Cheerleadership

It would be nice to think that Earl Ehrhart ended up on the State Appropriations Committee for the University System of Georgia because he had an interest in, or ideas about, higher education. Alas, the truth is more mundane: the vice chairmanship was awarded to him in 2010 as a “consolation prize” in return for losing the chairmanship of the Rules Committee, a powerful role in which Georgia’s longest-serving Republican legislator was lauded in some quarters for doing battle on behalf of the title-pawn industry, among other causes. One of his first gestures as a USG hawk, House Resolution 383, would have required tuition hikes exceeding the rate of inflation to obtain legislative approval. Most recently, however, he has joined the ranks of Republicans declaring war on postsecondary institutions on multiple fronts, first as a co-sponsor of a bill to block any state funding for private HEIs implementing sanctuary policies for illegal immigrants, and this spring as the prime mover behind House Bill 51, which, had it passed, would have effectively paralyzed the ability of the state’s universities to investigate campus sexual assault allegations.

Ehrhart’s manhandling of universities, it happens, is not restricted to the theater of the gold dome. In September, after five cheerleaders for the Kennesaw State University Owls football team took a knee during the national anthem, the inevitable displays of shock and indignation ensued among the people you’d expect it to, such as Cobb County Sherriff Neil Warren, who expressed disbelief that a now-viral social phenomenon that has been among the most reported media sensations of 2017 could actually happen in his Mayberry. Within days, the KSU athletic department announced that the appearance of the cheerleading squad would henceforth take place after pregame activities, a move intended “to improve the fan experience,” according to a spokesperson, while also noting—both unnecessarily and implausibly—that the cheerleading incident had had nothing to do with the policy change. As investigative journalism goes, the eventual exposé was a pretty routine Open Records Act affair, suggesting that Warren had reached out to Ehrhart by text to see if he could put the squeeze on the university’s rookie president, Sam Olens, to do something about the “unpatriotic cheerleaders.” Ehrhart replied that he was well ahead of him: “Yes, we spoke last night. He had to be dragged there but with you and I pushing he had no choice. Thanks for your patriotism my friend.”

One less character and Ehrhart would have penned a tanka. Even so, the text conveys so much—the ambiguous “spoke last night,” connoting privilege, intimacy, menace; the “dragging” and “pushing” image, suggesting enhanced interrogation; the secret handshake about patriotism and friendship—while lending itself to still more interpretation. Does the sheriff know or care that he is being patronized? Does the lawmaker really believe that he, together with a local law enforcement official, was the prime mover behind an act of university governance? Does it occur to either power player that the fact that Olens had to be dragged could have indicated something short of consensus on the procedural or constitutional options available in what was basically a First Amendment event? (As Warren noted, “Legally, I’m not sure they can stop or do anything to stop someone from this Un America ACT.”)

I’ve never been a sports fan, although I am friends with people who are, and I totally get the idea of college athletics as a secular substitute for the sectarian rituals that defined the old American colleges, although I am not so academic as to think that college (or for that matter, professional) football is as close as you can get to sectarianism in athletics without actually making NCAA games into forums for worship. Sports events in the U.S. have always been forums for worship, often testing, sometimes violating, but in their let’s-say-grace brevity always underscoring the First Amendment’s prohibition on the establishment of religion, and for that reason you would think that fans would make room for the other freedoms covered by the same Amendment, such as speech. In fact, the beauty of the Kaepernick gesture is that fans don’t have to make room for it, since it occurs in the same couple of minutes that everyone else uses to make their own gesture, i.e., singing the national anthem. (No less beautiful was the fact that three of the Owls cheerleaders prayed together in the locker room before going onto the field. Apparently, some things are better done in private, others in public.)

