BY AARON BARLOW
The crisis is upon us. It has been building—the pressure on a fault line—for at least 45 years, certainly since the Powell Memo of 1971. By soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, it includes this:
One of the bewildering paradoxes of our time is the extent to which the enterprise system tolerates, if not participates in, its own destruction.
The campuses from which much of the criticism emanates are supported by (i) tax funds generated largely from American business, and (ii) contributions from capital funds controlled or generated by American business. The boards of trustees of our universities overwhelmingly are composed of men and women who are leaders in the system.
This is the seed of our destruction. It led to the attacks on ‘the professors’ with the expressed intent of breaking down the walls of protection that had been built since the founding of the AAUP a century ago. These attacks have been led by the likes of David Horowitz and Anne Neal with the twin focus of tearing down the image of academics in the public eye and strengthening the power of boards of trustees who—as hinted by Powell—often come from business and the conservative establishment.
These were the first steps. They succeeded to the point where Jeb Bush could claim, without blushing:
There are a lot of beautiful buildings being built on college campuses, but you can’t get a course on Friday afternoon. And a professor, tenured professor, may not be teaching many more courses than one per semester.
The image of the professor has been hijacked by those who want to enfold academia into the corporate hegemony. Almost no one, outside of our colleges and universities, recognizes the true situation of our national faculty. The diminished tenured/tenure-track now covers around a quarter of college teachers, the rest working on contingent lines or as adjuncts. This alone is close to demolishing academic freedom and shared governance.
But it gets worse. There is a concerted effort today to diminish tenure. Precedents are being set each semester of tenured professors fired without following what was once considered the appropriate process—one that included faculty participation and judgment. Tenure is meaning less and less. The rise of the power of accrediting bodies to dictate assessment and accountability, another tool of those who want to limit the power of the faculty (academic freedom, in this case), is both narrowing the individual teacher’s ability to define course curriculum and increasing the amount of time faculty must spend away from the classroom and research. We have allowed syllabi to become defining, making teachers responsible to them as much as to student learning—and are forcing teachers to spend inordinate amounts of time on documents that students don’t read, that cannot often be followed (the needs of particular classes necessitate deviation from plan) but that become one of the bulwarks of the new industry of assessment and accountability, an industry created on the backs of faculty. Department Chairs are increasingly forced to become bureaucrats only, unable to provide the real leadership that shared governance calls for, instead marshalling projects that have little to do with what actually goes on in the classroom, the laboratory, the library or the professor’s study.
At the same time, our unions are facing threats from numerous directions, threats arising from the same forces attacking the faculty. The Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case now before the Supreme Court may seriously harm union power to negotiate from strength. Like the faculty, American unions have been caught flatfooted by the concentrated attacks on them over the past 45 years, with the result that union membership has been fast shrinking.
Most everyone reading this knows all of this.
But what are you doing about it?
If we—and by that I mean all of us who teach in American colleges and universities, of whatever status—don’t start responding vigorously to the forces pressuring American higher education, we are going to be reduced to the status of facilitators of curricula designed far from the classroom—which will become increasingly electronic anyway. We will be widgets replaceable in an instant. Teaching, the personal interaction between learner and the learned, will disappear. The focus of education will be corporate needs, not those of society.
The AAUP, in terms of the size of the national faculty (some million-and-a-half, at the very least) is extremely small—yet its impact remains large, affecting each one of us. More of us should join. No, all of us. The only way we are going to reverse the current trend is by concerted action—and the AAUP is in a position to head that nationally, both as a union and as an advocate for the faculty. At the same time, each of us should support our local unions—if we have union representation—taking our membership seriously and making sure that we will keep it up even if the Friedrichs decision goes against the unions. Only by solidarity will be succeed. If you haven’t already, join the AAUP. And make it clear that you will continue to support your union no matter what the courts may decide.
It’s a new year and a new semester. Let’s make it a new beginning for the faculty. Let’s face crisis with commitment.