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Monday, February 27, 2017

Monday, February 27, 2017
The month since the inauguration has made it crystal clear that universities and colleges are going to face a wide range of challenges and attacks in the next few years.  President Trumps's appointment of Betsy Devos (known for her contempt both for public institutions and for the faculty within them) as Secretary of Education and Jerry Fallwell Jr. (a major recipient of federal funds through student loans) to chair a task-force on higher education both signal hostility to public higher education.  More generally, President Trump has made clear his opposition to some of the most important core principles of colleges and universities: open intellectual inquiry, the internationalism of knowledge and the free movement of ideas and researchers, and the idea that knowledge is best used when it is public and not subordinated to the interest of the state or political parties.  The Trump Administration and its allies have attacked the legitimacy of scientific research, imposed a gag order on the EPA and other government agencies, threatened the elimination of the NEA and the NEH along with the privatization of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, issued an executive order refusing to admit people coming "from" a set of Muslim majority countries that, among other things, threatened the ability of students from those countries to continue their education.  Faced with a strong judicial rejection the administration is now preparing a new order.   But while it is likely to seek to meet the courts' objections, it is unlikely to veer from either its attack on the free movement of peoples or its false claims about the weaknesses in the refugee resettlement process.

Republican legislators have been equally eager to attack higher education.  From Arizona, to Iowa, to Tennessee, to North Carolina and beyond, legislatures have sought to intervene in the internal organization of public higher education by attacking unions, prescribing the ideological balance of faculties, stripping universities governance of autonomy, and placing limits on what can be taught. Not all these efforts will succeed, but they have marked an intensification of actions against higher education that built on precedents in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

These attacks suggest two, only apparently contradictory, conclusions.  The first is that the ascension of President Trump marks a distinctly new phase in American politics.  The second is that his victory has only made more obvious a pre-existing situation--the well-established domination by right-wing republicans of most of the levers of state government across the country.  Republican control became more extreme under President Obama, though it predated him.   Donald Trump's presidency has released whatever restraints there have been over the most revanchist elements in the Republican Party.  These parallel lines of attack--federal and state--present a set of challenges that higher education cannot ignore.

Although it is true that colleges and universities should not go out of their way to provoke the administration, it is a mistake to think that higher education will fly under the radar if it avoids confrontation.  Higher ed has been far too willing to reshape itself in the image of contemporary business and political culture and in doing so has made itself more of a target for the angers and passions that President Trump has helped consolidate. As Chris has noted, universities were all too eager to identify themselves with the high-tech financialized world that has left so many people behind.  Higher education is already a prime target in the new round of culture wars: its vulnerability has been heightened by a a highly selective misrepresentation of students that denigrates the important social issues they raise while ignoring the realities of their lives in the age of the debt crisis. Secretary Devos' recent comments about faculty indoctrination reveal nothing so much as her distance from real classrooms. There is no way to avoid confronting this hostility without taking a collective vow of silence.  To do that, would be to betray higher education at its core. It would in effect avoid the university's obligations to provide commentary and reflection on society itself.

It is important to recognize one thing as we contend with this new era:  the now traditional tendency of colleges and universities to mirror and incorporate the leading trends of the contemporary business and financial order will not protect its core functions of teaching and research. The notion of an entrepreneurial university whose greatest research value lies in start-ups and patents and whose benefits accrue primarily to individuals has only served to draw attention from the core actions of colleges and universities--teaching and open scholarship.  It has also bound them more tightly to a business culture transfixed by the endless search for monetization and market growth..

But it must be admitted that if administrators have not offered a vision that could meet the challenges of the current moment, neither have the faculty. We have too often accepted the benefits that accrue to us individually from the current system of labor and funding and failed to offer a coherent alternative for the future.  It is a task that can no longer be avoided.

I cannot go into all the areas that need to be rethought and reconstructed here. But an initial if incomplete list would have to include the following:

Colleges and universities will have to confront more directly their own role in the increasing inequality of American society.  It should hardly be controversial to note that in an age of trillion dollar student debt, and with the increasingly unequal distribution of resources across the range of higher education institutions, colleges and universities now are as likely to intensify social and economic inequality as they are to lessen it.  There are numerous reasons for this of course. But the incessant drive for distinction among institutions and their faculties highlights the contradiction between selectivity and access that has made the number of students applicants you reject a sign of quality and price a sign of desirability.  A new social contract that preserves access, funds quality, and ensures academic and intellectual autonomy must be developed and fought for.

