Academic freedom and the new corporate university

Posted: 27 June 2017 in Uncategorized
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Academic freedom is under assault within the new corporate university.

No, the problem is not the much-publicized kerfuffle surrounding recent talks by Charles Murray and other right-wing speakers on U.S. college campuses. That’s what students do: they try to be provocative. Small conservative student groups, emboldened by Donald Trump’s victory and with financing from off-campus groups, invite incendiary speakers to their campuses—and then other students protest those visits. It’s much ado about nothing, except of course when official academic units and administrators lend their names to the invitations and events.

The most disturbing challenge to academic freedom right now is something else: the unilateral decisions by academic administrators to curtail the speech of faculty members.

Just yesterday morning, the Washington Post reported that two professors were fired for expressing controversial views. One, at the University of Delaware, was an adjunct professor who suggested that Otto Warmbier, the American student whose death last week after being imprisoned in North Korea drew worldwide attention, was a “clueless white male” who “got exactly what he deserved.” Another adjunct professor, at Essex County College in Newark, was first suspended and then fired for defending a Black Lives Matter chapter’s decision to host a Memorial Day event exclusively for black people.

In both instances, adjunct professors—who, with other other members of the academic precariat, now make up close to two-thirds of the faculty employed in U.S. colleges and universities—were fired for making public comments academic administrators deemed unsuitable.

And then there’s the case of a tenured professor in the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s [ht: mfa] History Department who found out that his dean made his chair cancel a class he had been scheduled to teach.

It so happens that [Jay] Smith’s class dealt with a topic that unsettled powerful forces on campus: the place of “big-time athletics” in higher education. This issue is a sore spot for UNC-Chapel Hill, which is still recovering from a major “athletics-academics” scandal first revealed several years ago—about which, it so happens, Smith had been particularly outspoken.

In the new academy, faculty governance has been replaced by top-down decision-making and academic administrators treat everything—from employment contracts to course offerings—just like the executives of any other corporation. If they add to the bottom-line, faculty members are rewarded; if they don’t, contracts are terminated and courses are cancelled.

That’s how the new corporate university operates in the United States. It’s not student protests but academic administrators that are creating a chilling effect, by circumscribing faculty speech and ultimately undermining academic freedom.

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