01 May 2010

On the Proposal to Close Philosophy at Middlesex

By Adrian Piper

I am an innocent bystander and do not purport to speak for or represent anyone directly involved in the evolving situation within UK academic institutions. From where I sit, the "surprising absence of comment that has so far taken place here" does not look to me to be motivated by "the old continental/analytic divide." I sense that what we are seeing is rather a classic deer-in-the-headlights moment.

Over the past few decades in the UK, various government agencies have enforced a series of astonishingly ill-considered and debilitating policies on academic institutions. These include the abolition of tenure, the insistence on self-defeating relevance requirements for obtaining academic funding, the legal attack on freedom of speech and research, the abrupt and unwarranted cancellation of senior academic positions, and now the utterly arbitrary closure of a department that meets virtually all of the criteria for funding and protection these agencies have previously demanded. Such capricious and destructive exercises of administrative power, by agencies and institutions entrusted to protect both the nation's educational and scholarly mandate and also one's own professional wellbeing in accordance with fair and equitable rules on which both parties have agreed, are deeply, horribly demoralizing – not only because they violate standards of fair play and public service, but also because they deliberately remind each one of us of our individual impotence to prevent, resist or rectify them.

With each such experience of being repeatedly betrayed, or brutally and peremptorily robbed of one's power to do one's job – to serve the educational and research needs of one's students, one's institution, one's nation and of the international scholarly community, the sense of shock, disbelief, and unreality increases; and with it, the speechless paralysis we are now witnessing. This speechlessness defines the moment in which one feels trapped in the hypnotic glare of the headlights on an oncoming driverless bus relentlessly bearing down on one, veering crazily from side to side, the steering wheel spinning out of control, on a road that offers no zone of safety because the traditional rules of the road are no longer respected. At earlier points along this route, it may have been possible to believe one could at least save oneself, by fleeing to one side of the road or the other, or by hopping onto the bus and grabbing the wheel, harnessing its power to steer it and its passengers to safety. With this latest travesty of reason, justice and good faith, it is now clear that no such impromptu attempts at rational control have been effective, because the steering mechanism itself is malfunctioning. It needs new parts.

There are several possible endings to this scenario of speechlessness. In one, the collision happens while pedestrians watch silently from the sidelines with open mouths, and there is blood all over the road: arbitrary funding cuts, departmental closures and appointment cancellations now proliferate, and accelerate without obstruction, effectively disabling academic education and research in the UK for decades to come, the survivors continuing to limp along with spirits broken by these repeated reminders of their individual powerlessness to avert the disaster.

In a second ending, the ultimate explanation of the silence is that there is simply nothing more to say. The closing of the Middlesex Philosophy Department fully illuminates the situation for what it is, and the needed response is clear – and forthcoming. The fight response of the academic community is mobilized at the last minute to avert this disaster after all; and speech and discussion on lists such as this one are replaced by concrete collective action off-list that ensures its future survival. This moment is a defining one because it can go either way.

Professorin Dr. Adrian M. S. Piper
APRA Foundation