons of the academic system—graduate students, adjunct and part-time faculty, lecturers, etc.—uphold these agreements and follow an unwritten code of conduct.

Those who inhabit academic spaces must cooperate with their superiors, especially if they are to complete degrees, assume tenure-track positions, or find gainful employment related to their academic training. This cooperation includes silence around sexual coercion. The academic corpus evades ethical concerns in favor of career advancement and nepotism. The academy thus exempts its coterie from the consequences of the violence enacted within its corridors, classrooms, lecture halls, and conferences; it constructs a safe-haven for the individuals who perpetuate its authority. The academy excludes those who hinder its expression of power and instrumentalizes those who rely on the resources, prestige, and stability that secure academic work bestows.

The Humanities department exemplifies unchecked predatory behavior. It grants its attendants impunity while its students receive little to no non-academic training. The academic training students do receive offers no guarantee of employment or economic security. The academy offers no way out and no way in, and those who reach its supposed inner circle continue a long atrophied performance for a miniscule audience with no real authority or clout. Human lives, and the material world upon which they depend, become the fodder for a thought-experiment in which only ideasthe more vacuous, the more enticingmatter. The conference paper addresses no one in particular unless power or resources are to be gained. Mastery parades itself as an intellectual exercise in the academy’s closed spaces.

Example: We attend a conference convened and sponsored by ASAP. We sit in a conference room and listen to a colleague describe a group of men who, as core faculty at the institution where she received her doctorate, granted her degree. The academy does not issue or grant titles to those who break rank or speak out of turn. Our colleague, in telling her story, ruptures this orthodoxy. Her story reiterates the ongoing predatory behavior committed both on and off campus by male academics. The sexual violence she describes—coercion, rape, sexual misconduct, abuses of institutional standing in which academic favors are performed in exchange for sexual acts—is entirely ordinary. These formalized behaviors, so easily repeated, permit power to acknowledge itself and extend its reach. Take, for example, the faculty member in the crowd, our colleague’s mentor, who addresses another panelist and recuses himself from judgement or collusion because he, having only fucked a fellow professor, eschews the privilege of manipulating students. Or, because tribunal relationships often depend on certain complicities, the addressed panelist, despite being privy to the accused’s activities, decides to conceal this information lest it jeopardize her standing. The inside joke the faculty member and the panelist exchange elides the violence our colleague discloses. These entanglements, far from uncommon, demarcate the problem that prevents many witnesses, knowledgeable parties, and victims from coming forward: friendship and proximity with the accused. Taken as a whole the situation is fucking absurd.

Academic bureaucracies render any resistance to their bylaws futile. Academic power, and the individuals, male and female, who acquire that power specialize in cultivating forms of ambiguity that serve their arguments—this skill being an essential part of their training and, later, the currency in which their social system trades. In a profession where jobs are scarce and universal accolade must be garnered to ensure advancement, consent becomes a malleable term condemned as an illusion. Admittance to the academy guarantees a career in which one remains shoulder-to-shoulder with the same parties who coerce, fondle, attack, degrade, or even trade you like chattel in the open market of the conference lobby. Under these conditions, silence is routinely treated like the only option; speak up and all the abuse you suffer might lose its worth; speak up and you might deny yourself the ability to ascend to the top of the pyramid; speak up and you might be excluded from the financial reward promised to those few who receive academic positions.

Like Hollywood but without the money. What exactly is received in exchange for professional silence? What payout do the few who advance collect? And how does this transaction, built upon their advancement, better the academy?

It does not. It does, however, propel a longstanding myth embedded in the academic system which states that the good, the intelligent, the hardworking, and the responsible succeed. An academy dedicated to promoting open access, offering publication opportunities to more than a chosen few, ensuring gainful employment for graduate students either within or outside of the academic system, providing health insurance and security to its workers, might even drive its students, administrators, and instructors toward success. Under the current conditions, its bureaucratic functions support an all-too-real charade in which men abuse their positions without accountability and success comes at the expense of the marginalized who have no recourse or purchase with which to rebel.

What would it take for academia’s most powerful membersthe so-called Weinsteins of collegiate institutionsto be called to account for their abuses? Our best proposal is to remove them all. But power never divests from itself, never divests from its enjoyments. One aspect of the problem is that the people who speak out against their abusers don’t matter in an academic context—those without credentials or publications hold no authority—and must wrestle their way toward recognition in order to receive the blessing of the ordained few. As it stands, coming to matter in this way means playing the game. It therefore seems the other option available to us is to divest ourselves. But then the academy rescinds our share; we find ourselves all training and no profession. The payoff is contingent on pretending the game isn’t rigged, even if we all know better.

Academics sleep well at night because they know perfectly well sexual misconduct occurs and frame it as a natural consequence rather than an abuse of power. But it should surprise no one that our system of higher education, more and more a business venture, depends on coercion. Professors, graduate students, and administrators, especially those of the new executive class, hardly blink before condemning students to a lifetime worth of debt. Their stance on sexual assault remains indistinguishable from this enterprise.

The frat house in fact models the behavior and logic Humanities scholars so readily condemn: A group of yokel fanboys bully their students into sexual contact, abuse their power, and whine when reported. Don’t forget the sad authoritarians the fraternity brothers mimic. Don’t forget how our great society allows men to express their sexual inadequacy through intimidation tactics. Don’t forget those granted the ability to work with vulnerable populations who cry injustice and nonetheless claim they did not know, did not see, did not hear, when all the evidence implicates them time and again. Pity them for they are hypocritical and afraid.

We call for solidarity among the vulnerable, which is neither natural nor easy. We wish to abandon the position which holds that we must align ourselves with these predators, pretending their actions must surely match up with the liberation they peddle. As we compose these writings, we watch person after person with the means to support the exploited align with these “good men” of academia with their good ideas and all the advantages that come with them. We ask you who have made it inside, you lucky few with the protections of tenure and health insurance for life and prestige and a decent living to survey your surroundings. Has your silence proved its worth? Instead of avoiding the “scandal,” we ask that you open your eyes and for once protect someone other than yourselves. Call yourselves back, deprofessionalize, be human beings with bodies and experiences in real space where real actions matter. Or, if your expertise must be maintained, if you cannot exist without imposing your authority, consider the particular effect of your silence. Dismantle the structure on which your expertise relies—it is a weapon.

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Editors’ note: This contribution is part of a featured grouping on toxic masculinities and new solidarities in academic and artistic institutions. The other contributions include:

The Passion of Contra Diabolum by Sarah Heston
What Does an Artist Look Like? by Jennifer Dalton
After “A Refuge for Jae-in Doe”: A Social Media Chronology by Seo-Young Chu