BADER: Review of The Lost Soul of Higher Education

June 1, 2010
Eleanor J. Bader

Ellen Schrecker, a history professor at New York City's Yeshiva University, starts "The Lost Soul of Higher Education" with a blunt assessment: "In reacting to the economic insecurities of the past forty years, the nation's colleges and universities have adopted corporate practices that degrade undergraduate instruction, marginalize faculty members, and threaten the very mission of the academy as an institution devoted to the common good."

 

It's depressing stuff. And sadly, there is a wealth of evidence to support Schrecker's assertion. She starts by introducing the concept of academic freedom - the notion that teachers should be able to present ideas, both popular and not, without fear of reprisal.

 

Sounds great. Yet, reality, Schrecker writes, is somewhat different, for while rhetoric in support of academic freedom is plentiful, neither pedagogical nor personal autonomy have ever had free rein on campus. Howard Zinn, for one, was fired from Spellman College 50 years ago for supporting sit-ins against then-rampant racial segregation. More recently, Professor Norman Finkelstein, a prominent critic of Israel, was denied tenure at DePaul University following a campaign led by Harvard Professor Alan M. Dershowitz. Similarly, Native-American studies Professor Ward Churchill lost his post at the University of Colorado after a campaign by right-wing ideologues slammed his scholarship as inauthentic. Other examples abound and Schrecker makes clear that "tenure cannot protect a controversial professor when an institution wants him out ... Contrary to common assumptions, tenure does not grant its holders guaranteed life time employment."

 

Never was this clearer than during Joe McCarthy's witch hunts. Schrecker zeros in on three University of Washington professors who were fired because of purported ties to the Communist Party. Two of them admitted membership; the third, Ralph Gundlach, did not. Gundlach's dismissal, Schrecker writes, was the first test of academic freedom in the early 1950s. "Other institutions soon followed and before the anti-communist furor abated in the mid 1950's, more than one hundred college teachers lost jobs or were denied tenure because of their politics."

 

Two things are particularly striking about the University of Washington's actions. The first is that in none of the cases was teaching an issue. "It was the off-campus political activities of these men and particularly, their insistence that the institution's investigations not only violated their academic freedom but also interfered with their First Amendment freedom of speech and association that cost them their jobs," Schrecker concludes. Secondly, the fact that their colleagues allowed these dismissals to happen, with nary a peep of protest, is shameful. At the same time, Schrecker reminds us that despite right-wing assertions, the academy is not now and has never been a bastion of left-wing sentiment. In fact, only a handful of faculty members have ever been militant activists. "In an influential 1969 Carnegie Foundation study of the professoriate, Everett Carll Ladd, Jr. and Seymour Martin Lipset found that only five percent of the more than 60,000 professors they surveyed were willing to identify themselves as radical," she writes. Forty-one years later, there is nothing to suggest that the number has increased.

 

Schrecker's sweeping historical overview also makes another important point: Unlike the politically reactionary 1950s, the 1960s gave rise to numerous social movements which led to unprecedented campus activism. These movements made it possible for at least some faculty members to voice political opinions and speak out about issues like the Vietnam War, racism and educational equity.

 

Call it the heyday of academic freedom, a time when a cadre of professors and graduate teaching assistants - prompted by student activists - took it upon themselves to push for the creation of ethnic and women's studies departments and classes in such fast-developing disciplines as queer theory. Furthermore, alongside student groups, they demanded expanded financial aid and open enrollment. Their goal, they argued, was to literally change the complexion of higher education.

 

Not surprisingly, a few years down the road, the backlash that led Richard Nixon into the White House hit academia and, almost overnight, nontraditional courses were under attack for promoting specious, "dumbed down," intellectual discourse.

 

A small number of university faculty members opted to unionize - or try - as a way of maintaining their toehold on power, but most did not. As a result, by the mid-1970s, campus activism was waning and men like Allan Bloom, Donald Kagan and James Reston found media outlets eager for their audience-grabbing rants about on-campus immorality and the left-wing indoctrination of unsuspecting kids. Conservative donors were overjoyed by this outpouring and rushed to create groups including The American Enterprise Institute, The National Association of Scholars [NAS], The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni [ACTA]. Schrecker calls this confluence a catalyst and writes that it "accelerated the rate at which neoconservative and market-oriented studies were produced and gave them far more visibility and influence than they night otherwise have received."

 

Suddenly, the term "political correctness" was part of everyday discourse and "white man as endangered species" went from punch line to cause for alarm. A host of right wingers grabbed prime-time slots on both the radio airwaves and TV news hours.

 

Flash forward three decades and a racist, anti-immigrant backlash is in full flower.

 

So, too, are attacks on the many academic programs that have brought black, brown and Asian students and faculty into campus life. ACTA's campaign against Ward Churchill, Schrecker writes, is but one example. His outspoken critique of US foreign policy following the terrorist attacks on 9/11 "gave Colorado's partisans of traditional higher education a perfect opportunity to take on an unpopular department," she continues. While Schrecker acknowledges that Churchill's scholarship was oft times faulty, she notes that numerous faculty members at other schools - people she characterizes as plagiarists and charlatans - were not fired, but were instead given short-term suspensions.

 

But another change was also brewing. On top of selective crackdowns on leftists, feminists, ethnic studies proponents and queer theorists that began in the 1970s, colleges across the country were simultaneously being hit with budget cuts. Thanks to state and city budget shortfalls, government investment in higher education was dwindling and schools - even those with huge endowments - were scrambling for funding. Despite hefty tuition hikes, trustees and administrators were wringing their hands at the calamities that would ensue if more money was not forthcoming. "As colleges and universities struggled to keep afloat, they looked to the business sector for financial solutions, often bringing in managers from private companies to handle their affairs," Schrecker writes.

 

The price, of course, has been steep. Some corporations, she reports, require grant recipients to stifle findings that might damage their bottom line. Others limit research to subjects that have potential remunerative value. Equally appalling, as full-time faculty seek outside finding to support their research - or in some cases to insure that they receive tenure - upwards of 70 percent of teaching has shifted to part-time contingent faculty who typically juggle multiple adjunct jobs to make ends meet.

 

On the losing end are students who often can't find their teachers to discuss ideas or get in-person clarification of what is expected for completion of the next assignment.

 

"The Lost Soul of Higher Education" posits no solutions for loosening the corporate hold on education or for ensuring that a wide cross section of students are given the means to enroll. Likewise, it does not suggest ways to restructure higher ed to ensure that good teaching is ranked above grant acquisition or publishing, or for getting faculty members to understand the importance of collective bargaining.

 

All told, it's a grim read. But don't be deterred. Schrecker shines a bright light - one that should not be ignored - on everything that is wrong with the academy. If history teaches us anything, it's that social movements have the power to force social change. As Frederick Douglass reminded us more than 100 years ago, "power concedes nothing without demand." The question is what to ask for first.

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