Friday, March 02, 2012

academic freedom, academic repression, academic license

I'm in a faculty reading group this semester, reading an anthology called Academic Repression. A recurring theme in the book's chapters, each written by an aggrieved (or repressed) academic, is a recounting of the various ways that the academic establishment systematically rules out certain discourses - namely, progressive, critical discourses.

Several authors note that the tenure process is used to eliminate probationary faculty who dare to challenge the status quo, either in academia or in US culture or foreign policy. They express horror, I would call it, at the profoundly conservative leanings of the academic elite and the ham-fisted interventions of boards of trustees, government officials, and so on. Tenure, it seems, is granted only to those who obey the rules, follow the script, don't make noise, and behave themselves.

My reaction, chapter after chapter, is, "have you been involved in US academia at all, in the last 30 years? Did you not notice this before you became an assistant professor?"

I'm not suggesting there isn't systematic repression, because there certainly is. Notably, those complaining of it are generally from more elite, research-oriented institutions, where research doesn't matter, it's the determination in the last instance of a person's worth. Period. What this means is that research-intensive institutions have more of a vested interest in, and do more to discipline, the work of their faculty. After all, they are more dependent on reputation, large quantities of research dollars and foundation grants, then smaller, less elite, teaching institutions.

Again, I want to ask these authors, "did you know anything about this institution before accepting a position there? Like, where the money was coming from?"

They complain of a lack of academic freedom. I have little doubt that they are correct. I just think it's strange, and either naïve or disingenuous, to expect it in those institutions.

In contrast to elite research institutions whose hierarchy systematically preclude academic freedom, at teaching institutions, there also isn't academic freedom, but for entirely different reasons. Continuous, deliberate underfunding of public, comprehensive teaching universities limits the scope of academic discussion, and the desperation of junior faculty at these institutions to save their jobs leads them to quiescent compliance with any requirement - stated or implied - for tenure.

I am inclined to say there is no academic freedom in colleges or universities in the United States. This statement might lead a reader to the legitimate question: why am I not about to be fired, and why am I not afraid to say things like this?

The answer is that, although I don't have any more academic freedom than anyone else, what I have is a form of academic license. Simply put: I don't matter to the academic establishment, the power elite, the board of trustees, or anyone else. Nobody is paying me any attention. Nobody knows what I do in my classes except for the students in them, and the few students who care about what I do in my classes are overwhelmingly favorable to the material and ideas I expose them to, and the rest don't pay attention, either.

I could never get away with this if I was at a research institution. I'd have to toe the line. I'd have to publish, or perish, which means I would have to produce large bulks of the scholarly drivel that all the other academic philosophers in high-powered philosophy departments in the US have to produce (and produce all too happily). Ahh, but if I succeeded in that enterprise, I'd have tenure!

I don't think I'm being cynical. The authors in Academic Repression testify to this, ad nauseam. Let's say I'm glad I'm not one of them.

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