Oppenheimer’s House; or, the Contradictions of Academic Life from the Cold War to Neoliberalism

By Susan Hegeman

Abstract:

This essay addresses the changing meaning of academic freedom and academic labor in the transition from the Cold War to the neoliberal university. Using Robert Oppenheimer as its touchstone example, it argues that academic life in the Cold War was characterized by a contradiction between academic freedom and self-governance and the interests of the state. It proposes a taxonomy of various ways that academics made sense of their work in relation to this contradiction. It then shows how this contradiction shifted with the end of the Cold War and the rise of the neoliberal university, so that state interests are now replaced with those of a neoliberal common sense, organized around private interests and the extraction of value. Finally, it offers some conclusions about the path forward for academics as they come to terms with the meaning of their labor in the neoliberal university.

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