Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / AP

The dismantling of higher education

Wisconsin’s decision to eliminate tenure protections is just latest tremor in the collapse of academic ideals

July 19, 2015 2:00AM ET

While researching a recent column for Al Jazeera America on the “killing of tenure” and what it means for the future of higher education, it became clear that the attempts by conservatives to dismantle the institution of tenure, highlighted by the Wisconsin legislature’s removal of previously statutory tenure protections, are only one component of a much wider array of threats to the profession of teaching and research.

For academics lucky enough to have tenure at an “R-1 research university” — one with “extensive” doctoral level graduate programs and support for faculty research as well as teaching — the erosion of traditional tenure protections is damaging because it threatens not only academic freedom but research and teaching that contribute hundreds of billions of dollars to U.S. GDP. The continued downtrend in funding for university research has paralleled and is tied to the erosion of tenure, academic freedom and shared governance more broadly. All these trends are tied to the corporatization of the university; that is, the increasingly privatized model of higher education which does away with shared governance and tenure in favor of centralized administration and contingent labor, puts profits and the bottom line ahead of the public good, and efficiency and “customer service” ahead of a well-rounded education that encourages critical inquiry and independent thought.

Vow of poverty

Today upwards of three-quarters of faculty members nationwide are working outside of the tenure system. This reorientation of the profession away from tenure, shared governance and academic freedom, which together formed the bedrock of the great American university system, has left contingent and tenure-line faculty alike to face an unprecedented array of obstacles to their economic, let alone professional, survival.

Indeed, upwards of a quarter of faculty with doctorates live below the poverty lineeight percentage points higher than the national average for all Americans. Think of this in the context of the American dream, where dedication and education are supposed to ensure a piece, however modest, of the American dream. If 10 years of intensive college and graduate study can’t even get a person a better salary than the average Walmart cashier, there is something profoundly wrong.

The Walmartization of higher education is of course part and parcel of the larger McDonaldization of American society, which devalues broad skill sets and critical thinking in favor of consumer-driven “choice” and a cheap and controllable workforce. As anthropologist Sarah Kendzior asks in perhaps the most viewed article in the history of Al Jazeera English, what does it mean when education has gone from being the great path out of poverty to being “a way into it”?

The threats to academic freedom and shared governance posed by a system of largely contingent academic labor are obvious. If you’re treading water around the poverty line and have no guarantee of a job three months down the line, you are going to be very reluctant to teach any subject that might challenge students or the powers that be in your community, whether it’s science that is literally verboten to discuss — such as climate change in Wisconsin — “divisive” ethnic studies in Arizona or “anti-Semitic” Palestinian history almost anywhere.

Situation no better in Europe

Such dire trends for the future of academic freedom are not restricted to the U.S. Colleagues abroad who responded to my article repeatedly mentioned the threats posed even to tenured faculty on their ability to continue to teach and research freely. In the U.K., tenure still exists formally, but continual “post tenure reviews” based on criteria set out by administrators based on publication in a narrow range of “high impact” journals make it very difficult to engage in innovative and unorthodox research. In Sweden — where professors are unionized and there remains a strong tradition of self-government — micromanaged ratios between teaching and research that are skewed heavily to the former leave almost no time for professional advancement. In Norway, mandatory research sabbaticals have been increasingly eliminated. Denmark has just experienced a round of severe “down-scaling” in the humanities and social sciences, leaving a third of the former number of professors on many campuses.

The voluntary surrender by tenured faculty of collective bargaining is weakening the very fabric of the profession beyond repair.

“Bringing your own money with you” is increasingly becoming the prerequisite for being hired and promoted at any senior level in the arts and humanities, which have always had far fewer funding resources available for research than the hard sciences.

“Once free research has been de-valued, it can be removed even from professors,” a Norwegian colleague said to me. “These changes have been effectuated by so-called ‘elected’ deans and chancellors. Since they always only favor what they think is worthwhile research, they are just as biased and politically pliable as any ‘externally appointed’ dean or chancellor.”

The casualization of researchers in the highly deprived environment of Italy, where there is almost no funding for research and high student-teacher ratios, has in words of an Italian colleague put to the lie the notion of an “academic community” which supports its members across the tenure divide. In fact, permanent faculty across Europe can be said to have been complicit not just in the creation of a class of casualized academic serfs, but of developing a continent-wide funding system that celebrates constantly mobile labor (through post-docs rather than permanent positions) whose rights and ability to research are ever more restricted. 

Academic labor

This lack of solidarity among tenured professors with their more precariously employed peers is one of the starkest similarities between the situation in Europe and the United States. (The situation in the developing world, with far fewer resources for higher education, is more precarious still.) Even at my home university, the University of California, allegedly a hotbed of left-wing radicalism, it’s proven nearly impossible to unionize faculty — despite the ability of our unionized colleagues in the California State University system to negotiate better packages for health care and pensions, among other issues). Meanwhile, the system leadership has just put forward a new policy which puts half of a 3 percent faculty pay raise in the hands of campus managers to distribute as they see fit to favored individual faculty, outside the existing system of peer-governed merit reviews.

The reality is that the majority of permanent faculty don’t understand that they are in fact part of the laboring classes. Even full professors (those not serving in a management or administrative capacity) have far more in common with the adjuncts they often barely know and for whose fate most have shown too little concern than with the overpaid administrators who increasingly control their future. The Wisconsin vote is the clearest evidence of their common lack of autonomy and security.

In this context, the voluntary surrender by tenured faculty of collective bargaining is weakening the very fabric of the profession beyond repair, allowing the corporatized university to assimilate more and more components of academic life, and put efficiency and profits ahead of providing a sustainable working, teaching and research environment for teachers and students alike. In this scenario the woes of the professoriate are but a canary in the coalmine of the fatal undermining of middle class across the West, from Athens, Georgia, to Athens, Greece. The decline of American higher education is part of a global process, and as with most labor struggles, it will be the rank-and-file of the academic world who must join together across disciplinary, economic, social and even national divides before higher education can again fulfill its crucial function as a foundation and wellspring for the greater good.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine and a distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He is a co-editor, with Mathias Mossberg, of “One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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