This post was sent to me by Olufemi O. Taiwo and is signed by #TheUndercommons (UCLA).


Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

An adjunct. She’s Black, which she must remember when her colleagues and students recoil at her perceived anger, but forget if she’s brave enough to openly question these reactions. Which colleagues remember when assessing her work – especially should she make the mistake of mentioning her race, or worse, researching in ways that make it salient – but forget when defending these assessments. Fellow marginal colleagues and students seek her for advice and support.  She helps.

Not familiar? How about: your department’s sole Black professor. A status that is noticed for committee assignments and the occasional “diversity” course offering (festive!). By students huddled in his office, often strays from departments that have no version of him, seeking — what?  Guidance, maybe. Someone to entertain the quiet thoughts they jot in the margins of their class notes, next to the ones they are actually willing to articulate. He rarely asks. He just listens.   Teaches. When queried about his unsatisfactory productivity at his tenure review, he makes shit up. Win some, lose some.

Or: a Black student, sitting in a class. Maybe yours. They can feel that something is off, left unsaid, that there are maneuvers to be made that the course material is not gymnastic enough to allow. That the person in front of them isn’t the person to ask.

They find a Black instructor.

If stories like these are familiar to you, you might understand what was being demanded at 51 campuses across the US, India, South Africa, and Taiwan: an environment in which students can expect to be challenged on their thoughts, not their standing to offer them. Or why faculty diversity was the most consistently made demand. Or why students at UCLA are running their own space of reasons, “#TheUndercommons” as (among other things) an implicit form of protest against higher education as it currently stands: a collection of spaces of complacency. Spaces that are, frankly, embarassing.  Spaces whose complacency and self absorption is dangerous.

If you find these stories unfamiliar, maybe you were persuaded by characterizations of the protesters focused on “illiberal” demands on speech policies, or calls for firings (that is, the two least consistently made of the central demands). Maybe you were more concerned with the decorum of the protesters, which juxtaposes awkwardly with the long, often violent history of protest that was required to make the advances we take for granted today.

But even after consideration of the merits of these criticisms, they are ultimately distractions. The most popular proposals should be understood as aiming to swell the ranks of those competent to navigate race and related issues (by experience or by other forms of education). Then, the “coddling” line of criticism against student activists relies on an argumentative strategy that conveniently shifts the goalposts for the benefit of those already most advantaged – as, effectively, do liberal defenses of the protestors that concede this framing. After all, there certainly is at least one epistemic environment among our options that artificially constricts reasoned debate, caters to the sensitivities of a sensitive few, and “coddles”: the one at work in the status quo.

This fact is often gestured to by way of a host of theory-laden terms that seem to make some folks feel unsafe – for example, “white supremacy”, “cisheteropatriarchy”, “ableism”, “capitalism” (yes, this too) and “imperialism”.   While the phenomena named with these terms intersect with the intellectual work dedicated to studying them in fraught ways, folks in the various ‘knows’ seem to agree on this much: higher education as it is already serves as a ‘safe space’.   Namely, for the sort of person content to free ride off of the extra labor required to teach and learn around those who refuse to develop or even acknowledge the capacities that would allow them to share the load. Then, objecting to the excesses of those pushing for safe spaces in ways that treat the dominant paradigm as the evaluative standard of sense and justice is, at best, confused.   At worst? There are some scary words we should talk about – you know, when you feel up to it).

Criticisms of some perceived fragility gripping the latest generation of students are not moves within the space of reasons, but refusals to enter it. And how you gon hate from outside the club? You can’t even get in.


