“Which Side Are You On?”


DSC_3104The 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.

8 thoughts on ““Which Side Are You On?”

    • I can’t speak for the leadership, but you will be hearing more from them on this blog and on the aaup.org website. A great deal has changed over the past few years, structurally, at the AAUP with new emphasis on creation of new bargaining units. The AAUP continues to be a strong advocate of academic freedom and shared governance and has moved to include adjuncts and contingent hires in its advocacy. Specific initiatives often depend on the chapters with the national office playing a support role.

      Through Academe, the Journal of Academic Freedom and this blog–and other things–the AAUP is trying to draw attention to the real situation of American faculty. For this to work, we need even stronger grassroots participation–including more voices contributing to this blog. If you or anyone else wants to propose a post, please contact me!

  1. Now more than ever we need the kind of solidarity that can only come when tenure-track faculty rethink their own elitism and decide to actually unite with contingent, adjunct, and grad student faculty. Unions historically dominated by tenure-track faculty have to make a serious effort to not only organize but also truly represent these exploited colleagues, not just smugly brag about throwing them a few crumbs. One for all and all for one.

    • You are absolutely right, Ruth Wangerin! We also need the elite to recognize the equality with them of faculty at community colleges, urban colleges and non-research institutions in general. The Professional Staff Congress, the faculty union at CUNY has made huge steps toward inclusion of all teaching faculty but even here we could do more, much more. The AAUP is constantly looking for ways of more effectively including ALL faculty within its arms. There’s always more to do, but much of it is going to depend on changing faculty attitudes–as you say.

        • Someone actually said to me, recently, that the PSC would do better if it stopped trying to include adjuncts and concentrated just on what he called the T/TT “base.” Nonsense! It has to be all of us. We also need to erase the distinction in the minds of many between the faculty at the senior colleges and those at the comprehensive colleges and the community colleges.

  2. Somehow we all need to get over the idea that T/TT faculty appointments are based on a meritocracy system. There is SO MUCH talent, ability, and experience in our profession, at all ranks. It is just that only some of it is recognized and compensated. With the large majority of our pool of academics, it is not.

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