It is also past time to address the obscene and immoral system of balancing the finances of colleges and universities on the backs of adjuncts and other precarious workers.  It is time for colleges and universities--including tenured and tenure-track faculty--to recognize that in a system where most faculty work under conditions of precarity, there is no real system of academic freedom (after all the purpose of tenure was to provide the security to do one's intellectual work without fear).  Beyond this, the internal inequity of our labor practices gives the lie to the notion that we function as community of scholars.  This problem will not be easy to fix.  After years of chipping away at tenure--Wisconsin's #faketenure is the most obvious example--legislature are subjecting it to explicit challenge.   Under emboldened Republican governments, unions are likely to face their most concerted attacks in years, thereby throwing into question the gains made by adjuncts and graduate students through their own organizing and collective bargaining struggles.  These problems occur on a national scale.

The faculty will need to take up anew the issues of academic freedom and faculty governance.  The recent series of controversies around Milo Yiannopoulos's appearances on college campuses have, if nothing else, pointed out the confusions that exist around notions of academic freedom and freedom of expression. In part, academic freedom and shared governance are in such confused states because of the widespread precarity of university employment. But faculty (and not boards or managers) need to renew both academic freedom and shared governance.  We need to move beyond thinking of academic freedom solely as a negative liberty that is fundamentally individualist in nature (where the issue revolves around censorship), and think seriously about the responsible exercise of the right as a form of shared governance in higher education.  I hope to discuss this further but for now I can only note that until we are able to articulate a notion of academic freedom as a reasoned if passionate right of argument rooted in a notion of the university as a self-governing community we will find ourselves trapped within the economy of the troll.

To return to where I began, I don't think that it is a coincidence that the Trump administration's most immediate challenges to colleges and universities have come from his travel ban and his threats against undocumented students and workers.  In the Trumpist imagination that spoke to a sizable proportion of the American people, refugees and undocumented workers condense a wider set of issues relating both to the demands of women and internal minorities for greater equality and to international organizations that displaced the power of the traditional nation.  Colleges and universities, despite their failure to achieve many of their proclaimed goals of inclusion and access do represent institutions that exist as much in relation to international communities as local ones.  There is no avoiding that particular status.  Colleges will need to figure out new ways to serve both communities far better than they have done in the past.  The first step in that, though, is confronting the ways that social and economic inequalities as well as a loss of common social purpose have rendered colleges and universities far too much like the dominant culture.   Until, and unless, higher education can reclaim a social purpose beyond return on investment it will be blow in the wind in the face of the challenges of the present moment.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sunday, February 12, 2017
The turmoil surrounding Milo Yiannopoulos's visit to Berkeley has garnered national attention.  Despite the reality that UC Berkeley as an institution honored the invitation of the College Republicans and that the protests by campus members were peaceful and in accord with everyone's First Amendment rights (I say nothing here about the individuals who invaded the protest intent on violence) right-wing figures from President Trump on down have used the incident to inveigh against the University and to threaten its funding and demean its students and faculty.

The eagerness with which the Right has attacked UC Berkeley (both the institution and the students, faculty and administrators) should not surprise us: it is clear that there is now a concerted effort from Iowa to Tennessee to Wisconsin to North Carolina and beyond to undermine the academic autonomy of public universities and to decimate employee rights.  In this situation it is more important than ever that universities and their leadership stand firm in their defense of reasoned debate and dissent no matter whether they agree with it or not.  From my perspective, at least, Chancellor Dirks' statement as to why he would not prevent Yiannopoulos from speaking on campus did just that--elaborating his reasoning and attending to the arguments opposed to it.

Unfortunately, at least one Berkeley administrator failed in this responsibility.  As you probably know, a group of Berkeley faculty wrote a series of letters to the Chancellor calling for him to prevent Yiannopoulos from speaking on campus. As they argued:

Yiannopoulos’ deplorable views pass from protected free speech to incitement, harassment and defamation once they publicly target individuals in his audience or on campus, creating conditions for concrete harm and actually harming students through defamatory and harassing actions. Such actions are protected neither by free speech nor by academic freedom. For this reason, the university should not provide a platform for such harassment.

