Academic Hypocrite of the Millennium

By on May 11, 2005

Stanley Fish, dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recently discussed Ward Churchill (and other matters) in the Chronicle of Higher Education (dated May 13, 2005). He observed, correctly, “Political persuasion is just not what is supposed to go on in the college classroom, even though it may be going on—and going on legitimately—at the noontime rally or in dormitory bull sessions.” He further noted, correctly, but not going far enough, “It is not the job of a senior administrator either to approve or disapprove of what a faculty member writes in a nonuniversity publication.” Indeed, as public opinion turns against the politicization of academic life, Fish has taken to the pages of The New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education to write of the desired divorce between academic inquiry and political activism. In the New York Times of June 1, 2004, Fish wrote, “In short, don’t cross the boundary between academic work and partisan advocacy, whether the advocacy is yours or someone else’s.”

Stanley Fish provides an ongoing education in hypocrisy and double standards. The School of Fish has two organizing policies: change your opinions to suit the moment; and never apply your principles to yourself. As chairman of the Department of English at Duke University during the late ’80s and early ’90s, he created the most politicized English department of any major university of the time—no minor accomplishment—and he called for the official ostracism and professional punishment of campus critics of political correctness. In 1990, James David Barber—a liberal and the former head of Amnesty International—founded a chapter at Duke of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), the nation’s most prominent organizational critic of the kind of curricular politicization that Fish was then promoting. The Duke chapter attracted many distinguished members (among them the late brilliant, black, female literary critic Kenny Williams, one of FIRE’s original Board members). Fish wrote privately and despicably to the provost of Duke, urging that no one who belonged to the Duke NAS should sit on hiring, personnel, or curricular committees, because the organization, by his lights, “is widely known to be racist, sexist, and homophobic.” Someone in the provost’s office was so appalled that the letter was leaked to the student newspaper. When the paper called Fish to ask him about its views, he denied writing it. When the paper said it had a signed copy of the letter in its possession, Fish termed his letter parody. The fact that Fish went on to a deanship at a major university is full testament to the degradation of American academic life.

When speech codes were popular, Fish wrote There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech…And It’s a Good Thing Too (1994). Now, he defends Ward Churchill’s free speech outside a classroom; then, Fish wrote the following about an undergraduate journalist who complained that the University of Wisconsin’s speech code (soon found unconstitutional) chilled free speech and First Amendment rights: “To the student reporter who complains that in the wake of the promulgation of a speech code at the University of Wisconsin there is now something in the back of his mind as he writes, one could reply, ‘There was always something in the back of your mind, and perhaps it might be better to have this code in the back of your mind than whatever was in there before.’” Why bother with principle? As Fish wrote in The Trouble With Principle (1999), “Politics is all there is.” Sad stuff. Once he became an administrator, the careerist Fish simply ended the embarrassment of defending partisan speech codes, fending off issues of principle with denials that the issue was relevant to current academic practice, for which he was skewered factually and morally by FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff two years ago.

FIRE’s motto always has been the dictum of Justice Louis Brandeis, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” The proper response of free men and women to speech that they abhor is more speech, reason, evidence, truth, moral outrage, and moral witness. Stanley Fish sees things differently. In an interview with the Australian Humanities Review (February 1998), discussing and defending There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, Fish offered the following advice to the radical Critical Race Theorists of academic life: “The correct response to a vision or a morality that you despise is not to try and cure it or to make its adherents sit down and read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, that’s not going to do the job. The only way to fight hate speech or racist speech is to recognize it as the speech of your enemy and what you do in response to the speech of your enemy is not prescribe a medication for it but attempt to stamp it out. So long as Critical Race Theory and others fall into the liberal universalist assumption of regarding hate speech as some kind of anomaly which could be recognized as such by everyone, they’re going to lose the game. They will win the game only if they really try to win it, rather than falling in with Justice Brandeis’ pronouncement that ‘Sunshine is the best disinfectant.’” (Emphasis added.) I, for one, prefer preserved Brandeis to rotting Fish. The University of Illinois at Chicago will have an annual Stanley Fish lecture in his honor. To do justice to Fish, it should shed darkness over moral issues, promote careerism and politics over substance and the search for knowledge, and be reserved for unprincipled chameleons.

Schools: University of Illinois at Chicago