Yesterday, Inside Higher Ed published a provocative article, “A House Divided,” suggesting that attitudes toward the summary dismissal of controversial professor Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois may reflect the “enduring power” of C.P. Snow’s famous “two cultures” thesis. Snow’s argument was that the academic world contains two distinctive and often conflicting cultures, that of the physical and natural sciences (today encompassed by the popular acronym STEM) and that of the humanities and social sciences. “A majority of those who publicly support Salaita are in the humanities, while most of those who support [UIUC Chancellor Phyllis] Wise are scientists,” the article notes. “So the trend raises an interesting question to add to the conversation: What role does discipline play in how one interprets the Salaita case and others like it?”
“A significant one,” concludes IHE reporter Colleen Flaherty, whose customarily thorough and evenhanded approach makes the article important reading. For example, Flaherty points out that an open letter supporting Wise’s decision to terminate Salaita’s contract was signed by 400 faculty members, the overwhelming number of them from STEM disciplines, while an opposing letter backing Salaita was signed by 330 faculty members, mostly from the humanities and social sciences. A list of faculty members nationwide who have agreed to boycott UIUC to protest the Salaita decision includes 567 philosophers, but just 34 scientists.
According to some, the division is more apparent than real. Cary Nelson, who supports the chancellor’s decision, claims that “an atmosphere of intimidation has left some humanists unwilling to support the university’s decision.” A Salaita supporter, however, makes a similar argument from the other side, suggesting “that many professors, including those in STEM and the professional schools, have said they oppose the university’s decision but are unwilling to go public.”
Be that as it may, it is certainly clear that at least publicly the divide is real. Flaherty’s article provides no single explanation, however. She cites David Hollinger, a UC Berkeley history professor and former chair of AAUP’s Committee A, who tells her that
the Salaita split isn’t surprising, given that the history of American academe is full of disciplinary divides — although he noted that fault lines have shifted over time. In the McCarthy era, for example, he said, it was chemists and physicists who were accused of being leftists, while today’s notion of “liberal” humanists stem from the “culture wars” of the late 20th century.
Hollinger said the divide is mostly “epistemic.” While scientists work to uncover evidence in a relatively straightforward manner, he said, social scientists and humanists often work at the periphery of their fields to “advance” that evidence. He called the human sciences the “borderlands” of academe, outside the more quantitative, methodologically narrower STEM fields.
Neil Gross, a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia and a visiting professor at Princeton University, argues that
the two “cultures” or “families” phenomenon stems from different understandings of the academic role, and of where to draw the “boundaries” around academic freedom.
“At some points in the history of our country, natural scientists in the university have been outspoken, publicly engaged intellectuals, but more often they have seen their job to be that of impartially discovering and disseminating scientific fact,” Gross added via email. “Few natural scientists would want to impose such a vision of the academic enterprise on the humanities, where it wouldn’t make sense.”
These and other explanations offered in the article are, of course, not necessarily contradictory, and there can be little doubt that multiple factors are at work here. But I think such “cultural” and methodological distinctions tell only part of the story and at least one highly consequential element is missing from Flaherty’s report — money!
While surely a simple economic determinism would be distorting, it should still be clear that the epistemic and cultural divide between the “hard” sciences and the humanities cannot be easily disentangled from a noticeable financial divide, one which sometimes approaches a veritable chasm. Money, I think, may impact the division between the “two cultures” in two interconnected ways. First, the largely higher salaries paid to most STEM faculty compared to the much lower remuneration earned by those in the humanities, especially at research institutions, may tend to lead those in the former group to become more satisfied with (or be more invested in) the status quo and established “leadership.” Surely this factor plays a role in another instance in which scientists and humanists may frequently differ: efforts to organize faculty unions often gain significantly greater support among humanists and social scientists than among STEM faculty, although this is hardly guaranteed.
Second, over the past few decades STEM faculty have grown significantly more dependent on outside research grants and donations than have faculty in the humanities and social sciences, again especially at research institutions. Indeed, the practice of compelling faculty members to raise significant portions of their own salaries through grants, a practice previously confined to medical schools, has now begun to spread to other STEM fields. I don’t think it denigrates these faculty members to suggest that such arrangements may tend to make them more accommodating to administrators who actively support their research and more wary of offending potential granting sources and university donors. That grants and donations in the sciences are most often significantly larger than those offered to humanists is another factor. It is hardly a coincidence that at UIUC Chancellor Wise is a biologist and that, as Flaherty notes, there is a widespread perception that in recent years university resources have been flowing disproportionately to STEM fields, a common perception at many other institutions as well.
[A similar phenomenon was observed at the University of California, Davis, when three years ago campus police used pepper spray in an attempt to disperse peaceful student protesters. The Davis Chancellor, Linda Katehi — who was previously provost at UIUC — came under extensive criticism for the incident, but because she is a scientist herself who was perceived as having successfully brought considerable outside funding to STEM departments, Katehi was also defended by many STEM faculty, although those faculty most often also condemned the use of pepper spray.]
Yet it would be a terrible mistake to conclude from such examples that STEM faculty are less likely to support the struggle for academic freedom and professional autonomy. Economics is not destiny, for one thing, and as several of those quoted by Flaherty stress, personal values and beliefs are very often more determinative of faculty views. A petition signed by several dozen scientists and engineers, initiated by NYU physicist Alan Sokal, states:
More disturbingly yet, [Wise] attempted to justify her position by saying [in a statement] that ‘What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.’ Putting aside the bizarre notion that an idea can feel ‘demeaned’ or ‘abused,’ the chancellor’s position implies that the University of Illinois will not tolerate biologists or physicists who are ‘disrespectful’ (in her sole judgment) of creationists or even of creationism.
Indeed, the creationism example suggests that just as there exist politically controversial positions in the humanities and social sciences, the sciences themselves are hardly immune to similar politically motivated disputes. And it is also important to stress that the very expansion of externally funded scientific research that may make some scientists more reluctant to question institutional authority may simultaneously also threaten their freedom to research. It is not only that government, foundations, and other sources of research funding have gained greater power to shape (and sometimes misshape) the research agenda, but that frequently these sources — and more important increasingly as well university administrations themselves — now seek to seize for their own potential gain the faculty’s rightful intellectual property.
Threats to the intellectual property of faculty, especially in those fields, like the STEM disciplines, in which research may yield patentable (and even profitable) results, have become a growing concern for the AAUP. This year we issued both a lengthy report, Defending the Freedom to Innovate: Faculty Intellectual Property Rights After Stanford v. Roche, and a briefer Statement on Intellectual Property that address this concern. In addition, in January AAUP published a 368-page report on Recommended Principles to Guide Academy-Industry Relationships. Links to these and other AAUP policy statements on intellectual property rights may be found on our website here: http://aaup.org/get-involved/issue-campaigns/intellectual-property-risk/aaup-policy-work-intellectual-property
In three recent cases at Stanford University, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the University of Chicago the AAUP wrote to the administration on behalf of individual STEM faculty members whose intellectual property rights — and hence their academic freedom to research — had been violated. At Santa Cruz, a tenured psychology professor refused on principle to sign a so-called Patent Amendment to her contract that would convey to the university all rights to any patentable research results that might be produced by the professor while in the employ of the University of California. The amendment could legally be imposed on new hires — although it is no less a violation of academic freedom in such cases — but the university could not legally impose such a unilateral change in employment on current faculty members. But what they could do — and did in this case — was deny to the faculty member any university support for outside grant applications until the agreement was signed. The AAUP’s letter to the Santa Cruz administration on behalf of this faculty member concluded:
The fundamental principle of a professor’s independent right freely to choose his or her own research agenda has been recognized throughout the history of the modern university. The AAUP asserted that right in its 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, the first policy document issued by the Association. We have consistently supported the right of faculty members to seek the funding necessary to support the research they choose to do. The actions that the UCSC administration has taken can cause long-term damage to Professor [ ] career, can make it impossible for her to do sponsored research that not merely contributes to her own professional advancement but also serves the common good, and can have a potentially chilling effect on all UCSC faculty members and on the UC system as a whole.
In addition to the foregoing, we believe that the present assignment of patent rights to the results of research not yet even conducted eliminates a basic distinction between faculty members and corporate employees and is thus at odds with the definition of faculty independence established in the 1915 Declaration and reiterated many times since. . . .
In short, the “two cultures” notwithstanding, humanists and scientists share a common interest in the defense of each other’s academic freedom. Just as STEM faculty need to stand up for the right of their colleagues in the humanities and social sciences to advocate for controversial ideas and causes, including in what those in authority arbitrarily deem an “uncivil” manner, so too do we humanists need to come to the defense of our scientific colleagues’ right to control the direction and results of their own research.
As Hollinger told Flaherty,
The academy can’t exist without both “families,” which share a “broad cognitive ideal” — that truths are “discovered, not divined.”
“This ideal is the common heritage and chief ideological resource of the entire modern professoriate,” he said. “There is one academic culture, not two, and it is based on this shared epistemic commitment.”