Thursday, September 2, 2010

Who Benefits from the Death of Academia?

Corporate structures and conservative political forces that support them are seething with hatred towards the last place in America where people don't have to slave 60 hours a week, 50 weeks a year without job security, guaranteed leave, etc.: the academia. They will not rest until they destroy us because while we exist, we will serve as a reminder to everybody else that some freedom from corporate slavery is possible. Everybody but the academics have accepted as normal and unavoidable things like at-will firing, no job security, all kinds of discrimination and abuse from their employers, no meaningful benefits, and the necessity to give up your opinions, your voice, your dignity, and your leisure just to eke out a very modest living.

Recently, there has been a flurry of articles in popular press arguing that the institution of tenure should be abolished. The authors of those articles made no secret of their desire to corporatize the university. Their main (or, actually, their only) argument for abolishing tenure was that since companies can fire people at will, so should colleges. Many academics dismissed these articles as meaningless rantings of some very stupid and anti-intellectual people. Well, stupid and anti-intellectual they might be, but apparently, many corporate-minded administrators across the country have gotten the message that time has come to rob academia of tenure. The University of Southern Mississippi is firing 14 tenured faculty members without any compunction or debate:
Twenty-nine faculty members, including 14 tenured full and associate professors, have been notified they will be terminated for the 2011-12 academic year. President Martha Saunders sent out a campus-wide e-mail Monday morning outlining the cuts that come "at a time of record enrollment and unparalleled successes within the university community."Her e-mail included a breakdown of all recommended budget reductions, including those absorbed by each college. The College of Arts and Letters took the most damage to the tune of $918,000 and 10 faculty members, while the College of Science and Technology incurred the least with $644,000 and three faculty members cut.
The message is clear: technology good, arts and letters bad and useless. Who needs thinking, independent individuals in Southern Mississippi? Obviously, no one. At least, not any more. This so-called "university" will now produce nothing but compliant and terrified little robots who will be ready to bend themselves backwards to do the bidding of their corporate masters and never dare even question why they have to live and work in such inhuman conditions.

What is especially sad, although not surprising in the least, is that people at the University of Southern Mississippi have launched no noticeable campaign to save themselves and their colleagues from being fired. I have searched everywhere I could on the Internet, but there seems to be no trace of any struggle by these academics against these unfair firing policies. Our Canadian and British colleagues don't take this type of abuse lying down. Academics at Swansea University and University of Toronto are fighting hard to keep their programs from being destroyed. In the US, however, people are so accustomed to having no rights in the workplace that you can do pretty much anything to them and they will thank you obsequiously and pathetically for not spitting in their faces even more than you already do.


Pagan Topologist said...

Yes, this is very bad. Collective bargaining helps some, I think, but the tide is against us it seems. I just hope we can hold on and keep up the pressure to protect academic freedom. Of course, as conservatives often like to point out, tenure is something we pay for in lower salaries than we would get otherwise.

I dislike agreeing with conservatives, ever, but I think they may be correct on this one. In 1997, I happened to find out that some new Ph.D. graduates going into industry were getting starting salaries equal to what I, as a tenured full professor with 29 years experience at the time, was getting.

I believe that tenure is worth this extreme cost, because of the protection that it (at least in theory) affords to people taking unpopular positions.

eric said...

There has been an ongoing McCarthyesque campaign by conservatives to root out "liberalism" in universities. By eradicating tenure, however, market forces will take over: less people will have incentive to choose careers in academia, meaning less college instructors, especially in humanities and the arts. Being that most of the people staffing ad agencies have degrees in humanities, arts, media, and social sciences, and advertising is the key to success for any company, the net effect will be to leave the US economy sliding further into the abyss. So much for conservatives being pro-business!

David Gendron said...

Right now, the problem is that Academia and Corporate Nazi structures are state-made creatures. And in the interest of the capitalist system, you can be sure that Corporate Nazies will prevail in this battle.

We have to consider that academia could be something even more powerful in a non-state fashion...

Clarissa said...

We were just told that our new departmental Chair should have "strong managerial skills and no interest in scholarship." I heard Goldman sachs had to let many people go. I'm sure they fit in perfectly with this description.

Richard said...

