The Facts behind the Myths about Faculty Activism

What is a politically active faculty member, really?
By Samuel J. Abrams

The November 2015 image of former University of Missouri professor Melissa Click scowling into a video camera during a protest and yelling at a student pho­tographer, “You need to get out. . . . I need some muscle over here,” not only captivated those working in higher education but also captured the attention of the nation. Protests have swept across campuses over the past few years, and, in count­less cases, professors either participated in these demonstrations or offered commentary on the protests and their larger sociopolitical context. Clark Kerr’s decades-old reflection that “whenever there is political tension between society and the nation’s campuses, concern is likely to be expressed about the influence of college and university professors” seems to hold true today.

Despite observations from some pundits that there are “fewer public intellectuals on American univer­sity campuses today than a generation ago” and that increased specialization has fostered a culture that, according to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, “glorifies arcane unintelligibility while dis­daining impact and audience,” professors are in the media spotlight, and some scholars are now explicitly making the case for direct faculty engagement in a variety of other arenas. English professor Christian Weisser, for instance, argues that academics need to be “activist intellectuals” and package their intellec­tual work to meet the needs of diverse groups. More recently, the idea of engaged scholarship has become commonplace, with American studies professor Den­nis Deslippe finding that such scholarship “is driven by political or social justice commitment.”

The emerging question is simple: How politically engaged are our nation’s professors today?

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Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His email address is sabrams@slc.edu.

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