My academic education was not enough to navigate the real world

Experiences in the Congo and the US Congress taught Stephen Weissman that adventurous academics need self-examination and thoughtful adaptation

September 24, 2023
A Gorilla in the jungle, symbolising the difficulties of the real world
Source: iStock

It took years for me to fully understand why I was fired from my first professorial position.

Fresh from completing my PhD on “American Foreign Policy in the Congo 1960-1964”, I had ventured to the fabled Congolese city of Kisangani (formerly Stanleyville) to teach political science and see what I had been writing about. Fifteen months later, I was fired by a government minister in front of the entire university and was ordered to fly with my wife and young son to the capital and report to the nation’s chief cop.

My alleged offence, which had reached the ears of President Mobutu, was “teaching Maoism and other subversive doctrines” to my sophomore social science students – who were supposedly applying these lessons by boycotting the classes of a Dutch professor they claimed was unqualified. In reality, my course in political philosophy from Plato to Mao had only gotten up to Thomas Hobbes, who exalted a powerful state, but that didn’t matter. Although I was able to explain the situation to the Minister of the Interior, I still had to leave the university three months before the end of my contract.

After eight subsequent years in American higher education, I garnered a dream job in Washington DC as a top aide to an active, Democrat-led congressional subcommittee overseeing Africa policy. Naturally, Zaire (Mobutu had renamed the country) fell into my area of responsibility. However, my “objectivity” concerning that country was soon questioned by some Committee Republicans, whose support we needed to pass legislation.

Although all this was decades ago, what I learned from these experiences is still relevant. The globalisation of higher education is such that Western professors and administrators are increasingly engaged with universities in authoritarian countries. In 2022, there were 333 universities with international branches (140 of them American or British), many located in countries described by Freedom House as “not free”. Recently, American scholars have called attention to censorship and other human rights abuses affecting some branch campuses. And at home, holders of advanced degrees are common among congressional staff. A recent survey showed that almost 40 per cent held master’s, law and even doctoral degrees, with higher-ranking staffers possessing higher credentials.

So why did I get into such trouble in Kisangani? Some of the reasons were external. The university administration, headed by an interim Congolese rector following the abrupt displacement of his predecessor, was insecure in the face of the student boycott, which threatened to expand. It was worried not only about its own authority but its standing with the Mobutu government. Under the surface, the latter was moving to exert greater control over students and other civil society groups.

Still, my own risky behaviour contributed to my plight. Especially unwise was a conversation I had with one of my students during an earlier movement by Congolese students and staff for university reform. They were demanding the replacement of the poorly qualified interim rector, a white American missionary, whom they held responsible for sparse material conditions, unqualified professors and racial discrimination against Congolese staff. Further, top American and Dutch administrators were charged with attempting to preserve their “hegemony” over the university by successfully discouraging a highly regarded white Belgian scholar from replacing him. In response, the protesters called for the appointment of a Congolese rector.

As the university’s board convened, the still peaceful conflict was broadening and becoming more racially polarised. The students went on strike. Five of the six white deans wrote to the trustees of their fears for educational quality and the future role of foreign faculty if the Congolese demands were accepted; one dramatically resigned. The Congolese staff responded by denouncing the move as “racial, chauvinist…blackmail”.

Having come to the Congo only to teach and learn, I stood apart from these events. But one day I encountered one of my best students and curiously asked him for his take. He emphasised the students’ belief that the interim rector had discouraged his putative successor. After a too brief internal debate, I disclosed to him – with faintly hoped-for confidentiality – the interim rector’s confession to me that he had written to the Belgian to warn him of the “difficulties” he would encounter in the position. I observed that the letter “could have” influenced the latter’s withdrawal, but I could not prove it.

Soon an attributed, non-qualified version of what I’d said got out, harming my relations with many white faculty and staff and possibly contributing to some minor violence by protesting students. The story spread to the Congolese government and the US embassy, both of which magnified my role and cast my intention as malicious. So when the university was later rocked by another student boycott, it was easy for the administration, government and embassy to scapegoat me.

Why did my internal risk calculator work so badly? Well, I was sympathetic to the Congolese demands. I was also anxious to equalise my information exchange with my student and, more generally, to overcome my isolation from my students (the faculty lacked offices and there we no common meeting places). I should have recognised these emotional pulls. More fundamentally, plunged into an unfamiliar, opaque environment, despite my intellectual appreciation of the inflammability of race relations in the post-independence Congo, I failed to fully anticipate at a gut level how others might perceive, misinterpret and react to my expressions.

I also experienced something of a culture shock in Congress. Our subcommittee was battling to reduce US military aid to Zaire to distance the US from Mobutu’s corrupt, human rights-abusing and increasingly unpopular regime. However, during our public hearings, administration witnesses presented a much rosier picture of Mobutu’s reign than the scholarly ones I enlisted.

Concerned that this would sway some of the subcommittee Republicans – who were more inclined to support America’s “friends” warts and all – I distributed a list of prosecutorial-style questions for the administration’s key witness, challenging his facts and judgments. Afterwards, one of my favourite Republicans asked if I had written the questions. When I answered positively, she snapped “I thought so.”

I began to realise that my aggressive style, acceptable in a critical academic article or review, was confirming Republican suspicions that Democrats lacked “objectivity”.

A better approach came into view when our subcommittee’s very liberal chairman and very conservative-ranking Republican led a congressional delegation to Zaire. The government opposed our plan to meet with a group of opposition ex-parliamentarians lest that appear as some kind of international “recognition” of an illegal second political party. A compliant US embassy responded by scheduling separate, individual meetings with four members.

Nevertheless, the full contingent showed up at the first session. After conferring, the chairman and ranking member decided to meet with the entire group – it was more time-efficient – but to manage perceptions by declaring they were meeting with them as individuals. Nevertheless, as the group left our hotel, they were brutally attacked by security forces and arrested.

In the following days, the chairman, ranking member, my minority counterpart and I worked closely to formulate common ripostes to Mobutu and the embassy. A few months later, the subcommittee unanimously agreed to reduce military aid to Zaire.

Thus, with a willingness to engage with each other, Democrats who prioritised human rights and Republicans dedicated to supporting “our friends” were able to forge agreements.

At home as well as abroad, I discovered that adventurous academics should bring with them a capacity for self-examination and thoughtful adaptation.

Stephen R. Weissman is a US foreign policy and campaign finance scholar and advocate. This article is adapted from his latest book, From the Congo to Capitol Hill: A Coming-of-Age Memoir.

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