I expect that many of you have read the correspondence between the NYU would-be undergrad ethnographer and administrators over the assignment to conduct an ethnography of OWS. I’m less interested in the content than I am the genre because I think that the past five years have seen a great deal of what I’m going to call email bullying on the part of conservative individuals and organizations in academe and it’s high time we started talking about this.
Under the best of circumstances, and like institutions writ large, universities are risk-averse. Given the amount of funding that comes from private donors and corporations, universities want to avoid publicity that could potentially undermine affect our funding. Like NPR, we’re in the contradictory position of being a fundamentally liberal institution — in the case of universities, committed to sharing and producing knowledge and modeling the kinds of diverse communities we’d like to bring into being — that has to seek funding from entities that would undermine our mission (and have, I should add, not to get into another rant on the woeful state of public education in the US).
What conservative — or libertarian — bullies do, using new media, is hold the threat of expose over universities’ heads, saying in effect, that if you don’t take action, we’ll expose your purported transgressions and, worse yet, we’ll sue you. In my experience, these email bullies (like a good number of internet trolls) have underlying problems. In one case I was acquainted with, the bully was clearly manic-depressive and would enter into cycles of hyper-activity only to fall off the radar for a few months. Another had substance-abuse problems and would send off missives that were the equivalent of slurred speech. Yet another was clearly part of an organized, state-wide attack on left-wing academics in Wisconsin.
In the majority of these cases, the universities did not do the right thing, which would have been to confront the bullies (who in at least two cases were selecting their targets because of race and gender) and cite relevant university policies for resolving grievances and conflicts. So fearful of lawsuits and publicity on the part of these bullies — perhaps so confident that the targets had neither the will nor the resources to file their own complaints or mount their own viral campaigns — universities either completely acquiesced to the bullies or ignored their campaigns of malice and spite.
NYU — to give it credit — seems not to have followed this path and I suppose you could argue that that’s why it’s getting so much publicity right now. But we need to do a better job of figuring out how to challenge these forms of bullying and sharing support and information with those who are the victims of them.