Academic Mercantilism, Militarism, and Managerialism

By Ira Braus

Academic Repression: Reflections from the Academic Industrial Complex. Anthony J. Nocella II, Steven Best, and Peter McLaren, eds. Edinburgh: AK Press, 2010.

Academic Repression
by Anthony J. Nocella II, Steven Best, and Peter McLaren, eds.

Academic Repression posits that academic freedom, what Michael Bérubé calls “a scholar’s right to be controversial,” has been tested more broadly since September 11, 2001, than at any other time during the last century. In this volume of thirtythree essays (excluding several prefatory pieces and an afterword), one finds familiar names such as Henry Giroux, Michael Parenti, Robert Jensen, Ward Churchill, Howard Zinn, and Cary Nelson. Other contributors, similarly eloquent but less well known, include Takis Fotopoulos, Deric Shannon, Maria Cotera, and John Asimakopoulos. The essays are grouped in six sections: “Contextualizing Academic Repression,” “Academic Slapdown: Case Studies in Repression,” “Repression at Home and Abroad: Middle East and African Perspectives,” “Dispatches from the Margins: Gender, