What in God’s name is going on at Northwestern?

Last year Northwestern University very famously lured Karl Eikenberry away from Stanford.  Eikenberry, who had served both as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and as a lieutenant general in the U.S. Army, was tapped to lead the Buffett Institute for Global Studies, an interdisciplinary center focused on global challenges.  Students and more than forty professors objected to this appointment for at least two reasons:  first, they considered Eikenberry’s record of scholarship insufficient for someone who would lead a research-focused institute, and second, they were concerned about his “advocacy for using humanities and social science research to advance U.S. soft power overseas.”

Jacqueline Stevens, a Northwestern professor of political science and legal studies, played a leading role in organizing faculty who opposed Eikenberry’s appointment.  Stevens is known for her research on private prisons and for her criticism of what she describes as the militarization of political science scholarship.  Stevens has also recently been investigating links between the military and the Northwestern University Board of Trustees.

Although more than 40 professors at that large university signed the letter opposing Eikenberry’s appointment, he also appeared to enjoy extremely broad support. The university’s faculty senate passed a resolution supporting his appointment, and the president and provost also wrote letters in his support.  Even so, Eikenberry “dis-accepted” the Northwestern position in April of 2016.

The only thing I can say for sure about Eikenberry’s appointment and withdrawal is this: if he can’t handle some noisy professors and students, he probably had no business being within 100 miles of a university in the first place.  I have no idea how such a thin-skinned man could have survived in Afghanistan for as long as it appears that he did.

And that is the only thing that I am sure about.  In the last two days the situation has become weirder and more ominous for both Stevens and for faculty rights more generally.  Stevens, in an online post, alerted her supporters that she has been banned from Northwestern’s campus and from contact with students.  Although Northwestern refuses to comment on her case, Stevens claims that the university insists that she meet with a school-selected psychiatrist before resuming her duties.  Stevens says that colleagues have filed complaints alleging that she made them feel “unsafe,” a complaint that she dismisses as spurious.

What is going on here?  Is Northwestern retaliating against Stevens for opposing Eikenberry’s appointment?

And now this Facebook post, by a different Northwestern political science professor, is being widely shared.  His post is obviously connected to the Stevens case.  I suspect that his identity will become widely known soon enough, given the pace at which his post is being shared online.  Nevertheless, I have removed his name from the post below.

My name is                                    , and I am the associate chair of the political science department at Northwestern University. I am 45 years old, an African American man, a son, a husband, and a father of two beautiful children. When I was 9 years old, I was lynched in my hometown in NJ for integrating my bus stop and standing next to a white girl. Fortunately, the bus driver arrived in time and cut me down so that I might live. From that day forward, I vowed that I would appreciate every day and do my best to never feel such a sense of powerlessness again my life. I am writing now because I feel the same sort of powerlessness creeping over my body as many of my esteemed colleagues even friends begin to rally to the internet to defend my colleague Jacqueline Stevens against the recent disciplinary actions that Northwestern has taken against her. In order to overcome this feeling, I must write to inform you all that I am the faculty member that Professor Stevens describes in her account, where she alleges retaliation against her by the university. I would like to inform you all that my altercation with Professor Stevens has absolutely nothing to do with her efforts to lead the charge against General Eikenberry taking a position at the university. On the contrary, I am not involved with the Buffet Institute, and have never even been inside the building, and could frankly care less who leads it. Moreover, I even signed the first round of protest letters that Professor Stevens orchestrated to get the university to include greater faculty involvement in the search process. I am a strong proponent of faculty governance. I would also like to say that I recognize that Professor Stevens is an established scholar and has won high honors in her career, including the prestigious Guggenheim scholarship. Sadly, she is also an incredibly disruptive person within our department. And, yes, I am absolutely afraid of her! Since my arrival she has made comments to me about the field that I work in–Black Political Thought–and how I was hired that bordered on racism. You all know the kind, right. Everything done in Black political thought was already done by Europeans; what are YOU doing reading Hanna Pitkin?, etc. The best was when she once suggested in a faculty meeting that diversity hires such as myself all “served the interests of the military industrial complex.” These are the things that scholars of color hear all the time, so they were easy to shake off. And, it was easy to avoid substantive interactions with Professor Stevens when I was just a faculty member. When I took my post as associate chair last year, it became impossible to avoid her. In this administrative role, a simple conversation over her teaching turned into an episode where she had a break from reality and began to imagine that I was verbally abusing her. Fortunately, my door was open, as were the doors of several of my colleagues. Fortunately, there were also witnesses in the hallway. After an investigation that Professor Stevens called for vindicated my account of events and exposed many other problems with her behavior, she is now alleging that I am part of a conspiracy to retaliate against her for something that I simply do not care about. Over the last six months, I have lost countless hours of sleep, as have members of my family, because I have no idea what motivates her and what she is liable to do. And, this episode on the web today does not make me feel any safer! So, before you all go writing to my dean, without having the slightest clue of what is going on at Northwestern, I just wanted to say that I will not be lynched again…especially by many people that I consider to be my friends!

This situation is cause for concern and it needs to be closely monitored.  If Northwestern is indeed retaliating against Stevens for objecting to Eikenberry’s appointment, then that would be a major, major violation of the norms governing relations between faculty and their universities.  Forcing a professor into psychiatric treatment just for reasonable criticism of their school would be something out of Brezhnev’s playbook.

But all I can say for sure right now is that the accounts of these two Northwestern professors are very difficult to square with  each other, and it is not clear what is going on.


(Artwork: Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569)  The Triumph of Death  1562)

 

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