Presidential Address at AAUP Annual Meeting

Remarks from AAUP president Rudy Fichtenbaum to the 101st Annual Meeting of the AAUP.

It is truly an honor to stand before you today at the 101st annual meeting of the American Association of University Professors, the meeting that is the bookend to the celebration of our centennial.  I want to start by reading to you a part of our mission statement that has been updated for the twenty-first century but whose essence clearly has remained the same throughout our century-long history:

The mission of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is to advance academic freedom and shared governance; to define fundamental professional values and standards for higher education; to promote the economic security of faculty, academic professionals, graduate students, post‐doctoral fellows, and all those engaged in teaching and research in higher education; to help the higher education community organize to make our goals a reality; and to ensure higher education’s contribution to the common good.

In some ways it is perhaps the very last phrase, “to ensure higher education’s contribution to the common good,” that is at the same time the most important and the most endangered part of our mission, due to the unprecedented crisis in higher education today.

The idea that higher education should serve the common good, the idea that education is a public good, has been under attack for nearly forty years, by forces that seek to privatize higher education and use it to promote their own narrow interests.

American higher education faces an unprecedented crisis. To fully comprehend its nature, one must place it in the broader context of the neoliberal attack on working people. The tenets of neoliberalism are the rule of markets, cutting taxes on the wealthy, reducing public expenditures that support working and middle class families, mass incarceration of African American males, deregulation, privatization, and the elimination of public goods. Growing levels of income inequality and the destruction of the “middle class” measure the success of this agenda.

In public higher education, we have seen concerted defunding accompanied by corporatization of institutions, for example in the metastatic growth of administrative spending. The resulting rising tuition and fees along with skyrocketing student debt are all part of the broader campaign aimed at privatization and the elimination of public goods.

As an economist, I can’t resist the temptation to throw at least a few numbers into my speech. State support per student, adjusted for inflation (using 2015 dollars), increased from $3,495 in 1965 to $5,500 in 1987, an increase of 45 percent. Since 1987, state spending per student, adjusted for inflation, fell as low as $3,575 in 2012 before rebounding to $3,854 in 2015. So from its peak, state support for higher education has declined about 30 percent, falling to nearly the same level it was at in 1966.

Between 1965 and 1987, real tuition increased at an average annual rate of 2.3 percent and real state spending per student increased at an average annual rate of 2.1 percent. Between 1988 and 2015, real tuition increased at an average annual rate of 4.2 percent, almost double the rate from 1965 to 1987. At the same time, real state support per student declined at an average annual rate of 1.3 percent.

It doesn’t take a genius to see the connection between declining state support and rising tuition, which has led to crushing levels of student debt.

What is meant by the term corporatization? First and foremost, it means that universities and colleges have increasingly embraced the corporate model. This means that nationally institutions of higher education are being run as businesses. Andrew Meyer, the chair of Suffolk University’s board, has stated “We need people who understand that running an institution of higher education today means running a business.”

In some respects there is nothing new about corporate control of universities and colleges. Upton Sinclair wrote about it in his self-published book The Goose-Step that appeared in 1922, as did the economist Thorsten Veblen in The Higher Learning in America: a Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men, published in 1918.

What is new about corporatization is they way in which it has transformed public higher education. Today, business jargon abounds in higher education. We talk about productivity, competition, customers, and the market. We talk about faculty productivity, competition for students, and research grants. We are told that students are our customers and that market forces determine everything from tuition to faculty salaries.  Budgets are allocated using variants of Resource Centered Management (RCM), wherein each academic unit is treated as a profit center within a university, competing with other academic units for resources. All of the academic units are taxed to support the metastatic growth of administration, with presidents being paid as if they were CEOs.

As a consequence of growing competition, faculty members have been pressured to dumb down the curriculum through the misuse of student evaluations of teaching. As a result, higher education is focusing more on providing training and less on developing students as citizens.  Support for the humanities is waning and the latest trend in reforming the core curriculum is to teach science classes without labs. No field is immune to the changes that are occurring. These changes are being sold as a way to increase course completion and graduation rates, as institutions race to the bottom, competing for performance-based funds.

Faculty have less and less influence over academic matters. University decision making is driven by external market forces. Decisions over program development and discontinuance, admission standards and tuition hikes are increasingly made unilaterally by an ever-growing army of professional administrators, many of whom have spent little time in the classroom, the lab, or the library. They move from institution to institution, often leaving a mess in their wake, which then needs to be cleaned up by a new administrative team that is hired at even higher salaries than their predecessors.  They are often hired with little or no faculty input, to “make hard choices,” a euphemism for transferring resources from academic programs to other areas of the “enterprise.”

Corporatization of higher education, coupled with declining state support, has given rise to privatization, leading to rising tuition, increased student debt, and the growing use of faculty working on contingent appointments. The result is what can only be termed an all-out assault on academic freedom, shared governance, and the economic security of the profession.

The goal of corporatization has been to transformation what had 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.  The dream of the top 1 percent in what has turned out to be a new Gilded Age has been to transform higher education into a more highly stratified 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, which, in addition to educating large numbers of corporate leaders, engage in high levels of funded research. Increasingly, research universities are looking for ways to commercialize this research taking it out of the public domain.

Below the 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.

