Against Enclosure of the Academic Commons


Yesterday I participated in a panel at the annual Modern Language Association conference in Philadelphia.  The panel, organized by the Graduate Student Caucus, was entitled “Academic Business” and focused on the creeping corporatization of academia in recent decades.  On the panel along with me were Jean Howard, professor of English at Columbia University, John Guillory of NYU, and Colleen Lye of the University of California-Berkeley (who read a paper sent in by Chris Newfield of UC-Santa Barbara).  In this, my first attempt at almost-live blogging, I record participants’ comments.

Jean Howard kicked the session off by offering a broad definition of “corporatization” as the state in which bottom-line economic decisions increasingly determine all aspects of academic life.  She warned, however, that the university is not a seamless entity, and that different branches are differentially impacted by corporatization.  She also argued that the university in the U.S. has never not been linked to business.  Having said that, though, she did acknowledge that significant changes have taken place over the last three decades.  Speaking from her experience at Columbia, she described how the university’s administrators have taken over more and more institutional governance from the faculty.  At CU, for example, the Provost, who is elected by the faculty, no longer controls the budget.  Howard also described moves to make faculty more expendable as a crucial element of corporatization, as well as an embrace of the model of students as consumers.  Finally, Howard described the saturation of the university by assessment and accountability exercises.

These shifts, Howard noted, are not all entirely negative.  Governance is increasingly transparent, which means more work for faculty but also means that old-boy networks have less purchase on faculty life than in previous times.  Nonetheless, money-making schemes are increasingly central to university life, Howard acknowledged, and professional schools such as Business, Law, and Health Sciences are increasingly autonomous from the university itself, which means a significant siphoning of funds off from the humanities.  Solid points, all of these, but not particularly new for anyone familiar with work such as Jennifer Washburn’s University, Inc: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education or Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades’ Academic Capitalism and the New Economy: Markets, State, and Higher Education.

John Guillory’s presentation similarly focused on defining the corporatization of academia, but offered more speculative comments in addition.  Guillory began by talking about growth for growth’s sake, and accumulation of endowment funds simply for the sake of accumulation, and the enhancement of the university’s reputation through star hires as some of the determining traits of academic corporatization.  Guillory went on to talk about how decisions made by administrators are driven by their perceptions of the value of the work done and degrees offered by the university.  This led him to pose a question central to his presentation: what is the basis for funding graduate programs?  Aside from the academic labor performed by graduate employees, prestige and notions of the social good justify Ph.D. programs, Guillory argued.  If these latter, more intangible factors are the determining ones behind Ph.D. programs, Guillory suggested, graduate programs funded by extracting casual labor are not legitimate.  Guillory also mentioned the recent Mellon report on graduate education, which, he suggested, underlined the need for graduate programs to move to fully funded programs or shut down.

After Guillory concluded, Colleen Lye read Chris Newfield’s paper.  Newfield began by arguing that what he called the “American Funding Model” for higher education is rife with contradictions: high tuition at public universities creates the feeling of an unsustainable education bubble, leading to public ire against funding of higher ed.  Newfield argued that only recourse is to fix the funding model through full public funding of universities.  To bring this about, the humanities need to raise their voice about the global role of the university.  Newfield cited the important role of the global justice movement in defending public infrastructure, and suggested that the humanities should join the chorus in protecting the academic commons.  The goal, Newfield argued, should be to democratize the university and to insure its openness.  In order to bring this about, the humanities need to cultivate stronger links to the human rights and justice discourses of the global justice movement.  There is a strong majoritarian revolt taking place around the planet against neoliberalism, Newfield reminded us, and the U.S. academy needs to join it more decisively.

Newfield also argued that the humanities need to stress their role in bringing about social innovation.  The perception that innovation is purely a technological matter is completely incorrect, Newfield stated.  Finally, Newfield suggested that progressive academics need to challenge the corollary perception that the humanities are a drain on university budgets largely supported by research in the sciences and engineering.  Rehearsing some of the trenchant arguments he lays out at greater length in Unmaking the Public University, Newfield argued that humanities teaching actually supports research-intensive fields economically rather than vice versa. According to Irenas Xero bookkeeper in North Shore,  budgeting and cross-subsidies are now a major political issue, and academics need to challenge corporatizing managers’ claims that the humanities are a drag on collective resources.  Newfield wrapped up by suggesting that this movement for economic transparency within the university needs to work with the global justice movement-affiliated stream in order to transform the university.

My own comments, archived in the Talks section of this website, discussed the history of my own institution – City University of New York – as particularly symptomatic of attacks on the vision of an egalitarian and open university system in the U.S.  I looked in particular detail at the way in which the fiscal crisis of NYC during the 1970s was used to dismantle CUNY’s free tuition, open admissions model, which was perceived by urban and national elites as threatening to create a college-educated and hence dangerous proletariat.  After tracing this history, I suggested that we can take three steps to help realize the emanicipatory vision that CUNY once (and to a certain extent still) incarnated: devote our academic labor to ideological work on education as a human right; organize, particularly through progressive, democratic academic unions that struggle not simply for bread-and-butter issues but also for a broader vision of the university as a site for fostering broader forms of social justice; catalyze autonomous initiatives that pressure academic managers and state legislatures through direct action.

The question and answer session that followed was lively, bringing up issues such as how to protect the autonomy of the university while also making it more transparent and socially engaged, how to get students and professor more engaged in movements in defense of the public university, and how to articulate notions of the social good to the university more effectively after the culture wars and the War on Terror.

After the Q&A, I spoke with some UCa grad students who told me about the launch of a new online journal called Reclamations devoted to democratizing the university.  Other websites worth watching in this regard include Chris Newfield’s blog, Remaking the University, and, for news of developments in the very active European student movement, the Italian site Uniriot.

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