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Twilight of the Professors

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Twenty-eight years ago Russell Jacoby argued in The Last Intellectuals that the post-WWII expansion of higher education in the U.S. absorbed a generation of radicals who opted to become professors rather than freelance intellectual troublemakers. The constraints and rewards of academic life, according to Jacoby, effectively depoliticized many professors of leftist inclinations. Instead of writing in the common tongue for the educated public, they were carrot and sticked into writing in jargon for tiny academic audiences. As a result, their political force was largely spent in the pursuit of academic careers.

Jacoby acknowledges that universities gave refuge to dissident thinkers who had few other ways to make a decent living. He also grants that careerism did not make it impossible to publish radical work or to teach students to think critically about capitalist society. The problem is that the demands of academic careers made it harder to reach the heights achieved by public intellectuals of the previous generation. We thus ended up with, to paraphrase Jacoby, a thousand leftist sociologists but no C. Wright Mills.

Since Jacoby’s book was published, things have gotten worse. There are still plenty of left-leaning professors in U.S. colleges and universities. But as an employment sector, higher education has changed. There are now powerful conservatizing trends afoot that will likely lead to the extinction of professors as a left force in U.S. society within a few decades.

One major change is that the expanding academic job market that Jacoby observed is now shrinking. When the market for professors was growing, as it was in the 1960s and 1970s, radicals could get jobs in universities, earn tenure, and do critical intellectual work, even if it was often muted by a desire for conventional academic rewards. Today, tenure-track jobs are fewer and farther between. In response to reduced budgets and out of a desire for a more “flexible”—that is, cheap, pliable, and disposable—labor force, university administrators have cut tenure-track lines, preferring to hire faculty on a temporary, part-time, non-tenure-track basis.

This tightening of the academic job market has intensified competition for the tenure-track jobs that remain. Under these conditions, it is prudent—as each new cohort of graduate students discovers—to focus one’s efforts on publishing in academic journals and avoid rocking any boats, in print or in the classroom. Graduate students are advised that Facebook pages and Tweets should be crafted with the concerns of prospective employers in mind. Anticipation of a competitive job market thus begins to conservatize students early in their graduate careers.

The contingent employment that awaits many of today’s graduate students and that is the fact of life for many of today’s faculty is further conservatizing. Although all faculty are supposed to enjoy academic freedom, contingent faculty whose writing or teaching causes trouble are easily dismissed. A contract is simply not renewed, or a department chair says, “Sorry, we have no sections for you to teach,” and that’s the end of the matter. This precarious situation conduces to playing it safe, making no demands, and keeping students happy. Then there is the practical matter of how much research and writing one can do while trying to piece together a living by teaching four or more courses per semester, often at exploitively low wages.

Competition for jobs and contingent employment are the easier-to-see conservatizing forces. Others are less obvious. One of these is the growth of online instruction. This form of instruction turns a course—something once understood to be a mix of scripted and improvised performance under the control of a professor—into an ownable piece of intellectual property that can be administratively inspected and altered. Knowing that every detail of what one does as an instructor leaves an electronic record, subject at any time to administrative review, can be inhibiting at best and chilling at worst. The best bet, again, is to keep the material and discourse on safe ground.

Conservatizing forces are affecting tenure-track and tenured faculty as well. Budget cuts have led to increased pressure to get grants—an academic ball game that favors normal science and conventionality. Austerity has also intensified internal competition for resources, a competition that has in turn led to greater productivity demands (We must publish more, lest we look bad compared to department X!) backed up by more stringent post-tenure review procedures. All this tends to keep faculty oriented to doing pedestrian academic work. While there is no rule against cultivating a role as a public intellectual, there is only so much time in the day, and professors, like other workers, come to devote themselves to doing what they will be held accountable for and rewarded for.

Then there are the usual conservative attacks on professors. These are nothing new. From the elders of Athens to Andrew Carnegie to Reed Irvine to David Horowitz to today’s know-nothing Republican legislators, blasting professors for asking disturbing questions and pointing out inconvenient truths is standard cultural and class warfare. For the most part, such attacks, at least since the end of the McCarthy era, have been deflected by traditions of free speech, academic freedom, and tenure. Yet here again new economic and political realities have made these attacks more ominous.