Corporate interests are served by  the undermining of a broad liberal arts education and increased emphasis on various types of vocational and professional training. Corporate leaders want workers with more technical skills but eschew the creation of an educated citizenry who might question growing levels of inequality, environmental degradation, and other social ills.

Clearly this corporate agenda for higher education seeks to destroy the ability of higher education to serve the common good and seeks to transform higher education from a public good into a private good.

Nowhere is this development more evident than in the recent budget proposal that emerged from the Joint Finance Committee in Wisconsin. This proposal started with Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s proposal to get rid of the Wisconsin Idea, which in essence simply states that the mission of the University of Wisconsin is to serve the common good.

The language in the budget proposal is nothing less than the elimination of tenure as we understand it. It would allow the board of regents to “terminate any faculty or academic staff . . . due to a budget or program decision regarding program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection.” Effectively, this means that faculty could be laid off for any reason.  For example, imagine the board of regents, a group of political appointees, deciding that a center dedicated to describing, documenting and combating poverty is being eliminated as a form of “redirection.”

This is exactly what happened recently at the University of North Carolina when its board of governors voted to close  the Center for Work, Poverty, and Opportunity because it was run by a faculty member who was an outspoken critic of the state’s Republican leadership.

Just recently, it was reported on the Academe Blog that documents obtained by Bloomberg revealed that Continental Resources CEO Harold Hamm had urged University of Oklahoma leadership to fire scientists investigating the role of fracking in causing Oklahoma’s recent spate of earthquakes. This is just the latest in a series of reports of academic intimidation by the oil and gas industry to silence critics of fracking.

Manufacturing “budgetary crises” has become the order of the day. The latest of these cases was at the University of Southern Maine, which dismissed some sixty faculty members and closed several programs with the justification that this was required by the university’s financial condition. An AAUP investigation revealed that there was no financial justification for these actions. In fact, many suspect that these layoffs were as much designed to punish or silence administration critics as they were to save money.

In  2013, the Kansas board of regents adopted new rules under which faculty and other employees may be suspended, dismissed, or terminated from employment for “improper use of social media.”  Social media is defined as “any facility for online publication and commentary” and covers but is “not limited to blogs, wikis, and social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube.” The term “improper use” in this case is defined as including communications made “pursuant to  . . . official duties” that are “contrary to the best interest of the university,” as well as communication that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, has a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary, impedes the performance of the speaker’s official duties, interferes with the regular operation of the university, or otherwise adversely affects the university’s ability to efficiently provide services.”

Today, higher education is like a sinking ship. Many of the tenure-track faculty have been thrown overboard to “lighten the load,” replaced by an army of faculty working on contingent contracts, who are prohibited from spending time on deck and forced to toil in steerage.  As at-will employees who can easily be “non-renewed,” a euphemism for being fired, many dare not speak out against the corporate transformation of higher education, lest they find themselves without a job.

It is no coincidence that the places where we are seeing outright attacks on tenure are also right-to-work states or states where public sector collective bargaining has been under attack.

Act 10 in Wisconsin started the ball rolling for Senate Bill 5 in Ohio and right-to-work legislation in Michigan. In Michigan, legislation is currently pending  that would eliminate exclusive representation. In Ohio, a provision that would have applied Yeshiva-like language to faculty was inserted in a House budget bill at the eleventh hour. Fortunately, because of the leadership of our Ohio AAUP conference, we were able to mobilize our members and allies and get this provision removed from the bill. But we know the attacks will continue.

If anyone is under the illusion that this all-out assault on tenure in Wisconsin is an isolated incident, they need only listen to a recent interview with Governor John Kasich of Ohio in which he bemoans the research performance of universities in the Midwest: “One of the big problems that we have in the Midwest when it comes to innovating . . . is the Midwest for whatever reason gets extremely comfortable with the status quo . . . . Change is not something that they get real excited about. And it’s reflected in our university structures.” In this same interview, Kasich also said the problem in the universities is that tenure creates a disincentive for people to be “risk-takers” and this undermines innovation.

Where does this leave us? Often times we are so caught up in our own day-to-day struggles on campus that we lose sight of the fact that what is happening on each of our campuses is not happening in isolation. We attribute the bad things that are happening on our campuses to evil or incompetent administrators. We view the AAUP chapter on campus (if we have an active chapter and many campuses do not) as being narrowly concerned only with conditions on our campuses. In many cases, we believe that we need to stay away from politics or risk alienating some of our members.

As long as faculty do not act collectively on our campuses and begin to build alliances in our communities, in our states, and across the nation, we will remain on the losing side of the ledger.

As powerful as the AAUP “brand” is—and its power has recently been demonstrated by the press coverage of what is going on in Wisconsin, where our policies and procedure are referred to by faculty and administrators alike—the AAUP is far too small to reverse the overwhelming forces we face.  So first and foremost we need a bigger AAUP.

We also need a different kind of AAUP, one that is more open to faculty working on contingent contracts, graduate students, post-docs, and academic professionals; an AAUP that sees itself as being part of a social justice movement, working with students, parents, alumni, community organizations, civil rights organizations, and other unions.

Finally, I hope that my remarks have made it evident that the attack on higher education as a public good is a political attack. That requires us to respond by entering the arena of politics. Until we start electing state legislators and governors who believe that higher education needs to serve the public interest, we will be fighting a defensive battle to trying to save what is left of a higher education system that was once the envy of the world.

Thank you.

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