And as they point out, Yiannopoulos had indeed singled out an individual at a previous speech at UW Milwaukee.  One does not have to agree with the call to disinvite Yiannopoulos (personally I don't) to recognize that the letter makes a series of arguments that need to be taken seriously.

But that is not the tack taken by Carla Hesse, the Dean of Social Sciences at Berkeley. Instead, she entered into Donald J. Trump's favorite mode of communication to tweet: "Because the facts still matter: Of 1522 UCBerkeley faculty, 88 (6%) signed letter to Ban Milo."

Leaving aside the fact that this statement came from a dean who last year pointed out that there could be legitimate reasons for urging restraint on abusive speech or who earlier this year appeared to have no difficulty in suspending a student run course in Palestinian studies to look at its syllabus at precisely the point that outside groups had complained about it, and leaving aside the fact that she understated the numbers of signatories, the statement itself is unconscionable.   For what could be its possible purpose but to marginalize the faculty signers, many of whom teach in her division, some of whom are junior faculty?  Shouldn't a dean who is genuinely committed to academic freedom and the right to dissent have aimed to stress that the faculty members were engaged in a serious discussion of an important issue?  Isn't that what universities are for?  Even more importantly, why not point out that UC Berkeley has been engaged in a deeply serious and open discussion of free speech and academic freedom--arguably the most engaged one since the 1960s? Does the dean think that the validity of an argument depends on how many people are saying it?

Especially at a moment when colleges and universities are attacked when they allow criticism of the current policies of the state and the increasingly hostile denigration of those on the margins or in minorities, it is incumbent upon university administrators to support the efforts of students and faculty at their institutions offering reasoned and important dissent.  Dean Hesse's tweet failed that responsibility.  Let's hope that others do not fail as well.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Thursday, February 9, 2017
As you may recall, a bill to eliminate tenure was recently introduced into the Iowa State Senate. After a good deal of pushback it appears to have stalled.  But that doesn't mean that the state's Republicans are done trying to attack the rights of Iowa's public workers.  In their latest salvo, they are proposing to severely restrict the range of public employee collective bargaining (with the exception of police and firefighters) and also to make it more difficult to establish and maintain union representation. Although this is a widespread attack on all public employees, the proposed legislation will strike hard at the state's graduate student employees.

At the core of the proposed legislation are two important issues.  The first is to make it illegal to negotiate things like benefits or supplemental income or retirement.  In effect, the aim is to make it possible only to negotiate on wages and leave workers to the whims of their employers (or the Governor) as to issues such as health care.  Although University of Iowa officials have indicated that they would continue to maintain graduate student employees' health care, one never knows what would happen in the face of a gubernatorial decision to reduce benefits or in the case of funding cuts to the University.

The second and equally serious threat is posed in a change to the system for certifying unions.  The legislation would make it necessary for a union to get the vote of a majority of workers within a collective bargaining unit for the right to represent, as opposed to getting a majority of those casting a ballot.  This is a high hurdle for any union or any candidate: under these rules, the current Iowa Governor would not have been elected since he only received 59% of an electorate that was approximately 50% of the state's eligible voters.  It is especially burdensome to graduate student workers whose eligible unit members are so often in flux.  Moreover, the bill would force re-certification elections every two years.

In taking these steps, Iowa Republicans are seeking to undo a long-standing system of collective bargaining for public employees.  Since 1974 Iowa public employees have operated within a system that forbade strikes (and there haven't been any) in exchange for a system that recognized their right to bargain collectively over a wide set of issues.  Iowa's Republicans are now seeking to destroy that system and hamstring public employee unions.  Given the material constraints that graduate student workers (and graduate students more generally) live within, the most likely result is a reduction in Iowa graduate students' total compensation and quality of life.

But this is more than just an Iowa issue.  Iowa has long been a right-to-work state and its hostility to unions is clear.  But just as with Wisconsin, Iowa Republicans are part of a larger drive to attack unions and worker's collective rights across the country.  One Iowa Representative (along with one from South Carolina) has recently introduced a national right to work bill in the House of Representatives. These initiatives are not simply of local interest.  They threaten to roll back the recent gains that graduate students have obtained through the NLRB and the ability of academic workers everywhere to unionize and defend their interests through collective bargaining.   The result will be to worsen the working conditions and autonomy of academic professionals in general and further subject education itself to the dictates of politicians and managers.