It’s Nice to Be Needed?

Today, in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof presents a column headlined “Professors, We Need You!” He wonders what has happened to those of us in academia, ending with these words:

I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!

One of the things this blog, Academe magazine and the entire AAUP is fighting for is just this, to bring professors out of ivory towers and into the public sphere where they belong. In the spirit of John Dewey (as I title my editorial in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Academe), we refuse to hide away, talking only to each other.

The lead article in that issue of Academe, by three Rhetoric/Composition specialists, Nicholas Behm, Sherry Rankins-Robertson and Duane Roen, “The Case for Academics as Public Intellectuals,” speaks directly to Kristof’s concern. They write:

Although the work of public intellectuals may not be easy, it is crucial. By engaging with the public, academics can strengthen democracy and bolster the position of higher education within a democratic society. Through such engagement, we tell stories of our disciplines and our institutions as we want them to be told rather than as people outside the academy would tell them. As public intellectuals, we have the opportunity to help shape the future of higher education and to make an impact in the communities in which we live.

Though the divide between the contemporary college professor and the rest of America may seem deep and wide, there are many of us academics who are finding ways of crossing it. We even see this as a necessary part of our commitment to academic freedom, one of the pillars of our profession. Yet Kristof complains:

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

While that may still be true, there is also a vigorous movement in the other direction. Russell Hotzler, the president of New York City College of Technology, the CUNY campus where I teach, has responded to faculty (and his own) concerns in just this area, making it clear that he is looking to promote scholars who can have an impact beyond campus walls. He is not alone. Scholarship and service beyond traditional venues are becoming important to faculty across the nation as considerations for promotion and tenure. Though there are exceptions (Kristof points out that “the executive council of the prestigious International Studies Association proposed that its publication editors be barred from having personal blogs“), even blogging is now seen more positively as a part of professional activities–I submitted a collection of my personal blog posts, for example, as part of my package for promotion to Associate Professor two-and-a-half years ago. Update: At the same time, as Ana M. Fores Tamayo reminds me in her comment  below, the movement toward reliance on contingent faculty, few of whom have any sort of academic-freedom protection, counters any real movement toward a more engaged faculty. When people are paid poverty wages and cannot trust that their employment will last beyond the current semester, they cannot be expected to engage in the sorts of activities Kristof would like to see. We are at a crossroad right now; if we don’t resolve adjunct/contingent issues in a manner making them able to fully participate in academic life, we will never be able, no matter how much we try, to return to any sort of important place in the public debate.

Yes, there still is need for greater faculty involvement in our national and local discussions, but that does not mean involvement is not already there. Look around: just about anywhere you see a debate, there will be members of various faculties involved.

For many of us, that’s just what we do.

8 thoughts on “It’s Nice to Be Needed?

    • Good point. Though Kristof is right, and faculty need to be visible, the movement toward a contingent faculty makes this nigh on impossible for all but the lucky few. Thanks for reminding me.

      • Actually, the “big picture” is even more frightening than that: Unless and until the exception in the Garcetti dicta is resolved favorably by SCOTUS for the protection of faculty speech, what we have in some states is the development of a new fascism applied to tenured and non-tenured faculy alike in public universities.

        New York State is one to watch: the state government is increasingly embedded with private corporations. At this time, Governor Cuomo has succeeded in getting legislation passed to create tax-free zones around the campuses so that little by little not only are corporations dictating more state policy — and draining the state coffers with “development” monies drained from Medicaid, etc. — but they are even replacing state unionized workers with private contracted-out employees. Likely this growing contingent work-force will have fewer benefits and lower salaries than unionized state workers, even as they will be told how “lucky” they are that for ten years they and their corporate masters will pay no state taxes.

        Sadly, when the state demanded contracting out provisions in the formal agreement for SUNY faculty and professionals in the mid-1990’s, the AAUP leadership was only too happy to support the assenting UUP union — for the prospect of thirty pieces of silver from union AAUP affiliation. Thus, SUNY faculty, too, can be contracted out — with the blessing of the AAUP.

        This engorging fascism, alongside of the Garcetti ruling permitting the state to control and suppress public employee speech — a ruling which is far from being undermined in the Second Circuit, cf. — sets the stage for the withdrawal of even the tenured from much of the public sphere of discourse. In short, in SUNY fascism rules.

        Which is why, of course, many of us were further appalled that the AAUP leadership intentionally refused to assist adjunct and Kosciuszko Foundation Fellow Prof. Grabowski at SUNY University at Buffalo around 2010 when he was non-renewed for his exercise of speech in the classroom. In the Grabowski case, the SUNY union UUP was in effect paying AAUP for its silence (as an affiliated union) because that AFT company union’s president had made the decision to abandon adjunct academic freedom simply because the SUNY Chancellor opposed it, cf.

