Just what this university always needed: a foreign policy

There is a move afoot to put the faculty of UCLA, acting through the Faculty Senate which is its official voice (and which is also a major player in the management of the university) on record to the following effect:

We, the faculty members of the University of California, Los Angeles, say to the President of the United States, that we:

1. condemn the U.S. invasion of Iraq;

2. deplore the doctrine of preventive war the President has used to justify it the invasion;

3. reaffirm our commitment to addressing international conflicts through the rule of law and the United Nations;

4.oppose the establishment of an American protectorate in Iraq; and

5. call for the establishment of a post-war representative government in Iraq, answerable to the United Nations, which guarantees to Iraqis inalienable personal, political, and civil rights.

Eugene Volokh subjected this fantasy to some of his usual brutally amusing commentary, pointing out that most of the UCLA faculty had no professional competence that would make its opinions on this matter of any particular interest to anyone.

If the UCLA Faculty Senate expressed a view about, say, astronomy (“We, the faculty members of UCLA — including ethnomusicologists and art history scholars — endorse the expanding universe hypothesis”) or about the history of literature (“We, the faculty members of UCLA — including physicists and dentistry professors — endorse the view that Shakespeare’s works were actually written by one person named Shakespeare”), we’d think that’s a pretty unsound thing for a generalist university to say: They’re trading on the credibility of the institution as a center of expert learning to support a view on which 95% of the faculty can’t possibly have an expert opinion; this is likely to be either unpersuasive or misleading, and in the long run it will also weaken the institution’s credibility more generally. Seems to me exactly the same thing applies to the UCLA faculty’s opinion about the war.

(It’s worth pointing out, though, that at least one of the authors of the proposed resolutions is in fact — unlike either Eugene or me — a certified A-1 foreign policy expert, entitled to an expert opinion. But that still doesn’t make the assent of his non-expert colleagues to his judgment the expression of a scholarly view.)

Not having seen Eugene’s post, I received the same email he received, asking for signatures on a petition to call a special meeting at which the antiwar resolution could be considered. My response:

I am strongly opposed to the proposal that the Faculty Senate take a position on a matter of public policy remote from the functioning of UCLA as an institution. We all have political opinions, but we ought to have them on our own time, not on company time.

Two substantive notes:

The proposed resolution’s call for establishing a representative government respectful of human rights for post-war Iraq raises the question of who will bell the cat. And can anyone identify language in the UN Charter that makes member nations “answerable to” the UN?

These points, I think, illustrate why the Academic Senate is not well-constituted to serve as a foreign policy debating society.

[Note: A howling grammatical error in the original email has been corrected in the above.]

My objection, it should be noted, is on somewhat different grounds than Eugene’s. He’s right that the UCLA faculty consists overwhelmingly of non-experts on foreign policy. But in my view even an academic body consisting entirely, or almost entirely, of experts — say, a Department of International Relations, or the faculty of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies — would be out of bounds in expressing an opinion on the invasion of Iraq, or on any political question on which respectable professional opinion is divided. That is because the academic body, unlike its members, shouldn’t have political opinions.

For if the academic body has political opinions, then what is the status of members of that body who disagree? Are they now officially outsiders? If having a given opinion puts one at odds, not merely with individual colleagues — which can hardly be avoided — but with one’s institution, then discourse becomes substantially less free than it ought to be, with no good public purpose served in the process.

[This rule can’t apply to issues such as divestiture from oil companies investing in Myanmar or Nigeria, where the University as a body either has to do one thing or another; clearly, in those cases, the faculty, as citizens of the University, are entitled to as much of a voice as the other employees, and it is appropriate for them to speak through their organized bodies in registering their opinions. I would argue that it also doesn’t apply to cases where political proposals challenge academic freedom, as the proposed California Racial Privacy Initiative would. There it seems to me the duty of the faculty is clear: to express its concerns for academic freedom without suggesting that those concerns are the only ones that deserve attention from the voters.]

Academics spend a significant amount of time judging people: their students, and one another. They need, therefore, to bend over backwards to make it clear that those judgments are based as exclusively as human frailty will allow on scholarly, academic, professional standards of skill at research and discourse, and not on the agreement or disagreement of the people doing the judging with the opinions of the people being judged.

(Teaching, as I do, highly controversial subjects, I have a little canned speech I make the first day of class. In that speech, I claim an authoritative voice, speaking for the discipline, in resolving claims about what sorts of arguments for policy opinions count as good policy analysis, but make it clear that my actual opinions are merely that, and that it is not among my purposes as a teacher to make the students’ opinions conform to mine. I have to confess that I very much doubt that all of my students believe me; the notion that the teacher knows the right answer has been too thoroughly drilled into them.)

So far I’ve had four responses to my screed: two from anti-war colleagues happily agreeing with my comments, one from a pro-war colleague (and, as it turns out, another genuine expert), livid with rage at the prospect of being officially marginalized, and one from one of the authors of the proposal (someone I know well professionally) wanting to know if I were a Republican. Of the four, it seems to me the last makes my case most effectively.

But I think this story is going to have a happy ending. Some clever person set up the rules of the Faculty Senate to require 200 signatures on a petition to call an extraordinary meeting, and to require a quorum of 200 persons physically present to make such a meeting an official gathering. Out of 3300 members of the UCLA academic senate, it’s quite likely that 200 names can be found for a petition. But those who have been around the University much longer than I confidently assert that nothing, up to and including the trumpet of the Archangel Gabriel, will ever assemble 200 members of the UCLA faculty in the same room.

Moreover, even were such a group to meet and pass something, a mere 35 signatures would then refer that resolution back to the full Senate membership for a mail ballot, and it is widely believed that if that were to happen cooler heads would prevail, with a number of senior eminences who are themselves anti-war (including, if rumor is correct, the hero of a Reagan-era battle over academic freedom) providing head-cooling services as needed.

I would feel more comfortable about my own role in this were I on the anti-war rather than the pro-war side of things; then it would be clear that I am defending a principle rather than merely offering a procedural objection to a proposal of which I disapprove on substantive grounds. But the spontaneous “attaboys” from my anti-war colleagues reassure me greatly.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com