Sunday, April 28, 2013

Against Civility: Dartmouth and the Logic of Administrative Discourse

These days, Dartmouth looks like the worst place in the world. By now most people are familiar with the story: after a group students protested the administration’s failure to take seriously the problem of sexual violence, racism, and homophobia on campus during a recent event for prospective students, they were targeted with rape and death threats on an anonymous student website. (Lots of screenshots are posted at the Real Talk Dartmouth blog.) On Friday, the Dartmouth administration sent a mass email to the entire campus announcing that disciplinary action would be taken in response—against not only those who made the anonymous threats but also those who participated in the original protest.
As some of you know, a small group of students disrupted the Dimensions Welcome Show for prospective students on Friday, April 19, using it as a platform to protest what they say are incidents of racism, sexual assault, and homophobia on campus. Following the protest, threats of bodily harm and discriminatory comments targeting the protesters and their defenders ran anonymously on various sites on the Internet.
With tensions high across the Dartmouth community, Interim President Carol Folt, the Dean of the Faculty, and other senior leaders across campus agreed that the best course of action was to suspend classes on Wednesday, April 24, for a day of reflection and alternative educational programming. This decision was made to address not only the initial protest but a precipitous decline in civility on campus over the last few months, at odds with Dartmouth’s Principles of Community.
This unusual and serious action to suspend classes for a day was prompted by concern that the dialogue on campus had reached a point that threatened to compromise the level of shared respect necessary for an academic community to thrive. The faculty and administration together determined that a pause to examine how the climate on campus can be improved was necessary. This was an important exercise that the Board supports. It is also important to note that there will be an opportunity for faculty to hold the classes that were missed as a result of Wednesday’s events.
Neither the disregard for the Dimensions Welcome Show nor the online threats that followed represent what we stand for as a community. As Interim President Folt indicated Wednesday in her remarks in front of Dartmouth Hall, the administration is following established policies and procedures with regard to any possible disciplinary action in both cases. As in every case regarding a disciplinary investigation, this process is confidential and respects the privacy of our students.
This email is an exemplary model of the genre of “administrative discourse.” It is not specific to Dartmouth or to private universities for that matter, but along with certain forms of university management have become generalized throughout higher education in the United States. We’ve seen some of this here at the UC, where the administration frequently makes the same kind of pronouncements. When students have organized actions against racism, sexism, and homophobia—which manifest in multiple forms from daily microaggressions to bureaucratic impunity to police violence—the administration often feels the need to make a public statement. These campus-wide missives are tepid, sterile, designed by committees primarily in order to avoid provoking, offending. Administrative discourse is the absence of language.

Some critics have observed that what is particularly problematic about the Dartmouth administration’s email is the fact that it posits a false equivalence between the students’ protest and the rape and death threats they received. Any equivalence is obviously not only false but intensely violent. As David Theo Goldberg wrote in the wake of a 2010 email from UC President Mark Yudof calling for “tolerance,”
To say that the racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic incidents at UCSD, at Davis and UCSC are cases of intolerance is to imply that that those engaged in these expressions are saying awful things to and about people they reject. To call for tolerance is to address only the awful things they are saying, not the underlying and implicit rejection. It addresses the symptom, not the underlying condition of which the individual utterances are merely the manifestation. We should not say such things, it implies, even about people we find or whose behavior or culture we find unacceptable.
The same could be said of the situation at Dartmouth. But there is something else going on in these examples of administrative discourse. Both “civility” and “tolerance” smooth over the violence of the status quo, transforming it into a blank slate for unceasing dialogue—a dialogue that, for its part, never upsets the neutral “civility” of the status quo. At the modern university, furthermore, “civility” is more than an ethic, it is at the same time a form of governance. It is composed of countless instruments, from room reservations to student organizations, but the maximum expression of “civility” are “Time, Place, and Manner” restrictions, by which the administration designates those forms of “speech” that count as legitimate and acceptable and likewise those that do not. The latter, of course, do not even count as “speech” but rather tend to be seen as something approaching “violence.”

What these protests are, at least if they are to be effective, is disruption, an intervention against the normal operations of the university, against “business as usual.” That business, of course, is maximizing revenue streams—many of them public, but increasingly private. Disruptions threaten the flow of capital through the university’s veins, and as such they must be prevented. The university administration’s job, then, must be seen as one of a constant managing of threats which are political, financial, and literally embodied in the students. We are the crisis. The police, of course, is one mechanism by which the administration attempts to neutralize these threats, but as the last few years have demonstrated the police often provoke more outrage, and consequently more disruption, in the course of carrying out their brutal “duties.” So from the administration’s perspective there are more effective tools—such as “civility,” which governs the norms of legitimate action. “Civility” is a gentle policeman.

Beyond false equivalence, then, the problem with the Dartmouth administration’s statement is the turn to “civility.” Administrative discourse represents an attempt not to shift the debate but to neutralize it. By deploying “civility” it hopes to disrupt disruption, channeling energies away from blockage and confrontation and into forms of pure speech that in no way threaten the constant flow of capital through the neoliberal university.


  1. Thorstein Veblen (1918) also had a lot to say about similar scenarios and (mis)practices:

  2. this is a fantastic analysis! how can we get in touch? tweet us @realtalkdartmou

  3. Reclaim UC needs to investigate the cover-up of a white male graduate student's racist and sexist bullying, especially via the Berkeley Anthropology forgrads list in August 2008, if it really wants to understand these issues. The bully was recommended for a post-doc at Daftmouth because Berkeley administrators did not want to guin the department's/university's reputation by acknowledging his wrongdoing, and so when the bully's actions became public, both Dartmouth and UC colluded to cover up his racism/sexism via hiring the convicted felon name Harmon to claim that the bully was being harassed by having to acknowledge a public cyberbullying act which hundreds were witness to. 'Civility', thus, became not refraining from engaging in racist-sexist bullying, but refraining in publicly exposing the incidents such that Berkeley/Dartmouth/the bully would not have to acknowledge their wrongdoing. Ask David Theo Goldberg for more details as he was sent email identifying the parties involved in this racist-sexist abuse and its ongoing cover-up, which Reclaim UC should be challenging and repudiating.