It is a new variation on an old theme.
Amid economic disruption and social transformation, corporate capital attains heightened influence over the state and prevailing political parties. As working-class and rural segments of the dislocated, disaffected, ethnically dominant group demonize the “other,” a demagogue emerges to give voice to the resentments and basest sentiments of a “populist” movement seeking to recapture past glory. The leader picks up the gauntlet, amplifying the social discourse and policy foundations long before laid down by the mainstream parties and social elites he rails against, taking them to new extremes. Eventually, the capitalist class and significant swathes of the professional/managerial class support and vote the new leader into office, believing that he and the extreme rightist populism he has unleashed can be contained.
It is up to us to decide what role we will take in shaping how the story goes from here. That choice has to do with our status, position and identity, which for many faculty and staff is a deeply embedded status identity as “professionals,” with certain privileges attached, and with the guise of political neutrality.
It is imperative to the democratic purposes and vigor of our institutions and to the broader public purposes of the academy that we align with the working classes, broadly defined ethnically and occupationally. We should do so within and beyond the walls of academe in coalitions that encompass metro and rural regions. And we should be led in this project by adjunct faculty, who in the last few years have established themselves at the vanguard of the resurgent academic labor movement and who, often more than any other segment of instructional faculty, are most likely to identify as and with workers.
The day of the election, I was at a meeting where the keynote speaker, Professor Imanol Ordorika, a Mexican professor and activist, went off script, speaking to the election outcome. As he indicated, what is happening in the US is also happening in other Western countries. Whether in the Brexit vote this past summer or the December election in Austria (in which a right-wing leader leads in the polls), we are seeing a backlash against the growing political and economic presence and strength of communities of color and of immigrant and refugee populations. And we have seen a strong reaction to neoliberal economics that have benefited only the elite.
A PUBLIC STANCE
We must admit that not-for-profit higher education institutions have largely underserved and overlooked the working class of all colors. We track Pell Grant recipients and ethnicity and gender, but we pay little attention to social class. Under external assault from the public disinvestment of the “Austerity Blues” (Fabricant and Brier, 2016) and the demands for greater “accountability” that drive policymakers, most higher education “leaders” and too many faculty and staff have been complacent and complicit in the rise of academic capitalism (Slaughter and Rhoades, 2004), which constitutes an internal assault, or self-immolation on and of our public purposes. Fearing greater disinvestment, universities have largely tried to remain neutral, even in the face of a candidate and party that deny not just climate change, but science, social science findings, health science research and the legitimacy of critique, the arts and humanities and the helping professions. As we pursue more upper-middle-class, out-of-state and international students, and bypass those lower-income students of all ethnicities, we have further distanced ourselves from large numbers of “uneducated” people, to use Trump’s phrase. In fact, colleges and universities have largely been absent, or worse, have been complicit in justifying higher education’s existence in terms of its global imprint and contribution to the nation’s global competitiveness, even as we turn our backs on depressed domestic urban and rural economies.
One challenge in the immediate moment, for which the PSC is well positioned, is to reaffirm our commitment to the values and communities that are so central to the vitality and integrity of our academy and society. In the face of vile assaults on our campuses and in our streets, it is important for us to take the lead in publicly defining our commitment in statements as well as in public demonstrations that affirm who we are and what we will not go back to. Faculty, staff and student groups are central to that work. And such work must be planned and play out over the course of the coming year, for the threats will be recurrent through many mechanisms and in many venues.
A second challenge in the coming months is at the same time to play a central role in stopping right-wing populism from co-opting working-class economic anger. Although our colleges and universities, like our society, are more segregated than they should be, they are some of the few spaces left in our nation with the potential to engage and educate groups of people by working through difficult conversations.
Imagine if we in higher education could work across institutional boundaries to effect these sorts of exchanges by way of helping our students, ourselves and our society work through a resurgently segregated society, separated by race/ethnicity, religion, social class, gender identity, (dis)ability, nation of origin, immigrant and refugee status and more. And imagine a partnership among faculty and support professionals in these efforts in residence halls, outreach programs into the schools, bridge programs into the university and more. The idea would be to develop programs with student affairs professionals to promote difficult conversations and engagement to work through and beyond what is contributing to the explosion of hate and toward some measure of understanding, appreciation and respect for the diversity that is who we are.
BEYOND THE ACADEMY
Finally, a third challenge is to re-energize a coalition of working people of all backgrounds around democratic projects that benefit them and society. Part of that project should involve clearly contesting and providing a progressive, forward-looking alternative to our present path. We need to articulate models of colleges and universities that are more democratic, expand access, expand knowledge and engage in social critique. Part of that must certainly involve foregrounding and rewarding engagement in social, political discourse and practice. We would do well to foster such forms of engagement within and beyond the university.
There will be those who will suggest that we wait, that we must maintain our neutrality, that the types of engagement I suggest are ill-advised, counter to our role as professionals and/or likely to generate fiscal and other retribution. To them I say, we are in the crosshairs of the right-wing populist movement – we represent all that they detest symbolically, oppose politically and resent culturally, not because we are liberal, but because we are armed with education and dangerous to their project.