Bruce Gilley—professor of political science at Portland State University (PSU), president of the National Association of Scholars’ Oregon affiliate, and member of the NAS Board of Directors—has been canceled. Again. This is now the third (or tenth, depending on how you count) instance in which Professor Gilley has received widespread censure for his academic work, this time through a statement from the PSU chapter of the American Association of University Professors (PSU-AAUP), an organization which represents over 1,200 PSU faculty members and academic professionals.
On Thursday, PSU-AAUP published a statement on its website titled “PSU-AAUP EXECUTIVE COUNCIL Statement Condemning ‘procolonialism’,” with an accompanying description. It states,
In December of 2020 PSU-AAUP Executive Council voted overwhelmingly to endorse the following statement: a condemnation of PSU Political Science Professor Bruce Gilley’s “procolonialism” platform. PSU-AAUP stands for academic freedom. PSU-AAUP does not stand for hostile work environments created under the guise of academic freedom. PSU-AAUP strongly condemns Professor Gilley’s platform, and any other abuse of academic freedom used to harass, intimidate, and harm others.
PSU-AAUP goes on condemn the “irresponsible speech by Professor Gilley and others who wish to mislead the general public by declaring that faculty who work on racial or social justice are the ‘new racists.’” It also states that his research “provid[es] intellectual cover for racism and white nationalism.” In these and other statements, PSU-AAUP assumes that Professor Gilley’s research motivation is to harm others, rather than the disinterested pursuit of the truth. This is slander of the highest order.
In the official statement, PSU-AAUP chronicles events with which the NAS is intimately familiar: First, in 2017, Professor Gilley submitted and published an article in Third World Quarterly titled “The Case for Colonialism.” In it, he critiques anti-colonial movements, as well as anti-colonial scholarship, arguing that colonialism was of net benefit to colonized nations, despite the many abuses of colonial influence. His controversial article sparked the circulation of two petitions for retraction signed by nearly 20,000 scholars and the resignation of 15 members of Third World Quarterly’s 34-member editorial board. The NAS is proud to have republished Gilley’s article in our own journal, Academic Questions. We did not do so to endorse Gilley’s arguments, but because we stand for true academic freedom, not the so-called “academic freedom” that PSU-AAUP apparently supports.
(NAS does not endorse Gilley’s arguments because it is our business to stand for academic freedom. We usually must steer clear of endorsements of the substance of scholarship. But we do not mean our lack of endorsement to imply any sort of thinly disguised disapproval of Gilley’s article. His scholarship, here as throughout his career, bears witness to his high personal and professional character.)
Two years later, Professor Gilley was canceled a second time, again for academic work critiquing anti-colonialism. He was set in 2020 to publish a new book series, Problems of Anti-Colonialism, with the publisher Rowman & Littlefield. About a month after the first installment of the series was announced, a Change.org petition was launched by an avowed Maoist revolutionary and attracted over 1,000 co-signing aspiring censors. The petition demanded that Rowman & Littlefield cease publication of Gilley’s book. A mere two days later, the publisher removed both the book and the series from its website without explanation. The publisher then released Professor Gilley from his book contract and canceled the series, both also without explanation.
Once again, the NAS stood in Gilley’s defense. We launched our own counter-petition, which received over 4,500 signatures, calling Rowman & Littlefield to account for its unjust retaliation against Professor Gilley. PSU-AAUP interprets the events differently:
Presumably in response to the petition, and accompanying letters demonstrating the faulty grounds for the series, the publisher reconsidered the academic merit of the project and cancelled the series. Whatever reason the publisher may officially give, PSU-AAUP views the cancellation as a vindication of the principle of academic freedom.
“Reconsidered the academic merit of the project” is a funny way to say “realized that the book series was controversial and caved to internet bullies.” It also implies that Rowman & Littlefield did not properly review or understand the book prior to accepting it and announcing its publication, an insulting claim of its own. And to assert that the series’ cancellation is somehow a vindication of academic freedom is wholly absurd.
Conveniently, PSU-AAUP fully avoids any real engagement with Gilley’s work or arguments, instead appealing to the majority opinion as a form of “proof”:
... as a community of academics, we would be remiss to not acknowledge the overwhelming consensus among our colleagues who are experts in history and political science that Gilley’s research is not merely unpopular but rather discredited. As an organization of the university community, then, we do see it as part of our duty to the profession and the public to censure Professor Gilley.
This sort of appeal is not only bad, lazy argumentation—it’s a cowardly way to avoid true discussion of the matters at hand. A scholar is not reputable because he sides with the majority, but rather because he searches for and expresses the truth. Even, and often especially, if he argues his point alone. The spiritual ancestors of the PSU-AAUP would have burned Martin Luther at the stake.
Lastly, we must note the censorious nature of the PSU-AAUP version of “academic freedom.” The organization writes,
Academic freedom is not the same thing as free speech. … When exercising our right to free speech, we have the freedom to be grossly wrong or grossly unjust (though there are a variety of speech and expressive acts which are in fact prohibited). With academic freedom, we do not. When academic institutions and reputable publishers do not uphold the standards designed to safeguard the integrity of research and interpretation, academic freedom loses its salience to democracy. … Though Bruce Gilley’s procolonialism may be protected by the First Amendment, we believe it does not deserve the protection of academic freedom.
PSU-AAUP effectively labels Professor Gilley’s work, which has been accepted by peer-reviewed journals and publishers alike prior to internet uproar, “grossly wrong” and “grossly unjust.” It in no way substantiates this claim, save for appealing to the majority academic opinion and mentioning that Gilley’s claims make some scholars feel uncomfortable. This is far from an adequate defense of such slanderous assertions. In any case, “unjust” is a way to justify replacing academic freedom with an ideological loyalty test. One great point of academic freedom is precisely to engage in an unfettered, continuous, unsettled discussion of the nature of justice and its proper application in the world. The PSU-AAUP has matters precisely backward in its tendentious invocation of “salience to democracy.” A university without the unfettered, continuous, unsettled discussion that is the heart of academic freedom forfeits its claim to support by, or esteem from, the citizens of a free republic.
The NAS continues to stand for Bruce Gilley’s academic freedom and calls on PSU-AAUP to retract its slanderous statements and vindicate Gilley’s personal and professional character. If it does not, we call on the AAUP to censure its PSU chapter, which is clearly out of line with the principles of true academic freedom. It is not the role of any academic institution, organization, or self-proclaimed “majority of scholars” to decide whose research is morally unfit to be published.