        If enforcing even the contractually protected academic freedom for all SUNY faculty could not garner the AAUP leadership’s support as the Association was and is nearing its centennial, then all of this talk of fostering the academic public intellectual amounts to pure posturing. What appears to matter first and foremost to the past and current AAUP leadership is the expansion of collective bargaining in pursuit of the guaranteed revenue of agency fees. “Public intellectual” speech by academics will have to toe the government’s party line in this “brave new world” of public universities operated by private corporations. One can only hope that there is still time left to prove this observation wrong and turn the tide — before the imminent fascist tsunami over-runs the very idea of a public university.

  1. At the risk of stating the obvious, since AAUP officers at all levels are unpaid faculty volunteers, they very much represent what Kristoff is calling for. More often than not, these colleagues have remained very active in their own chapters and state conferences, while taking on additional responsibilities at the national level. In most instances, these faculty have continued to be engaged teachers and active scholars.

    And nowhere is this more true than among our top leadership. They are schedules that are reminiscent of George Clooney’s in the film Up in the Air. Moreover, not only do they need to become knowledgeable about the state and local issues that are the reason for each trip, but they are also typically asked to speak formally on those topics at chapter and conference meetings and then, in some instances, to present testimony before state legislatures. The closest equivalent to this sort of demand on one’s time and energy would be a book-promotion tour–except that in their case, they would be promoting a different book by a different author at each stop on the tour.

    • The analogy in the comment above from another Academe blogger is indeed apt: a book tour with a different book by a different author on each stop of the AAUP national leadership tours. The problem is that the tours should be by and about the collective understanding, not the individual perspectives of the leadership.

      Do members of the AAUP leadership work hard? Yes, without a doubt. But is their agenda the agenda of the collective membership of the AAUP in consonance with the inherited traditions and principles of the Association? Not always. The AAUP leadership has been reacting fast and loose to the changing higher education scene, for example even redefining what constitutes “financial exigency” — a core concept for the defense of academic freedom — without holding a meaningful Association-wide conversation on these issues.

      In short, a well-intentioned but essentially autocratic AAUP leadership is producing reports and guidelines left and right, but these are NOT generated in any democratic way from the grassroots of the organization up. Policy committees essentially are appointed and operated according to the old New England adage: “where the Lodges speak to the Cabots and the Cabots speak only to God.” Nor are most committee reports even vetted by Council before their promulgation as policy, let alone the membership at the Annual Meeting as they used to be. Elsewhere on the Academe blog, the matter of the token activity of the Assembly of State Conferences and the state conferences themselves was raised. Those problematic issues concerning the neglect of democracy remain unaddressed.

      So, are the members of the AAUP leadership acting as public intellectuals? Generally, yes. But their elected role is to be the voice of the faculty of the profession and that is a collective governance affair. There are very few indicators that the AAUP leadership is following a governance model which would pass AAUP muster were it found on a university campus. We must therefore urge the leadership, as the centennial approaches, to respect the membership, to trust the membership, and to entrust the membership with their own governance enlightened by the spirit of John Dewey and the time-tested principles of the Association.

  2. In a discussion list post “Re: Professors We Need You!” at I wrote:

    In a . . . . blog entry “Bridging the Moat Around Universities”, Kristof:

    (a) wrote: “[Professors, We Need You! was] about the unfortunate way America has marginalized university professors – and, perhaps sadder still, the way they have marginalized themselves from public debate”;

    (b) posted 313 comments (as of 19 Feb 2014 09:04-0800) on his opinion piece, about equally divided between approval and disapproval.

    One of more substantive comments is by Aaron Barlow, faculty editor of the AAUP magazine “Academe,” who pointed to “Public Intellectuals and the AAUP” (Schrecker at, and “The Case for Academics as Public Intellectuals” (Behm, Rankins-Robertson, & Roen (BRR) at

    (BRR + commentors on BRR + myself) list about 40 academicians who have “bridged the moat around universities.”

    But the fact that 40 [out of a total of over a million higher-education faculty] have “bridged the moat” does not negate Kristof’s general claim that “[professors] have marginalized themselves.”

    • Certainly, 40 out of a million is worse than paltry, but I would argue that most professors who do bridge the moat do so in ways that are rarely noted, let alone noticed beyond those directly involved in a particular issue or project. Most don’t make a point of their university affiliations–which, in itself, speaks volumes.

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