Friday, November 5, 2010

What is the University? A Call to Dialogue and Action

The last two decades have witnessed a revolution in higher education. A couple hundred years of tradition has been under attack and the University has been transformed from a place of free thought and inquiry into a corporation. As graduate students in the 1990s we began to witness this hostile takeover as bastions of critical thought and free inquiry such as area studies, Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies came under attack by right wing business interests. These areas of the social sciences and humanities asked questions about power, inequality and social systems. They found that the social structures in our society, the political system, economic system, patriarchy and homophobia undermined claims to freedom and equality made by subordinated peoples. Many used the information gained from such inquiry to press for social change and social justice. The successes led to a series of backlashes from ‘traditional’ seats of power. “Family Values,” Christian conservatism, Dinesh D’Souza, Linda Chavez, the Promise Keepers, English-Only Campaigns and the like were marshaled by conservatives to realign the power they felt they had lost.

Attacks on progressive thought in the academy, economic conservatism of the Reagan years and repressive politics opened the door for the entreprenuerialization of the university. The university became a business enterprise. Those units that could pull in private monies through grants and donations (mostly from the business elite and conservative organizations) were privileged. Areas that relied less on the patronage of big business were deemed marginal to the new university. The Republican Revolution left gaps in university-funding and the less lucrative areas of the university were cut. Those areas of the university that could contribute to the development of military technology (engineering, computers, military science), pharmaceuticals, or business development (read: capitalist development) loaned their graduate students and professors to business and the military to innovate and were granted darling status on their campuses. Those areas which questioned capitalism, militarism, colonialism, sexism, etc. began to find it hard to survive.

At the same time, a new class was developing: the professional administrator. Members of this new class were trained in business principles and market thought processes. Administrators who had never stepped foot in front of a classroom nor trained in critical analysis and pedagogy were taught the language of business and ‘professionalism.’ The crisis of the university opened the doors of opportunity for the professional administrator to take over the university from the scholars and educators. The everyday running of the university was ripped from the hands of faculty and former faculty in administrative positions. The business model replaced the model of developing thoughtful, engaged citizens. The critical language of Foucault, Lorde, Marx, Spivak, Fanon, Anzaldua, Althusser, and Butler, among many others, was replaced by ‘best practices,’ ‘data mining,’ ‘customer service,’ ‘right-sizing,’ dress codes, productive efficiency, time and motion studies, time management, economic determinism and surveillance. Foucault’s panoptican reached the halls of the academy like never before.

We went from “express yourself!” to “pull your pants up!” in one generation. Everything including thought would be privatized, corporatized, surveilled and quantified. Everything has its price. For how much will we sell our university to the corporatists? For less than a six-figure salary?

This is a call to dialogue and action. We have witnessed the erosion of our campus from a university to a business. We are witnessing a hostile takeover; a slow death. The shenanigans of the Board of Trustees in the Spring of 2008 whereby the decision to name our own leaders was stolen from the faculty, students and staff of the university was the latest in a long line of maneuvers that has brought corporate think to the university. Faculty and staff see cuts and layoffs (‘right-sizing,’ the preferred euphemism of the professional administrative class), departments and programs are threatened with closing, staff is made to work harder for the same pay and then ordered to pay more just to park, decisions in areas of faculty expertise such as faculty hiring and appointing of chairs and deans are made by non-faculty entities and there is talk of ending tenure. Moreover, there is an attack on faculty and students. Everything that is wrong with the university according to corporate speak results from lazy and irresponsible students or incompetent faculty. Chairs and Deans have been asked to ramp up surveillance of faculty making sure we are in our classrooms during posted class times. Besides turning scholars into cops, such directives illustrate the professional administrative class’ low level of understanding of teaching and learning.

[Sidebar] What does informal dress have to do with learning? In the dozens of classes involving thousands of students that I have taught over nearly two decades learning has never been disrupted because a student dressed provocatively or poorly. Those who claim learning is hindered as a result of student dress should re-evaluate. Perhaps, it is only you who can not think when a student wears provocative clothes or is dressed down. For myself, I think best when I’m in my pajamas. This raises the questions: Whose university is this? Who should have the power to enact regulations over expression? Are we really ready for another lawsuit? What’s next? Standard American English-only? Bans on long fingernails and hair extensions? A finishing school?

Yet, all is not lost. As the business model proves anathema to the university mission, more and more of us realize the problems. It seems time that faculty, staff, and students understand the nature of the university and the roles we play in it. We require the development of a coherent, cohesive, faculty, student and staff vision through democratic dialogue and consensus-building (which are anathema to the anti-democratic, hierarchical, capitalist ethics and organization touted by the business model). Last Fall nearly 500 members of the campus participated in a teach-in to begin the process. Many important ideas and relationships were forged. Can we continue this productive dialogue? Can we engage each other in dialogue and action to save the university?

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