In one of their least cited but most compelling papers, James March and Johan Olsen argued that instead of looking at organizations as instruments in the hands of individuals, “we need a theory of organizational choice that considers the connection between individual actions and organizational actions as sometimes variable,” and by extension, “a theory of the environment…where the actions and events in the environment sometimes may have little to do with what the organization does.” The KSU story I would like to read is the one that doesn’t help a couple of political hacks portray their power to bully as something more than it is—as, say, high-profile public servants who had the pull to influence the course of events, maybe even shape hearts and minds. I want to know more about what went into Sam Olens’s decision to step into athletic department policymaking besides a late-night phone call from the Earl of Powder Springs. Why did he have to be—was he indeed—dragged, and by whom? (As far as I can determine, neither the sheriff nor the lawmaker has any role on the university’s board of trustees.) Were sterner measures than a reshuffling of pre-game ceremonies urged—and rejected, as the university savors its promotion from “regional” to “national” status on the U.S. News & World Report rankings last year? I don’t think the short-term outcome of the cheerleader protest will be to change anyone’s views on free speech, higher education, or anything else rending the country these days. And in that sense, this was a teachable moment we’ve let slip through our fingers.

***

Am I a bad person for enjoying last week’s food fight about Claire Potter’s modest proposal to unhappy adjuncts that they just walk away? The piece was a riff on a smoldering mad piece by Neil Gross in the New York Times (Gross posited that today’s academics are motivated by the same miserable economics as their counterparts in the 1930s, and we know how that turned out), and within twenty-four hours John Warner had dumped on Potter, rallying those of us not yet radicalized enough to choose unemployment to stay in the game for the sake of education, if nothing else.

As a non-adjunct at any college, but still a gainfully employed member of the ESL faculty at a nonprofit devoted to adult education, I say: consider emigrating. I know I’ve thought of it. And by emigrate, I don’t mean move to Canada, although that is always an attractive—if always half-baked—alternative, if staying within the English-speaking world and a day’s reach of the Gulf of Mexico is important to you. By emigrate, I mean consider a radical start-over, within your field of expertise or well beyond it, inside your cultural comfort zone or in a setting of unknowns or half-knowns. Obviously, that could mean literally moving overseas, and for many people in my profession it usually does, usually in their 20s and usually in some “established” (read: pays well) market like Dubai or South Korea. But I don’t mean in your 20s, when you don’t have as much to lose, or taking what Walker Percy memorably called the geographical cure. I mean: Nationality—historian, psychologist, poet, philologist, would-be public intellectual—is yours forever. Citizenship is a matter of paperwork.

My students know this. Though he would only attend when he could, Umar was a great student. Umar was from Sudan, but he once galvanized class discussion with others from Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Ethiopia by contrasting the governments of the U.S. and the one he had known back home by saying, “We’ve got a lot. We could be so much more, with our resources, if we didn’t have thieves in the government.” He was literally talking about the awesome abundance of natural resources in Africa—much abused, of course—but he could not have gotten his classmates going (or me) without appealing to the idea of figurative resources, untapped assets we might not see but that were theirs by birthright, and yet—portable.

It’s a wonder that Albert Hirschman’s classic Exit, Voice, and Loyalty never came up in the debate over whether adjuncts should quit (maybe it did; life is too short to scroll through the comment threads), because few books have been on my mind as often lately. Published in 1970, Exit, Voice and Loyalty was absolutely of its time: civil unrest and worse were breaking out in both hemispheres, much as they had when Hirschman himself fled Europe for the West in 1941. His thesis was commonsensical, but it must have been refreshing to see someone so methodically work it out: when societal conditions get really bad, you can stay to fight it out institutionally (e.g., voting, protesting), or you can head for the exits. If you can’t choose, every action you make will be made under the duress of loyalty.

“Loyalty” has been categorized as the wobbliest member of Hirschman’s troika, but actually, it functions like the green apple in Magritte’s Son of Man, a complication superimposed upon an easy concept, which in Hirschman’s case was a straightforward dilemma. One can exit, but it comes with a penalty. “The penalty may be directly imposed, but in most cases it is internalized,” he wrote. “The individual feels that leaving a certain group carries a high price with it, even though no specific sanction is imposed by the group.” As a German-speaking refugee who had experienced firsthand the ideological and intellectual collapse of German higher education, then of France, and without any question of the penalty for staying, Hirschman would have understood that “just leaving” was what you did in hindsight, after exhausting all other options. Move to America? Don’t speak English? What are you waiting for?

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