SOURCE: Providence Sunday Journal ()
Titles of books warning of threats to American higher education often sound apocalyptic, from Page Smith’s Killing the Spirit (1990), to Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins (1995), to Harry Lewis’ Excellence Without a Soul (2006). Ellen Schrecker’s new book fits right in.
Schrecker, a noted scholar of McCarthyism, starts by defining academic freedom and tracing its evolution since the American Association of University Professors’ 1915 “Declaration of Principles.” This works well until she hits the 1960s, when her penchant for seeing villains only on the right gets the best of her.
“To what extent the disorders of the 1960s can be considered violations of academic freedom remains an open question,” Schrecker says. Really? When she characterizes gun-toting activists at Cornell as seeking merely to “emphasize their concern” about campus issues, and glides by the implications of students’ demands at places like San Francisco State that academic credentials be set aside when hiring faculty, she reveals a serious analytical blind spot.
Once past the ‘60s and the subsequent “culture wars,” however, Schrecker’s perspective is more clear-eyed, particularly when describing the problems posed by “corporatization” and “casualization” of the university’s teaching force. Universities’ increasingly relentless pursuit of federal and private funding (to say nothing of patent-based profits) poses subtle but unmistakable threats to academic freedom and to the effective pursuit of research breakthroughs in many fields. Priorities are skewed; faculty deemed insufficiently entrepreneurial are skewered. The Golden Rule? “The one with the gold makes the rules.”
Faculty are increasingly vulnerable as teachers, too. Two-thirds of college courses are taught by adjuncts, paid by the course, with no prospect of tenure, no time for their own research, and no enduring commitment to the schools where they teach. Students and parents appear not to notice.
In the epilogue, Schrecker worries that “Perhaps I paint too grim a picture. Perhaps the current crisis will finally rouse the nation’s faculties to put aside their internal divisions and…restore the intellectual vitality of American higher education and renew its democratic mission.” She shouldn’t hold her breath. Expecting professors to rally their colleagues (much less the public, which often sees academic freedom as a perk for the self-indulgent) against the market-model university and the forces that drive it is, to put it gently, unrealistic. Even--perhaps especially--in the Great Recession, the market mentality is reshaping institutions and driving individual careers. Perhaps that apocalyptic title is appropriate after all.