Lamentably the issues you raise in this article are not new. When the former Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik the hue and cry went up among American politicians and educators that we urgently needed more “science and math” classes to increase the numbers of engineers and scientists. The Liberal Arts were immediately targeted as clearly irrelevant to this perceived need.
This in turn led Academia to establish three erroneous premises which have influenced academic decision making since then:
1) If education in science and technology is expanded, the U.S. will clearly have more scientists and engineers;
2) The Liberal Arts (including social science) have no practical value and merely divert promising students away from the ‘hard’ sciences and technical studies;
3) Foreign language training is the equivalent of English literature in a foreign language and is of no practical value.
These premises are demonstrably false, but the education community (including universities) has clung to them with the fervor of religious conviction.
The first premise is based on the lunatic belief that with the proper training anyone can be a scientist or engineer. In point of fact only a relatively small number of persons in any society have the aptitude to be scientists and only slightly larger number have any hope of becoming competent engineers. Put simplistically among other attributes a good scientist has an insatiable curiosity on why things happen and a good engineer has the same curiosity in how they happen. Such things can’t be taught.
The second premise is based on a profound misunderstanding of the role of knowledge in a modern society. The ability to sort through information to determine the relevant and true from the inaccurate and false is the essence of effective management and decision making. This ability is exactly what one learns in any properly run liberal arts program.
The third premise is perhaps the most pernicious of all. It reflects an appalling ignorance on language as a tool of understanding and commerce. It suggest that too many in the U.S. (and UK) academic communities are so insular and out of touch that the revolution in Globalization has completely passed them by.
In any event this is how a non-academic sees it.

NancyP said...

Increasing the emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) education is a good thing.

Increasing the requirement for writing essays, factual and critical reports, and 250 to 500 word summaries should apply to STEM as well as humanities courses at the undergraduate level.

An introduction to rhetoric, debate, logic, and very elementary principles of statistics should be required for all undergraduates. "Media criticism" should be included as well, if possible.

STEM majors should have humanities course requirements. Humanities majors should have STEM course requirements. All undergraduates need to be challenged to understand basic principles of analysis in both STEM and humanities disciplines, and to be able to critique popular-level media.

If we had such an approach to education, perhaps fewer people would call evolution "just a theory" without understanding the definition of scientific theory. Perhaps people would be more likely to notice error and manipulation in debate, and to consider not only the speaker's (or media) statement but the speaker's (media) omissions.

Languages should be offered in early grade school, instead of being first offered in middle school or high school.

Richard said...

Nancy P. raises an important point about language training. In Belgium Flemish children are taught French beginning in first grade. American children whose parents put them into local Flemish schools in the first grade remarkably learned French and Flemish to go along with their English easily.

Clarissa said...

And there is a lot of evidence that learning a second language allows kids to improve their results even in disciplines such as math, physics and natural sciences.

Also, children who learn a second language at an early age at school face less problems with their socialization.

Anonymous said...

My university fired dozens of employees this summer. We are on a hiring freeze for the next three years and there is no tenure-track opening for new professors. The university runs on visiting positions.

But one of our new flamant trustess is a former administrator for Goldman Sachs...

Of course nobody seems to care much...


profacero said...

Well, we have a lot of STEM requirements but this does not seem to help. Remember pastors and parents have more power over peoples' hearts and minds than does school!

On the cuts at USM, well this article was sent around my university a few days ago as the harbinger of things to come.

People are horrified but I went through the feeling of horror about 18 months ago when I figured out this was our future.

I think the reason more people don't fight is that they feel we've already lost -- so much ground has already been lost.

If I had been smart enough to have organized a second source of steady income long ago, I'd fight harder than I am (not that I'm not fighting). But a lot of people have a lot of debt and not a lot of savings, due to student loans and low pay, and they have to put energy into looking for work, and this cuts into the fighting time.

That, as I see it, is a result of a much larger problem in the US, namely, the idea that one doesn't have rights at work. Add to that the impression that one cannot win against the revised definition of one's profession that some consulting and ed biz firms have convinced the administration are "more professional" or "more adequate for the 21st century" ... and you get American quietism.

(And quiet desperation, and the Tea Party, of course.)

Anonymous said...

I used to be an administrator at The University of Southern Mississippi; I took a master's degree there, as well.

I can't really begin to describe the culture at USM; it's something you have to experience. Most of the administrative departments hire graduates of the university so departments are fairly stagnant. There's a heavy focus on expanding the (non-academic) physical plant.

Academic under preparedness is a huge issue for the university. There are, or where, plenty of feel good "We're focused on student success!" initiatives when I was there, but their impact was negligible.

I cannot tell you how many junior/senior students would come in to my office to show me term papers with low marks because of basic mistakes in grammar and syntax.

Visible faculty protests at USM have historically ended badly for the faculty, but the students are protesting quite loudly, and it appears to be working to some extent.

Clarissa said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences, Anonymous!

Anonymous said...

The way I see it, nowadays the academy are more into progress (technology), than process (education).