Injustice at Columbia: Power and public health

Not any more

Not any more

Update: There are now several petitions you can sign to support Hopper and Vance. If you have an academic affiliation, go here — there are petitions on behalf of both scholars. If you are an activist or advocate, you can sign a petition for Vance here

Columbia University is rich. This was brought home to me many years ago, the first time that — a kid from the countryside — I visited Rockefeller Center. As I walked through the marmoreal plazas of that temple of capitalism, someone, I forget who, pointed out that the Rockefellers didn’t actually own the land the skyscrapers were built on. Columbia University did, and rented it to Nelson, David, This astonished me. I thought of universities as assemblies of disinterested, impecunious intellectuals; it was like hearing that Keats personally built the British Museum, or that Van Gogh paid for his life of luxury by hiring out the Louvre. In fact, Columbia, a canny cross between Scrooge and Thomas Sutpen, has made a fortune by speculating in land. It moved its quarters uptown in 1896, building a formidable campus at what was then virtually the northern edge of settlement; its colonial relations with impoverished neighbors, a sorry record of exploitation and expropriation, led its own students to riot in 1968. But it clung to its midtown holdings, raked in the rent, and finally sold them to Rockefeller Center in 1985 for a tidy $400 million. It’s still growing like a sci-fi movie fungus, planning a whole vast new campus on 17 acres that used to be part of Harlem. Among US universities, its endowment of $8.1 billion puts it behind only Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and (get this) Texas A&M and the University of Texas; but that’s greater than the GDPs of, among others, the Bahamas, Haiti, Malawi, Moldova, Montenegro, and Tajikistan. American universities are unprecedented entities in the world: huge concentrations of power and money, economies in themselves, ostensibly devoted to free thought but despotically run as any petrostate, and virtually immune to protest since the scruffy ’68 generation moved on to practice corporate law.

Someday, son, all this will be yours, plus most of the surrounding neighborhoods: Aerial view of Columbia's main campus

Someday, son, all this will be yours, plus most of the surrounding neighborhoods: Aerial view of Columbia’s main campus

It’s worth remembering this while reflecting on the fact that Columbia just fired two of the most important public intellectuals working in the fields of health and human rights. Carole Vance and Kim Hopper had been professors at the Mailman School of Public Health for decades — 27 and 26 years, respectively. Vance, The Nation rightly says, has done “pioneering work on the intersection of gender, health and human rights”; Hopper “is both an advocate for the homeless and one of the nation’s foremost scholars on homelessness.” They were fired not because of any shortcomings in their research or teaching, but because they hadn’t raised enough money.

In an excellent article, The Nation expands on the Darwinian economics behind this move, and I can’t do better than quote them:

Like many schools of public health, Mailman operates on a “soft money” model, which means that professors are expected to fund much of their salaries through grants. (Many professors there, including Vance and Hopper, work without tenure.) Recently, the amount expected has increased—from somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of their salaries to as much as 80 percent …. Meanwhile, the [US government’s] National Institutes of Health, the primary source of grant money, has seen its budget slashed. These days, only 17 percent of grant applications are successful—a record low.

Vance told the Columbia Spectator that “requiring faculty members to fund 80% of their salaries through external grants is unbelievable at an educational institution.” As The Nation points out, “Legally, professors who are 80 percent grant-supported have to spend 80 percent of their total workweek on grant-related research.” This means, says Vance, “that only 20% of faculty time is available for teaching, mentoring, and advising.” It’s even worse, in fact; you have to deduct the time spent hustling to corral the funds, because those grants don’t raise themselves.

Students of the Mailman School at a meeting to protest the firings: Ayelet Pearl, Senior Staff Photographer, Columbia Spectator

Students of the Mailman School at a meeting to protest the firings: Photo by Ayelet Pearl for Columbia Spectator

Students at the School of Public Health have protested vigorously; they donned T-shirts reading “Un-Occupy Mailman,” because funders have taken over the school’s priorities. A representative of the Dean responded in bureaucratese: “Public health depends on soliciting feedback from all stakeholders.” (References to multiple “stakeholders” always mean: You to whom I am speaking will get screwed.) “That is why Dean Fried invited doctoral students to share their concerns — concerns we all have — about the importance of maintaining the high quality of a Mailman education in the face of reduced federal support.” And further blather.

Carole Vance is a friend of mine. I’m well aware that when bad things happen to people, their friends often respond with public praise that is entirely merited but doesn’t really change things. The victims may end up with the sense that they are reading their own obituaries in advance, which may be pleasing but is hardly encouraging. There is nothing retrospective about Carole, and I will try to avoid this note of plangency.

51SE6423GcL._SL500_AA300_Still, you can’t fail to note that Vance has been a major force in US and international feminism at least since the 1980s, when she co-organized the famous 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality, and compiled many of the resultant papers into the landmark anthology Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. These days, when people talk about the Sex Wars they may think either of Uganda or of something to do with Sandra Fluke; then, though, it meant an impassioned contest over how feminism would cope with the unregulatable reality of multifarious sexual desires. Carole’s groundbreaking work for thirty years has carried forward the message that both feminism and human rights practice have to integrate sexuality as a central human concern.

