On Being ‘Academic’


Over the past three years, I’ve been involved in something of a public dispute with the governor, the General Assembly, and the university system’s Board of Governors in North Carolina. Unsurprisingly, given the cast of players, I’m losing.

I’m a constitutional law professor who writes a good deal about economic justice. From 2008-2015, I was also director of the University of North Carolina’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. Accordingly, I study and publish as much as I can about the plight of impoverished Tar Heels. I also, on occasion, offer critiques of public policies that exacerbate the challenges faced by low-income citizens. I’m convinced, as are many others, that poverty is North Carolina’s most daunting problem.

I’m not interested in re-plowing old ground. So, to encapsulate, let me just say that, since 2010, North Carolina has been engaged in the stoutest war on poor people the nation has seen in modern times. I have published much, particularly in the state’s major newspapers, to try to contest it. The articles resulted in an array of threats from state political leaders that if I didn’t stop writing pieces in the Raleigh News & Observer the poverty center I directed would be closed.

The chancellor and provost also demanded that I (alone among the thousands of UNC professors) include a disclaimer when I publish, noting I don’t speak for UNC. It was suggested this might obviate a burgeoning move by legislators to close the center. But the disclaimer apparently proved unsatisfying and about a year later, over widespread protest, the UNC Board of Governors shuttered the small, privately funded poverty center.

Oddly, though, this cascade of retaliation is not the precise matter about which I write. The steps taken by the Board are not actually that interesting, intellectually or legally. I don’t know anyone even modestly familiar with constitutional law who believes that closing an academic center in reprisal for a faculty member’s publications is kosher. Even Chapel Hill’s Chancellor and Provost – no friends of academic freedom – publicly voiced support for the Center and its work, as they moved behind the scenes to ease its elimination.

I want to explore, instead, what may be a more challenging and more broadly experienced issue. It concerns the expectations many seem to carry about the writings of academics.

The first question is perhaps predictable – the matter of tone. I have written law review articles and books for decades. I still do. They are, of course, essays of a certain timbre and tenor. Even here, I struggle to avoid tedium. Though I’ll concede I’m not always successful.

But I’ve also written regularly, for almost two decades, for newspapers in Colorado and North Carolina. It is, to be sure, a different art form (if the word “art” can be appropriately attached.) Short, concise, pointed, impatient, often colorful, sometimes testy, footnoteless. Editorials are not designed to wander.

Still, understandably, the thought is that professors should sound like, well, professors. As one North Carolina editor put it, in criticizing something I’d written: “professors ought to be able to write without fear of retribution from politicians or their appointees, but they should … lead us through debate at a high level that is focused on ideas and aspirations.”

There is surely some truth in this – though it can appear rich coming from editors who frequently won’t publish professors’ work because they think it boring. But it ignores the inevitable, necessary link, for an author, between tone and exigency.

Theory and aspiration have their place. When power and privilege are deployed to burden and marginalize the most threatened among us, however, contest and engagement are called for, not detachment and repose. The “high level aspiration” claim comes close to saying that when the most crucial matters and the most dangerous motives are in play, professors should abandon the field.

Second, and more interesting, there is the question of where one publishes. When the university asked that I include a disclaimer on my publications, I’ll confess I thought it comical. And just a bit of an honor. If the governor and General Assembly were that annoyed by the work of a single faculty member, in North Carolina, that suggests you might be doing something right.

But when it came to implementation, I asked how a disclaimer should work. At the time, I had recently published articles in the Harvard Law & Policy Review and the Duke Journal of Constitutional Law & Policy, and one was in the pipeline at the Wake Forest Law Review. Should I put a disclaimer on these, I inquired?

No, of course not, I was told. You only need to put a disclaimer on pieces you write for the Raleigh News & Observer. No one cares what you write for some Harvard journal. No one in North Carolina one reads that. It’s the big newspapers they’re worried about. You can write whatever you want, in other words, so long as we can be sure it doesn’t matter.

We commonly define “academic” as “of or relating to education and scholarship.” The term also carries a secondary meaning – “not of practical relevance, of only theoretical interest, as in ‘the debate has been largely academic.” We need to assure that in exercising the first definition we don’t relegate ourselves to the second.

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of law and director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina and President Emeritus of College of William & Mary

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2015


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