Keynote Address at the University of Saskatchewan Faculty Association Academic Freedom Event: Part 2

Rudy Fichtenbaum, President

American Association of University Professors


While cases such as the ones I have been discussing receive lots of public attention, they pale in comparison a number of other threats to academic freedom, mainly the attacks on public sector unions and growing use of faculty who are hired on contingent contracts. In the U.S., it is already the case that the overwhelming majority of faculty are denied the right to unionize. This is the result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Yeshiva decision, along with the fact that most states do not allow or make it virtually impossible for large numbers of public employees to unionize.

Attacks on public sector unionism along with the growth in the number of faculty working on contingent contracts has been and continues to be at the centerpiece of the corporate agenda to reshape higher education in the U.S. to meet corporate needs and fundamentally undermine higher education as a public good. To accomplish this goal, they have launched a drive to defund public higher education, dramatically reducing state appropriations for public higher education. The defunding of public higher education, along with the metastatic growth of administration, itself a consequence of the corporatization of higher education, has had the effect of raising tuition, leaving students with massive debt burdens and transforming higher education in to a private good.

The goal of privatization is to transform what has been a world-class system of public higher education, whose aim was to provide a high quality education with a strong foundation in liberal arts and sciences, into a system more suited to serve corporate interests in our new gilded age. To accomplish this goal corporate interests and politicians from both political parties, particularly in a post-Citizen’s United world, are transforming higher education into a highly segmented system.

At the top of our higher education system are the elite private universities, funded with large endowments, where most of our top corporate leaders and politicians are educated. Just below these elite private universities are the top public research universities, who in addition to educating large numbers of corporate leaders, engage in high levels of funded research. Most of this funding comes from governmental sources to support basic research, which ultimately can be developed and commercialized. However, the time horizon for funded research at universities is too long for most corporations, and it is not always clear how basic research will lead to commercial success. So public subsidies for research that ultimately add to corporate profit are essential and are a big part of the mission of top tier public institutions.

Below this top tier of public and private institutions are the majority of public and private universities and colleges, as well as community colleges where the emphasis is increasingly on vocational training. While there has always been a clear pecking order in American higher education, the differences between the education that is being provided at the elite schools and all other institutions is growing.

The transformation of large swaths of higher education into centers for vocational education with emphasis on degree completion and certification is transforming higher education to meet corporate interests. In today’s information economy workers need a higher level of technical education and more skills than can be gotten with just a high school degree. So there is a need for today’s workers to have a college education, but not the kind of college education that you get at an elite institution. What serves corporate interests is the undermining of a broad liberal arts education and placing more emphasis on various types of vocational and professional training. What corporations want are workers with more skills but they are less concerned about critical thinking or the creation of an educated citizenry who might question growing levels of inequality, environmental degradation, and other social ills. This is exactly what programs like Pathways in the CUNY system are all about. The move to standardize curriculum and at the same time eliminate a variety of programs, particularly in the humanities in the name of enabling transfers and increasing graduation rates is happening throughout higher education.

So the question for corporate interests becomes, “How do we accomplish this goal of transforming higher education from serving the public good into serving us?” First and foremost they must undermine the ability of the faculty to fight back. As long as faculty have academic freedom and shared governance, there is an ability to resist these changes. Clearly the way to undermine the ability of faculty to resist these changes is to turn them into at will employees or temporary employees, whether full-time or part-time.

Those of us who work in the academy understand the need to protect academic freedom including the right to teach and engage in research as well as commenting on issues that directly affect how our institutions are run. It is also important that academic freedom protects the right of faculty to speak freely on extramural issues, both as experts and as citizens, without fear of retribution. Clearly it is important for us to defend academic freedom by taking on the types of high profile cases I spoke of earlier.

However, that alone is not enough. Unfortunately, many at least in the U.S. (and I suspect this is true in Canada as well), both inside and outside of the academy do not understand the real purpose of tenure, which is the protection of academic freedom. Rather they view it as simply a “life-time guarantee of a job.” Most also do not understand the concept of academic freedom and why it is important to the public interest. Nor do they understand the role of unions in protecting workers against arbitrary and capricious treatment by employers. I believe that one of the most important things that groups like CAUT and AAUP can do is educate the public as to why academic freedom serves the public interest, and the role that academic unions play in protecting academic freedom in the era of the corporate university.


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