I first got to know Carole about fifteen years ago, when, with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, she organized a program to bring both activists and academics working on sexuality and rights to Columbia as fellows. The goal was to give activists space to reflect on the theoretical implications of their work, and theorists a chance to consider practical effects. I was never a fellow in the program, but I went to many of its workshops and meetings, so I can say with perfect objectivity that it not only brought together uniquely gifted groups of people, but gave a great many of them a second lease on their thinking and working lives. The Nation quotes Rebecca Jordan-Young, a professor of women’s studies at Barnard and a onetime student of Vance’s: “Truly there is nobody else that mentors with the intensity that Carole does … She’s being actively punished for being an extraordinary mentor—that’s the direction the corporate university is moving in.” Very true, but one thing the article doesn’t capture is how Vance’s extraordinary mentorship reaches beyond the borders of both the US and academia. She has fostered the dangerous mating of theory and practice among campaigners in places like India and Turkey, where she co-developed and co-directs an annual workshop for sexual rights activists from around the world.  Like the best of teachers, she makes spaces where people realize things for themselves. “Dr. Vance is remarkable,” an Indian activist commented in an e-mail I saw this week. “She has changed the way we think.”


Vance (L) and Rebecca Jordan-Young

It’s here that Columbia’s decision is particularly menacing. Internationally, two groups in particular have benefited from Vance’s powerful thinking and teaching: LGBT activists, through her work on sexuality, and — through her cliché-breaking work on trafficking — activists defending sex workers’ rights. Anybody who’s even dabbled in these fields knows that LGBT rights remain underresourced, and sex work issues — unless you want to eradicate it, of course — face a pathetic dearth of funding.

Columbia has a pretty panoply of anti-discrimination policies that claim to protect LGBT people (sex workers, as always, are left unprotected); but its decision here, along with the implications of its funding policies, constitutes active discrimination. Research aimed at amplifying rights protections for these two groups is not, under current conditions, going to be a magnet for funds. (As Columbia well knows, the US government, the public health school’s major funder, has spent years trying to shut down or censor research and advocacy on sex workers’ rights.) The Mailman School’s policies, and the precedent it’s set, mean nobody specializing in that work is likely to be on staff in the foreseeable future. That’s discrimination. It’s also a disgrace to an institution of alleged learning. The university is abdicating its duty to be an impartial arbiter of knowledge and surrendering it to funders, who get to dictate its research directions and thus their conclusions — and who are in no sense impartial. That $8 billion endowment is useless unless it exists to prevent this.

When research in these areas is so underfunded, a policy like Columbia’s also forces scholars into a competition for scarce resources with the very communities they’re trying to serve. This is especially immoral. Traditionally, universities saw a duty to the broader world: to use their resources in disseminating knowledge where it is most needed. Columbia has abdicated that too. Instead, the university sits preening like a Roman emperor in the Coliseum, watching its own professors forced to battle it out with a few barbarian activists for the scraps they need to live.  Unlike the Roman gladiatorial combats, there aren’t even any spectators – the fights aren’t exciting enough to draw in the distraction-hungry masses. The only people entertained are the university administrators, who must have a sick and solitary sense of fun.

Ave Caesar Morituri te Salutant, by Jean-Léon Gérôme(1859)

Dean of a public health school, upper right, conducting routine classroom observation

Public health is and has always been an ambivalent profession. On the one hand there are the ethical and genuinely selfless practitioners who care about the public and the sundered individuals who make it up: their mythic stories fill a film like Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, where the heroes fight disease with everything they’ve got and get carried out in body bags. On the other hand, the field has a long history of loving power, and serving the ambitions of those who have it. Surveillance, contact tracing, quarantines, sterilization, the fantasies of eugenics, the hygienic justifications for police control: all these are also part of its past, and sometimes of its present. Governmentality, in the Foucauldian sense, has been well served by public health, indeed was bound up with it from the outset.

Knights in white satin: How public health sees itself

Knights in white satin: How public health sees itself

Nietzsche wrote: “The ‘freedom’ that the state bestows on certain men for the sake of philosophy is, properly speaking, no freedom at all, but an office that maintains its holder.” Education is not offered by office-holders but by thinkers. The Mailman School’s funding policies cater to the worst in public health, and bring back the most disreputable impulses in its history. They force professors to kowtow to power: either government power or the power of capital. They imperil the ethical advances that have tried to reshape the field. They silence critical questions. They discourage conversations about rights. They ignore students while misusing the money they’ve paid for their educations. They ensure that unpopular and marginal groups will go unrepresented in the work of the institution. They discredit a distinguished — and wealthy — university.

Petitions to support Vance and Hopper can be found here. Please sign. There’s a Tumblr (this is 2014: there’s always a Tumblr) set up by students to fight the firings: it’s here. It includes various letters of protest, which you may take as models should you want to write the Dean directly ( The critical thinking you save may ultimately become your own.

I'm sorry, it protects who?

I’m sorry, it protects who?

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