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Faculty Activism and the Corporatization of the University

From: American Quarterly
Volume 64, Number 4, December 2012
pp. 815-818 | 10.1353/aq.2012.0058

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What are the prospects for progressive faculty activism in the academy today? My comments are based on my experiences at a large, public research institution and should not be generalized for the professoriate as a whole. Indeed, we must be mindful of the different kinds of institutions that blanket the larger academic landscape, from community colleges to for-profit universities, “public” research institutions, and private colleges and universities. After historicizing the corporatization of the research university, I turn to constraints that the nature of the institution places on faculty activism, and I conclude by suggesting a few ways that academics can—and do—contribute to social justice efforts.

Despite a long and noble history of faculty involvement in social justice causes, including the civil rights movement, antimilitarism, feminist and labor struggles, and international solidarity campaigns, there is surprisingly little recent evidence of organized faculty activism directed at specific causes. Scholars often attribute this quiescence to neoliberalism, the corporatization of the university, and the cultural hostility toward a professoriate perceived as aligned with the Left.1 While many bemoan what they believe to be the recent corporatization of the university, the struggle over the nature of university education—and whether it should be geared toward the needs of commerce or humanity—dates back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Marshall Sahlins, David Shumway, and Henry Steck note, corporations and their leaders even then sought to influence universities, and knowledge itself was organized into disciplines out of the necessity, in Shumway’s words, for “trained functionaries to fill out the ranks of the [professional-managerial class].” Central to these dynamics was the desire to suture the middle class to the ruling class by inculcating habits of taste and cultural distinctions through the university curriculum.2 Arguably, the corporatization of the university was realized in its earlier bureaucratization, modeled on commercial industry, and the introduction of departments, faculty ranks, and the implementation of an “accounting system” of degree requirements, credit hours, and grades.3

We must acknowledge, however, the greater imbrications of private industry and academia today, which profoundly impact the production of disciplinary knowledge, the working conditions of the professoriate, and the material transformation of campuses into “commercial spaces” with an increasingly visible corporate presence. Steck catalogs the saturation of corporate culture in almost every aspect of the university, including the imposition of corporate managerial and fiscal practices on university operations, “the appropriation of intellectual labor for [private] profit,” and the loss of research autonomy at the risk of compromising scholarly integrity. The university’s current mission to reproduce the professional-managerial class and to mirror the institutional arrangements of corporations, in other words, remains continuous with such efforts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Within the university, corporatization has radically altered the conditions of work for the professoriate, in some cases eliminating programs or units in their academic specialties, ratcheting up standards of productivity, and increasing faculty’s general workload in response to the downsizing of academic personnel. A greater reliance on adjunct faculty members has meant that the security and protection of tenure has evaporated for the majority of academics. Moreover, the graying of the professoriate has also heralded larger ideological shifts (contra conservative hysteria about “tenured radicals”) and a political identification away from the concerns of social justice that characterized academics in the latter half of the twentieth century.4 These factors should be understood in the context of the larger social crisis and fragmentation of the public sphere that Jeff Maskovsky outlines in his piece; together they present major obstacles to faculty activism. The exhausting workload, the frantic pace of the academic calendar, the fear of institutional reprisals, and the unrelenting stress of meeting the quotidian requirements of professional responsibilities leave many faculty with little energy or the desire to engage in activism.

These trends are apparent at my institution. My university’s progressive faculty group, established in 2001, has organized marches, demonstrations, and over fifty teach-ins on topics ranging from No Child Left Behind to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, academic freedom, and health care reform.5 Yet the group’s identity as an activist collective has waned over the...



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