Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Attack of Politics on University Campuses: The work of communication

University of Michigan Professor of Communication Susan Douglas has come under attack from the political Right for a column in the magazine In The Times.

In her column titled "It's okay to hate Republicans," Douglas opens with a rhetorical attention grabber "I hate Republicans," beginning with "I can't stand the thought of having to spend the next two years watching Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Darrell Issa or any of the legions of other blowhards denying climate change, thwarting immigration reform or championing fetal 'personhood'," and drawing the attention of the reader to the climate of intolerance that is promoted by the conservatives.

Professor Douglas' essay, read in full, attends to the underlying principles of aversion to social change and acceptance of inequality that form the core of the conservatives.

The political right, including a Republican member of the Board of Regents of the University of Michigan have responded to the column by calling her column offensive and by calling for her resignation.

I have long respected the work of Professor Douglas as a student of communication. Her insights on gender and the media offer valuable lessons about the role of the media in shaping gendered norms. Susan, a noted academic, a prolific scholar, is also an excellent leader. She is a public intellectual in its true sense, having contributed to public discourse on media and gender.

I had the wonderful opportunity of spending a few days with Professor Douglas at the National University of Singapore and was greatly impressed with her insights, her strong sense of nurturing others, and her commitment to fostering spaces for dialogue.

As a scholar of communication, participation and dialogue, I understand the rhetorical construction Prof. Douglas uses in her column. The behaviors of the political right have increasingly orchestrated strategies to constrain spaces of debate and conversation, often resorting to strategies of opacity. Speech has been increasingly silenced through the power used by the conservative forces on academic campuses.

Boards of regents/trustees, donors, and political leaders have resorted to using their power within and on the university to silence critical voices on university campuses that raise inconvenient questions.

Ironically, the silencing strategies deployed by the power structures uses the language of multiculturalism and openness for the purposes of silencing calls for social change, structural transformation, and social-political-economic equality.

Tolerance and inclusiveness, in a rhetorical turn, are the tools for silencing voices of difference that question the status quo.

In the face of these various forms of onslaught on university campuses by the political right, we communication scholars have vital roles to play in speaking out when our colleagues across the globe are targets of the silencing strategies deployed by the right. It is communication that is used strategically to constrain communication. The rhetorical choices and the metaphors that are deployed by the powerful structures offer the key to understanding the work of power on university campuses.

Our work needs to outline collaboratively the limits on the power exercised by board of trustees on university governance. Our work in the years ahead needs to actively define the values of transparency, faculty governance, and academic freedom, thus creating strategies for limiting the power exercised by the status quo in the creation of knowledge.

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