Building Education for the Commons
With each social institution comes with it certain responsibility that member of that institution are expected to fulfill. A Firefighter, for example, is expected to use their expertise and skill to respond to emergency situations, car accidents, a house fire, and so forth. A journalist, to use another example, is expected to publish stories about events in the world even if those events expose unpleasant or inconvenient truths. This is because the journalist serves the public, and it’s important the public have access to truths. But, let’s not be naive, the reality is much more complicated. If a journalist working for a media group stumbles onto a story that exposes that media group (or closely linked parties or members of that group) to unsavory truths, chances are that story won’t see the light of day or worse.
There are many examples of censorship in journalism, which distills for us a basic truth about power: Power preserves itself even to the point of censorship and even violence. The Watergate scandal comes immediately to mind. And if power (from corporations to the nation-state) control what is published, or what can be seen from what cannot be seen, then they are able to maintain control of their power unchecked. Of course, in the context of a democracy and open society, it is fundamental that power is held in check by facts no matter how unsettling they are.
This brings us to the question: Could something similar be happening in the Hall of academia?
What is the responsibility of a professor in the university? For starters, they must be competent to teach truths about their subject of expertise. This is why professors are the most highly educated people in society. Secondly, they are expected to participate in their community of research and contribute to that research, unfolding truths they find in their study through peer-reviewed articles, books, book reviews and so forth. But suppose, just as a thought experiment that is not too difficult to imagine, a professor discovers that a local corporation is illegally leaking contaminates from their factory into the public water supply. Let’s further imagine (again, it is not too difficult) that the CEO of that corporation is a member of the Board of Trustees of that professor’s university. What should the professor do? Should they expose this truth even if they run the risk of being fired? And now you can see why academia has within its institution the protection of “tenure” which is to say, that a professor’s job is protected from being materially harmed or fired, which allows them to seek out truths without fear.
Given this, when we identify the recent trend in academia to get rid of tenure-protection, we, as a free society, must be alarmed. In fact, much of teaching happening today in most universities is done by contingent or adjunct faculty members, above 70% in fact. A contingent faculty member works from year to year on a contract, so that if they publish research that isn’t liked by administrators (which now outnumber professors in the academy, a bazaar and curious fact in-itself) they can swiftly be removed.
With this pro-administrator trend sweeping over the academy, it makes sense that academics, even tenured academics, will tend to shy away from research that might be considered controversial. And this is an indirect way that social power, largely concentrated in the United States by financial firms, banks, and corporations, can continue to maintain and reproduce itself whilst neutralizing society’s critical voices responsible for checking power via research and publishing (i.e. professors).
And this is where a privileged professor will tend to not risk their cultural cache for the sake of protecting society from dangers. This too is where historically critical fields of inquiry, such as philosophy, critical theory, political economy and the like, has more recently relied on this “space of privilege” within the “Ivory Tower” in order to pontificate a “critical” stance while being protected by their privilege. And this is where theory removed from praxis becomes dangerous, because the professor can write and teach about Marx without every living out the consequence of what the principles found in his theory calls us to do namely the transformation of society aimed at the emancipation of all people.
You can see that historically too when you observe the delinking of solidarity between professors and the struggle of workers’ rights such as unions since the 1980s. It is significant to note that the censoring tactics by the neoliberal university (massive increases in tuition, the alarming growth rate of administrators, and the erosion of tenure protection) began in the Reagan era just at that same historical juncture when academics began to delink their associations with the workers’ rights movement. Instead what you find from the 80s to the present in academia is the massive growth in research in such areas as multiculturalism, post-colonialism peddled by the theory of Michel Foucault etc, which is a safe way to do research without jeopardizing one’s privilege within society. Colonialism and imperialism are essential truths to be spoken, but the fear is that such fields of study lend themselves to be spoken in ways that create a disjunction between publishing on the subject and living out the struggle against these forms of injustice.
And it is reasonable to state that academics have nearly entirely failed to name the social injustice of economic inequality since the 70s; or, as Professor. Maria Nikolakaki nicely states, “Once you depart from class-analysis, you may easily find yourself supporting unjust regimes of power.”
Perhaps it’s time that the privileged professor risk coming out of their protected castles and start living into their responsibility that the public demands of them? If the professors don’t do it, the neoliberal university certainly won’t.
The Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS) is a new school devoted to giving faculty and students (researchers) the freedom to name truths that we desperately needs to hear. To be part of this community sign-up here.