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Unfair Competition (How Academia Got Pwned 13)

This is the thirteenth post in a series about the glorious completion of my academic career, the internet, and the future of intellectual life. It's going to become a book, so for updates be sure to subscribe.


You are probably reading the first and only blog that a university has ever accused of unfair competition. Congratulations, dear reader. I couldn't have done it without you.

In the last section on my departure narrative, I skipped ahead somewhat, as I was approaching (in real life) my hearing for "gross misconduct." Before that, I had only brought you up to the point of my suspension. In #5, I analyzed the evidence provided in support of my Dean's claim that I was harming the university's reputation. But the posts after that went into some other parallel lines of inquiry while, in real life, the events of my narrative were rapidly approaching their climax.

At the time of this writing, it's now official: I am no longer an employee of the University of Southampton. I will explain how this all came to an end, but first we need to circle back and fill in some gaps in the narrative thus far.

One of the reasons I chose the exit strategy I chose is that I'm now extremely free to share details that I would not be allowed to share right now if I decided to fight this with a lawyer. You're welcome, dear reader.

The gaps I need to fill are between my initial suspension (October 2, 2018) and my hearing for gross misconduct (scheduled February 13, 2019). There were two separate investigation meetings conducted in the period of my suspension. The first was on Friday 2nd November 2018.

There were two notable features of the first investigation meeting that took place after my suspension. Just like the first meeting (before my suspension), the guy simply amassed a dossier of copypasta capturing things I've said and done on the internet, and asked me about them in that stern FBI tone he probably learned watching crime shows. With all due respect to the guy — a very nice and fair man, bless him — my main impression was that he seemed utterly confused about what the frick had been placed in his lap. I got the impression he wanted to start by asking: "First, what is a Twitter?" Instead, he just shoved a bunch of screenshots in my face and asked me to explain what I meant. It was surreal how innocuous were many of the items. Consider the following item from my mile-long rap-sheet, which I'm screenshotting from the final report of the investigation.

Imagine a very concerned Boomer sliding a screenshot of this tweet across the table, and asking "Could you explain what you meant by this?"

I was like, "Huh? That's all it means, I support student activism. I always have. Students should be free to criticize professors, even publicly, I applaud this." To this day, I still cannot even guess what esoteric meaning he thought this one could have had. It was stunning to learn just how badly university administrators are genuinely confused and paranoid about the most straightforward of internet communications.

Then things took a turn toward creepy. It appears that expressing doubts about the viability of academia is itself a punishable offense. When the questioning turned in this direction, again I couldn't even see what they were concerned about; it was only in the third investigation that I was able to decode this line of inquiry. Only later would I discover that they were beginning to investigate a possible breach of "the duty of fidelity." Do people realize academics have a duty of fidelity to their employers? I sure didn't; I had never heard of that, and I certainly never would have signed any pledge of fidelity. Here is a piece of evidence I was confronted with in Meeting 2 (again, 'capped from the hearing documentation):

They basically just asked me "What did you mean by that?" and I answered "Exactly what it says," regarding everything they brought to the table. It was pretty clear I didn't even need to be there. My physical presence was necessary to rubber-stamp the meeting as having taken place, but it was clearly a machinic process in which the purpose and outcome was perfectly impermeable to any combination of noises I might emit.

Apparently, being open to exit options is a punishable offense. As I reported in a previous post, at the time when my Dean handed me my suspension letter, I informed her explicitly that getting suspended would make me money on the internet. Confronted with this unfortunate little molehill in the intellectual topography today, they must have sent a lackey to go find some ordinance that prohibits it. A few weeks later, after I started blogging all the details of the story, the university launched a whole new, additional investigation. In their words:

"the investigation is to explore allegations that through social media posts (provided to JM on 24.01.2019) that JM:
• breached the duty of confidence; and/or
• breached the implied duty of fidelity; and/or
• breached the implied duty of mutual trust and confidence; and/or
• brought the University into disrepute.
"

I couldn't find anything about fidelity in the ordinance they cited. I guess that's why they call it "implied." But with my PhD it only took a few minutes of Googling to resolve what was going on here. In case law, the implied duty of fidelity is what prohibits an employee from taking business from the employer:

"A number of potential aspects of the duty of fidelity, including a duty not to compete with the employer, have been identified in case law... These issues often arise in "team move" situations, where a number of employees who work in the same business decide to leave and join a competitor, often with assistance from the new employer, or set up a competing business themselves." (Thompson Reuters Practical Law)

Because I was writing about what was happening in the university, and people from the public were giving me money for it, they must have realized what I was trying to warn them of: Their entire business model is in serious trouble. If they were intelligent, autonomous agents, then upon realizing this they would have taken my advice and not have suspended me. Of course, being what they are, they could do nothing other than escalate their own doomed institution to the highest possible level of self-ownage, by confirming and enshrining the accuracy of my vague wager in the majestic aura of their own legal strategy. Thus, likely for the first time ever (as far as I know), a university built a formal legal case to the effect that a single academic's blogging was unfair competition.

Let's start by savoring the irony of their two-pronged legal strategy. On the one hand: "Justin, you're awful words and inappropriate antics are harming the university's reputation." On the other hand: "How dare you enjoy a good reputation without us!"

So this is how academia gets pwned, ladies and gentlemen. If you wonder aloud whether academia is the best way to constitute a free intellectual life, people dissatisfied with academia will throw you money to encourage this line of inquiry, while academia will... make it harder to constitute a free intellectual life. It doesn't require advanced game theory to see the ineluctable equilibrium on the horizon, once the intellectually ambitious start to downgrade their valuation of status relative to independence. When I look at the dynamics of influence and attention, I see the relative payoff of status decreasing and that of independence increasing (1 , 2, just to cite a few places where I've developed these observations). Ergo, stick a fork in it, baby!

I would not put any money on some kind of institutional course-correction, because even when they realize they've owned themselves, they are structurally barred from responding in any way other than owning themselves at a higher level. Academia is so pwned already that I didn't even need to bait it into a final round of self-destruction in order for my own exit plans to enjoy a satisfactorily high probability of success. I could afford to walk away, even before the university was done hitting itself with my hand. Unfair competition, indeed, so unfair I honestly started to feel bad.

And I assure you, the university was eager to hit itself with my hand at least one more time. In fact, the university is very lucky I'm not the attention whore my haters accuse me of being. Lucky for them that I would rather theorize this process in peace and quiet, than sacrifice myself on the altar of accelerating it. I am no saint, dear reader. I am now but a commoner, a peasant. It would have been easy for me to accelerate the process more aggressively, but then I would very likely be embroiled in a busy, exhausting, dizzying media spectacle of one kind or another, instead of writing this blog post with calm glee. Truly, at the end of the day, I only wish to till my own soil. That's all I've ever asked, dear reader. Instead of trying to accelerate the downfall of academia single-handedly — an Icarian dream, no doubt — it seems at once wiser and more radical for me to lay bare the system's underlying mechanics to the best of my ability, allowing dozens of others, potentially hundreds of others, to accelerate the process as well. With the knowledge I've gleaned from the belly of this beast, at the outer-most edges of its contemporary development, together we will accelerate the process without anyone ever having to fly too close to the sun.

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One comment on “Unfair Competition (How Academia Got Pwned 13)”

  1. Another interesting post, if a little dramatic. I have no idea about your specific intellectual credentials (Libertarian communist Catholic?), but I'm definitely curious to see how your attempt to have an intellectual career outside of academia pans out. Will open the way for others, if successful.

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