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Universities, Inc.

We use shorthand for evaluating faculty: “She is productive.” We don’t necessarily have in mind a steel worker toiling in Andrew Carnegie’s factories but, given one’s orientation, perhaps a Hero of Socialist Labor. Factory work may be too grubby a metaphor for genteel academics. The antonym is worse: Loser, slacker, non-publisher. Generational politics are in play as young faculty who publish have seized power from an older generation born before the baby boom. We boomers decamped the New Left after the sixties, entering academic life in order to make a difference, which we did in part by publishing.

Russell Jacoby’s lament for the demise of independent intellectuals such as Susan Sontag and Lewis Mumford always resonated. We ex-New Leftists imagine ourselves to be public intellectuals who also held down university jobs, defying his observation that academia amounts to vita padding. C. Wright Mills, Todd Gitlin, Howard Zinn and Hannah Arendt are among those who pay the bills via tenure but write large books that treat of important societal issues. It took time to become untangled from the obscurantist examples of Frankfurt School role models in order to find a pitch at which we could be heard by undergraduate students and even by Barnes & Noble trade readers. Although borrowing from Habermas the ideal of the public sphere as a talkative democracy, I worry that a digital public sphere blurs the boundary between public and private. Self-revelation goes public via social media as people overshare.

Since the sixties and Sputnik, the public research university has been profoundly transformed as states have massively disinvested in public higher education. Universities are barely state assisted and not state supported, transforming the job of college president into fund raiser. Simply making the academic payroll preoccupies senior academic administrators who patch together paltry state budgets with grant dollars and gifts from football-loving donors. Universities must hire rain makers, especially in STEM disciplines, in order to keep the lights on in the offices of faculty like me who purvey critical theory and cultural studies. Without “productive” electrical engineers and biologists, with large start-up packages used to leverage funded research, the 21st public research university couldn’t stay open. Paul Campos, in a controversial April 4, 2015 New York Times essay, contests the notion that universities receive less funding from the state, arguing that higher tuition can be blamed on the hiring and handsome compensation of additional administrators.

During this disinvestment, academic administrators morphed into CEOs responsible for budget. Their notion of “productivity” is different than ours. They seek faculty who could augment the university budget, through grants, and who conduct “applied” research that fit the agenda of Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex, which becomes the military-industrial-educational complex. Two consequences of the emergence of an administrative professional-managerial class are the decline of faculty governance and the establishment of command-and-control measures designed to keep faculty working hard. “Workload,” and its measurement, is suddenly in the air as neoconservative politicians and CEO-like academic administrators redouble their commitments to get a day’s work for a day’s pay from otherwise
aggeroverunaccountable tenured faculty. Predictably, in this environment, tenure itself has come under attack, and many universities now subject tenured faculty to post-tenure review. No matter that tenure protects academic freedom, as it has since McCarthyism.

And so we who use shorthand, such as the term productivity, need to rethink the implications of our discourse. Productive used to mean she-who-publishes. Now, it means she-who-gets-grants and does applied work. We have leapt from the need to make a payroll during an era of diminished state support of higher education to a general utilitarianism and vocationalism that threaten to change academic life irrevocably.

For their part, junior faculty are encouraged to view themselves as civil servants with a well-defined career ladder. Understandably, they obsess over how “much” it takes to get tenure. These are post-boomers who didn’t cut their teeth on the civil-rights movement or anti-war protest and who don’t necessarily share our conception of the university as a site of social justice and an opening to a public sphere in which intellectual debate matters. They accept new norms of productivity, and they negotiate for handsome “start-up” funds with which to jump start their own careers. Start up, in my prehistoric era, was a used IBM typewriter. One has the sense that many post-boomer faculty could as well be running restaurants, flipping houses, or occupying a corporate cubicle. The politically engaged public intellectual of the sixties has given way to the academic who tweets.

Eventually, young faculty age, as we have. Academic careers have seasons, and rates of productivity vary. It is tempting to view people over 50 or 55 who publish heavily as compulsive. But faculty-accountability measures, which were borne of Frederick Taylor’s time-and-motion studies in early-20th century capitalism, standardize “output,” whereas the life of the mind cannot be reduced to a business or tracked on a production schedule. People may have gaps in their vita as they explore new fields and read more deeply into their current fields. The point of tenure is to give people time to think and re-think as well as to avoid political censorship.

College presidents, who must beg and borrow at every turn, need to pose the argument, to legislators, tax payers and tuition payers, that human capital produces capital, that academic credentialing adds value, albeit often hidden value. This is rhetorical and political work. People of my style call this “valorization,” tracing value creation to its often-hidden roots in domestic labor, children’s labor and—here—college teaching. In plain language, 21st century laptop capitalism requires universities to teach skills and values. Whether all this can be outsourced to online credit-hour providers is debatable. Many contingent college professors merely read the textbook faster than students, but don’t contribute their own research to the literatures they expound. Adjuncts form an industrial reserve army at a time when tenure-track employment is disappearing, especially in non-grantable fields. Post-tenure review is matched by the disappearance of tenure-track employment. Clearly, tenure thwarts administrative flexibility.

This is not to deny that some tenured and tenure-track faculty, given the overwhelming emphasis on research output, don’t care enough about students, nor are rewarded for caring. My premise is that students are best taught by caring faculty who are intellectual leaders in their fields. My wife and I have college-age children.

We must be careful not to get swallowed whole by our own discourse as we convince capital that universities produce human capital. As universities are forced to become business-like, we should be wary about adopting a business model of all things. We need gadflies, poets, and activists, too. We want a university—and society– in which people question the meaning of “productivity.” For academic life to become a career ladder adds momentum to the tsunami of anti-intellectualism so abundant in our media culture and political discourse.

Ben Agger works in critical theory and cultural/media studies at University of Texas-Arlington and directs the Center for Theory there. Among his recent books are Oversharing and Texting Toward Utopia.

 

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