An Open Letter about the Sportula Statement on the Paideia Institute
Dear Classics community,
We are classicists at various points in our academic careers (from undergraduate to full professor), from a number of different countries, and with a variety of political views. We have chosen to issue this letter anonymously because the current climate in the field (especially on social media) makes it difficult to do so under our own names.
We are writing to express our concerns about the Sportula statement on the Paideia Institute, and the reaction to it within the field. We are sure the Paideia Institute isn’t perfect, and it may well want to look more closely at some of these complaints. At the same time, we are concerned that off-the-cuff expressions of ordinary political views by the PI leadership are being used to discredit them professionally. We think this crosses a line, and sets a worrying precedent. We were also disappointed by the lack of due diligence and impartiality that was displayed by the Society for Classical Studies in its reaction.
We’ll begin by pointing towards a couple of issues where we think there may well be valid concerns. One concerns extremely expensive internships. We do acknowledge that significant fees for participation in programmes (archaeological excavations, for example, or graduate courses at foreign schools in Athens and Rome) aren’t unknown in our field. But we also ask whether this is appropriate for internships, and whether the nature of these internships was clear to students who chose to enrol in them.
One contributor to the Sportula statement says ‘I heard he tried to get it written into the bylaws that they wouldn’t have to provide housing for the partners of queer faculty members.’ This is an anonymous claim that someone heard that one of the PI executives pushed for a certain policy, but it’s a policy that, if acted upon, would indeed contribute to an unwelcoming environment for LGBT classicists. We would welcome clarification from the PI on their policies in this area.
If the concerns above do raise some serious issues, though, many of the claims don’t seem to amount to much more than complaints about different political views. Views ascribed to the Executive Director of the PI include opposition to affirmative action; dissatisfaction with contemporary left-liberal discourse; and skepticism about media narratives about Black Lives Matter. Whether or not one agrees with these views, we have serious reservations about a classicist being denounced for holding some political views rather than others. Holding certain political views is a vital civil right, and tolerance towards people with different views is a crucial ingredient in any liberal democracy. Being a supporter of a particular President, in particular, is something that we may well disagree with, but should never be presented as a matter of professional malfeasance.
Moreover, many of these views seem to have been expressed in informal settings, and clearly weren’t intended to be presented to the world. (Phrases like ‘I once heard a comment…’ show this pretty clearly.) We should all have the right to discuss politics on the margins of our work, and to do so without fear that what we’ve said will be dragged up at some future point in an attempt to torpedo our careers.
In addition, the remarks and exchanges reported here are consistently interpreted in the most uncharitable way possible. For example, one complainant says,
when an intern raised concerns about the alt right and neo-Nazi appropriation of classics saying “I’m not going to link arms with the alt right,” Jason responded “Would you rather see classics just die?” (yes).
We don’t know if this is exactly what Dr. Pedicone said, but we think we can rule out the idea that he was proposing that Classics departments should start collaborating with the Neo-Nazi movement. It’s much more likely that he meant that we need to make classical materials as widely accessible as possible if the field is to survive. Such examples could be multiplied. We question if a point Pedicone made about stability following on violence in the Gallic wars really ‘literally justifies GENOCIDE.’ And we wonder whether there was a better way of reacting to a comment about FDR and the New Deal than to condemn it as ‘a white male joke.’
We also found it difficult to understand the substance of some of the complaints. The statement opens with a report of how an instructor applied to Sportula for a grant on behalf of Aequora, a program run by the PI. It continues:
We funded the grant, but were left unsatisfied. The Paideia Institute is a much larger, more thoroughly and formally funded organization than us; why was the Sportula called upon to fund one of their programs?
But surely that’s a question that Sportula itself should have asked before funding the grant. If what the PI did here was to allow someone associated with them to accept a grant that they had applied for, it’s not clear what the grounds for complaint are.
A final complaint that we’ll discuss here encapsulates our concerns about political intolerance and about a lack of charity in interpretation. This concerns the PI’s diversity consultant, who made statements like: ‘While my focus is on race, I am committed to ending all forms of marginalization — including marginalization of white people.’ For the author of the Sportula statement, ‘this is a statement about white pride.’ But it seems clear from her other statements that the consultant, far from being a white supremacist, simply has a different view about how racism should be combatted. She quotes Bobby Seale: ‘You don’t fight racism with racism. You fight racism with solidarity.’ This represents a venerable tradition in anti-racism, one espoused, for example, by Martin Luther King. Sportula is welcome to argue against this approach, but we don’t think it’s appropriate to smear anyone advocating for it as a racist.
The Sportula statement consisted entirely of anonymous complaints. Anonymous complaints are sometimes a useful first step in a fair complaints procedure. But they can’t be a final step, because, without knowing more about the accuracy and circumstances of complaints, it’s impossible to establish what merit they might have. It was wholly inappropriate, then, for the Society for Classical Studies, without any sort of impartial investigation of the claims, to immediately proclaim them all ‘serious,’ and to move immediately to suspend grants to the PI. (At least some of the complaints strike us as not particularly serious even if they’re true — for example, the claim that PI staff made a joke about FDR.)
The Paideia Institute has issued a statementof its own, indicating its willingness to review its procedures (a process which is already underway). We welcome this, and repeat that there may be real issues the organization needs to address. But we don’t think that the political views identified above should be among them. We also think that the field as a whole should think hard about whether it wants to continue along the path towards a culture in which anonymous denunciation of scholars for off-the-cuff political comments becomes commonplace. To those who’ve already made their mind up about the PI, all we would ask is for them to step back from their certainty for a few minutes and consider what we’ve written with an open mind.
Eighteen Concerned Classicists