BY AARON BARLOW
In an opinion piece published by The New York Times, Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, writes:
American colleges and universities, public and private, are properly seen as nonpartisan elements in civil society, committed to research and teaching in a manner that transcends ordinary politics. But to succeed, these institutions must ensure that academic freedom and the highest standards of scholarship prevail. This means respect for the rules of evidence, rigorous skepticism and the honoring of the distinction between truth and falsehood.
This also means that all of us involved in higher education—and not just its leaders—must step up within and outside of our institutions, defending not only the colleges and universities themselves but the essential structures for learning and growth they are built upon. This is our civic duty, based upon the privileges we receive through institutions we should also be trying to improve—and not further restrict, as political forces today often want (look at Wisconsin and the other states now trying to limit tenure or otherwise mold higher education into a compliant political tool).
One of our first tasks, as promoters of what I think we should call the “New Civics,” is to lead by example. For too long, we have been complacent in the face of a growing reliance on what has come to be an abusive system of academic labor, a “class” system that should be anathema in egalitarian America. Adjuncts and contingent hires are segregated from the “real” faculty in pay, benefits and responsibilities—though they teach the same courses and, sometimes, have the same academic credentials. This system has grown through financial pressures, for the most part, but it is unacceptable (and unknown at the small, elite colleges like Bard and my own cherished alma mater, Beloit).
The pressures that are sure to come from an administration whose education policies will be shaped by Betsy DeVos, an uninformed billionaire, and Jerry Falwell, Jr., a “legacy” (his father founded it) president of a rightwing “Christian” university, are certainly going to be intense. As Botstein argues, we can’t “turn a blind eye” to the authoritarian strategies of the Trump regime that turn truth to “alternative facts.” Nor can we stand idly by as one of the great sources of American academic strength—immigration—is torn to shreds. Though we must step up in vigorous defense of the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and all of the other governmental sources of support for research and education, we must also continue to fight for—to start to fight for, in many cases—equitable employment practices at home and adequate funding to support them.
Though I approve wholeheartedly of Botstein’s sentiments, I don’t want to see us moving more intently into the political realm without a parallel strengthening of our commitment to change within our institutions. This may not be an issue at Bard or Beloit, or Carleton or Kenyon, but these elite colleges serve only a small percentage of American students. At state-funded institutions, where state support has been in decline for a generation (at least), far more than half of the courses may be taught by instructors who scurry from campus to campus yet are barely able to make ends meet. Though many of them are talented and skilled, they haven’t the resources to do their jobs as well as they could. They are abused by the system and, consequently, so are their students.
When it began, the concept of the adjunct was of someone working in a profession sharing their skills on a part-time basis with students on campus. There are still instances of this. For the most part, though, adjunct work has become full-time work, though spread across a number of part-time contracts. Because the adjuncts have to move from campus to campus, they are rarely involved in the life outside of the classroom of any single institution. In my own department, we have twice the number of adjuncts as full-timers and I know hardly any of them. That is a loss to me, to them and to the college, but it is the nature of the system.
As we become advocates of the “New Civics,” we need to ensure we embrace it fully, not simply in the national political realm but in our own statehouses and on our own campuses. We need to rally around figures like Botstein, one of the most extraordinary people of my baby-boomer generation, but we also need to look to the needs of those right next to us, people who, in too many cases, we don’t even see.
(Photo: By Frim99954p at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44127848)