When right-wing legislators control state governments, their anti-intellectualism can have serious upshot. It’s not just that budgets for public universities can and have been cut because of legislators’ hostility to non-vocational higher education, it’s that professors are increasingly aware that their public statements can draw retribution. Here in North Carolina in the past year we have seen centers and institutes in the UNC system closed because faculty associated with these centers and institutes offended Republican legislators. No professors lost their jobs, but nor did anyone fail to see that a warning shot had been fired.

Some North Carolina Republican legislators even tried to dictate higher teaching loads for UNC system faculty and to forbid state employees, including professors, from using any work time or state resources to so much as comment on public issues. Both proposals were promptly quashed by saner heads. But again the message was clear: We are watching you and, if we can, we will use our political power to cut you off at the knees. This is not a battle peculiar to North Carolina. Similar struggles are occurring in Wisconsin and other states where ALEC-driven Republicans are in control.

A widening embrace of neoliberal ideology amplifies these threats. Austerians and free marketeers want public universities to operate like vo-tech schools and to serve as think tanks for big business. And so they have targeted for elimination programs in the social sciences and humanities. The claim is that because these programs do not lead to jobs and do little to advance capitalist enterprise, taxpayer money should not be used to support them. This is a view that appeals to middle- and working-class voters whose wages have stagnated and whose taxes have risen. It’s also a view that could lead to an eventual gutting of the liberal arts in public universities, and thus even fewer jobs for PhDs who might aspire to be public intellectuals.

I have been referring mainly to public research universities, in part because they are what I know best. But it is also because of their value and vulnerability that public research universities are of special concern. These universities are supposed to operate in the public interest, thus giving faculty warrant to speak about policy issues and social problems. And unlike teaching-oriented schools, research universities expect faculty to publish. For these reasons, public research universities have had the potential to nurture critical intellectual work. Yet precisely because they are taxpayer supported, at least in part, they are vulnerable to attacks by neoliberal ideologues.

Prestigious private universities are a different story. They are not vulnerable to the same kinds of budget manipulation and demagogic rhetoric about the proper use of taxpayer money. Faculty in these schools have ample time and generous support for research and writing. Ivy League schools are also happy to see their faculty achieve celebrity status. With a few exceptions, however, Ivy League professors who achieve public visibility do so as house intellectuals for the nation’s elite; they are more likely to be legitimators of the status quo than its radical critics. The path to tenure at Harvard does not go through publication in Monthly Review.

Some colleagues with whom I’ve spoken about the demise of professors as public intellectuals have told me not to worry. It’s true, they admit, that we might not have the towering figures of the past, but today we have thousands of websites, blogs, and Twitter feeds through which ordinary professors, those without national fame, can reach a wide audience. For self-serving reasons, I would like to believe this. We indeed have more ways to put out ideas and information than in the pre-Internet era. But I am not so easily comforted.

Even if there are more potential outlets for critical analysis, the same conservatizing forces noted above—tougher job competition, contingent employment, surveillable online instruction, demands for grant-getting and conventional forms of productivity, more stringent accountability regimes, legislative monitoring and related attacks—continue to gain strength. So even if there are new means for reaching non-academic audiences, most professors have good reasons to ignore them. You want to Tweet, blog, or write for websites? That’s fine, just do it in your spare time and don’t expect to be rewarded for it. And be careful what you say.

In 2008, Frank Donoghue, an English professor at Ohio State University, published The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. Donoghue says, and I agree, that being a professor is still a great job—it affords status, decent pay, autonomy, control over one’s work, and a measure of democratic control over one’s workplace—but today the job is being degraded by the drive for greater managerial control of the university. Professors, especially at the middle and lower tiers of academia, are thus ceasing to be the self-directed, curiosity-driven intellectual workers they once were, or could have been. Despite the undeniable corporatization of the university, when I first read Donoghue’s book I thought he was being alarmist. Now I think he was too cautious.

Just as the public intellectuals that Jacoby reveres began to fade when their economic niche eroded such that they could no longer survive by freelance writing for engaged publics, so too with professors. The niche that once supported critical intellectual work in the university and allowed professors to offer independent analysis to a wide audience is changing. These changes will ever more strongly discourage professors, even tenured ones, from aspiring to or becoming public left intellectuals. What remains after that is likely to be merely academic.

Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at MLSchwalbe@nc.rr.com

Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at MLSchwalbe@nc.rr.com

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