“In reacting to the economic insecurities of the past forty years, the nation’s colleges and universities have adopted corporate practices that degrade undergraduate instruction, marginalize faculty members, and threaten the very mission of the academy as an institution devoted to the common good.”
With these words, historian Ellen Schrecker introduces her new book, The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University (New Press). Schrecker explores the traditional aspects of academic freedom, its history, definition, and the struggles that have surrounded it. Then in the book’s final chapters, Schrecker analyzes the “structural” threats to the academy since the 1970s, including the withdrawal of public funding, its replacement by corporate values and practices, and the increase in contingent faculty. These last chapters turn out to paint an uncanny portrait of CUNY.
Academic freedom is an essential condition for effective teaching and scholarship. The AAUP’s 1915 and 1940 Statements demonstrate how, through tenure, academic freedom protects faculty in the performance of their teaching, research, scholarship, and outside (“extramural”) speaking. Academic freedom is also reinforced by faculty governance, Schrecker says. However, some court decisions (Bakke, 1978; Urovsky, 2000) have located academic freedom in universities rather than in faculty members. In the wake of the 2006 Garcetti decision, lower courts have given mixed signals about whether there is any particular legal protection for faculty speech while on the job.
Schrecker chronicles instances of successful attacks on faculty and the failure of their institutions, sometimes their colleagues, and sometimes the AAUP, to protect them. Many such faculty were “squeaky wheels,” intemperate or difficult colleagues, leftists. The struggles of the 1960s and the subsequent right-wing backlash are set forth in the middle portion of the book, continuing through post-September 11 manifestations of intolerance and fear on campus. Susan Rosenberg at John Jay and Mohamed Yousry at York College are cited. But such struggles of the past decade are less consequential than the structural changes to which Schrecker devotes her last two chapters (and might well have devoted a fuller analysis).
Responding to neoliberal assaults on the public sector and to the 1970s financial crises, Schrecker says, universities became more responsive to market forces, monetizing their resources. Academia would be run like a corporation; it would be “flexible,” “nimble,” entrepreneurial. Faculty governance, too cumbersome, would be circumvented, then ignored.
The 1980 Bayh-Dole Act permitted universities to patent their products and reap the proceeds, so faculty would produce profits for themselves and their universities through research. Universities and corporations would work together; faculty would work for corporations. If studies didn’t confirm the marketability of a product, the results wouldn’t be published. Conflicts of interest would be “managed,” not prohibited.
As tuitions increased to replace public funding, universities marketed themselves to prospective customers through national rankings or standardized test results. Students became consumers, focused on more career-oriented curricula. Students were most likely to be taught by contingent faculty off the tenure track who lacked due process, academic freedom, and curricular control. By 2007, AAUP’s Academe revealed that nearly 70% of all faculty held full- or part-time contingent appointments. This “casualization” of the faculty is the subject of Schrecker’s final chapter.
CUNY has followed this same trajectory. About half of all instruction at CUNY has long been provided by adjunct faculty – and that proportion has recently been on the rise. The School for Professional Studies (SPS) is designed to respond “nimbly” to market demands. The New Community College will prepare students for work as quickly as possible. Neither had any significant initial faculty planning, and CUNY envisioned both as alternatives to traditional faculty structures of governance.
CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
The 2008 CUNY Policy on Conflicts of Interest “seeks to manage Conflicts of Interest in order to minimize the potential harm that could result,” since the policy concedes that “The University has determined that a strict prohibition of Conflicts of Interest (as defined in Section 5.7), with disciplinary sanctions for violation, does not serve the public interest because potentially beneficial interactions with industry would be lost.”
The trends, at CUNY and nationally, are not encouraging. Schrecker wonders whether “higher education as a bastion of freedom and opportunity will, like the polar bears’ glacial habitat, slowly melt away.” And as with global warming, the answer to that question will be determined not in one big confrontation, but in thousands of smaller struggles, each of which shapes a piece of the university’s – and our University’s – future.
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