Sartwell: Targeted for Extremism

In 2005, radical professors Ward Churchill and David Graeber were ousted from their respective universities. Graeber, for his association with the antiglobalization movement and Churchill over his essay regarding a blowback-based justification for 9/11. At the height of the Bush Era, these attacks marked the beginning of a McCarthyite purge within American academia which has continued well on to today. The celebrity media persona created around these figures obscures the fact that this happens regularly at smaller colleges as well, even Dickinson.

Crispin Sartwell of the philosophy department was placed on temporary leave after posting plagiarism accusations against another university professor on his blog in a manner the faculty and administration deemed unacceptable. On his blog, Sartwell responded, “Obviously, the only decent response of a college administrator would be to be outraged that their professor was the victim of an insane plagiarism and to defend his academic freedom. Just the opposite on both counts. Well, just in case any Dickinson professor ever wondered where they work, now they know.”

Sartwell’s characterization of the school is correct. In 2012, Marxist ecology professor Sebastian Berger was removed from his position in the economics department for using unscholarly resources. In 2014, political science professor Vanessa Tyson was removed after issues with her department. Unlike Berger, Tyson was not a radical. While holding more leftwing personal opinions, the professionalism in which Tyson conducted herself ensured that she did not mix her beliefs with her classes. Yet, she was sacked nonetheless. Along with Laura Grappo, Joy Verner, Susannah Bartlow and nearly every adjunct that went through the Woman and Gender Studies department, any professor expressing even a slightly alternative opinion has been removed from Dickinson.

Sartwell’s case represents the last phase of this cleansing. His buffoonish caricature of anarchism was never a threat to the Dickinson administration. But, like the other pariahed professors, his record of published works and academic papers are impressive. Ultimately, the crux of this witch hunt centers on removing professors with the greatest ability to affect their students. The quality of the research matters, and good professors with alternative political views represent a specific threat to neoliberal academic orthodoxy.

University administrations have exponentially increased in size compared to their faculties taking on responsibilities that once belonged to professors creating barriers that make balancing research, teaching and committee assignments difficult. The university eventually just becomes a yuppie factory. The reason one in four college graduates majors in economics is tied to the rise in academic firings.

Sartwell joins Berger and Tyson, making now three of the professors who shaped my world view and harnessed my energy to engage the world having been forced out from the Dickinson faculty. The Dickinson community needs some serious reflection on the role of the college. Is it a corporation producing obedient live stock or is it a forum to foster debate and engagement? Which path the college takes will depend on the strength and will of autonomous student movements willing to fight for a radically inclusive institution.