3 Replies to “Safe Spaces and the Space of Reasons: Reflections on the Global Campus Protests

  1. Thanks so much for your post, Femi. You raise a number of issues everyone in academia should be thinking about. I have a question for you and a related question for your readers about one aspect of a central issue in your post, namely, the overburdening of Black faculty.
    You note that perhaps the most universal demand from campus activists has been for the hiring of new, Black faculty to address the overburdening of current faculty. One response to such a demand one sometimes hears is “pipeline issue—not my problem!” Of course, this is a mistake for a reason you mention: All of us have Black students. So WE are the pipeline. What are we doing to engage and recognize the wisdom of all our students?
    That said, some of the sources of the overburdening problem can be addressed and, I would argue, justice requires us to address, quite independently of a university’s ability to attract new Black faculty. For example, a common strategy universities employ to address their diversity problem is to require diversity on university committees. Sounds good! But the real-world effect of these policies is that faculty from overrepresented groups are paid for the service labor of faculty from underrepresented ones.
    This will be obvious to anyone familiar with how these policies typically operate, but just in case some readers aren’t: Imagine a university that has 100 faculty members, 93 are white, and 7 are Black. Imagine also that, at any given time, the university has 7 committees that it needs 5 faculty members to serve on each. Suppose, to “promote” diversity, it requires at least one Black faculty member on each committee. Distributing the work otherwise equitably, this means that each Black faculty member serves on one committee every year, while each white faculty member serves on a committee a bit better than once every 3 years. Now suppose every other service burden is distributed equitably across all faculty and add that everyone has a contract paying them for service at the same proportion of their salary. What you’ve got is a situation in which white faculty are getting paid the same as Black faculty for doing one third of the university committee service. Contractually, each faculty member is paid to do 1/100th of the total service work. That Black faculty are doing more than their fair share contractually and whites less, means, in effect, that white faculty are collecting pay for service work done by Black faculty. We can all see that this is grotesque.
    That’s a hypothetical case, but quite like the actual one at many universities—except that my calculation did not include all of the unrecognized service work Black faculty do you mention in your post, e.g. mentoring students.
    If we add to that that tenure is not granted typically primarily on the basis of one’s service, but on research or classroom teaching performance, and you’ve got a system that not only deprives Black faculty of earned income, but disadvantages them relative to their peers when it comes to retention and promotion.
    The situation for white women, I might add, is often similar, especially in fields in which they are underrepresented, such as philosophy. (No junior woman wants to tell her chair he needs to recruit a woman faculty member from another department to satisfy their university’s requirement for search committees.) But, fortunately for us, the situation is not nearly as dire.
    This is something we could start remedying tomorrow, without waiting for pipeline issues to be addressed. The solution is simple: We need to compensate our Black faculty for their extra service burden. Minimally, Black faculty should be relieved of other service burdens and white faculty should be required to pick up the slack. When this can’t be done, Black faculty should be offered teaching releases to compensate them for their lost time. Service should count more for promotion in these cases. And, I would argue, given that the university’s requirements restrict their service options in a way those requirements don’t for white faculty, Black faculty should be compensated for that as well.
    There is no reason why this can’t be done in the near future. Universities do not need additional resources to implement this: They just need to distribute their resources to those who are doing the work.
    I wonder, Femi, whether this is something #the Undercommons has discussed, but decided to not focus on for strategic reasons or, if not, whether it might consider advocating such measures? For the rest of us, I wonder what we might do to advocate for justice in compensating Black faculty for the extra service burdens universities require them to shoulder?

  2. Jan,
    Thanks for your response. I agree that this is a problem that can be improved in advance of better funding for philosophy departments. I would add that this is probably also true for graduate students: many of my colleagues in my department and other ones find themselves disproportionately burdened with various service activities that are underrecognized if recognized at all. And this work usually isn’t. Not to talk of compensation, which almost never happens. I don’t have a good way of guessing how much it would cost (financially and, to be cynical, politically) to do the combination of compensating graduate students and faculty for this labor and rebalancing the allocation of duties in the way you suggest, but it would be worth thinking about.
    Also, it would be worth discussing how mentorship of students plays into tenure review and such. I know some philosophy departments (mine included) do at least ask the students to evaluate professors on this dimension, but I can’t speak to how big of a role it plays at decisionmaking.

  3. Good point about mentorship. I like your department’s practice of soliciting input from students. That should clearly be considered for promotion purposes.
    After my first post, I remembered a program an engineering professor told me that they have at Duke to address the pipeline issue. (Or had, at least…this was a number of years ago.) Departments often know several years in advance that they will be getting a new faculty line–for example, they might know that one of their faculty members plans on retiring sometime in the next five years and they know that the university will give them a replacement line. They also often have a sense of crop of job seekers in any given year. So, it can happen that you know of a talented Black job seeker in a year that you don’t have a job to offer them. To address this, Duke allowed this engineering department to hire such a job seeker in a year in which they didn’t otherwise have an open position, on the understanding that the next otherwise open position would be understood as ‘taken’ by this new hire. He said the program worked very well. The folks hired were folks the department would have hired anyway, had they had a job available. University just helped make the job available a bit earlier.
    Since this program doesn’t require a university to expand the size of any department permanently, it’s comparatively cost effective. And it only asks departments to hire faculty they’re enthusiastic about quite apart from promoting diversity. So, it strikes me as approach that should be politically palatable even to those not otherwise much sympathetic to the activists demands.
    In any case, it’s a model for a concrete proposal one might advocate for as a start.

Comments are closed.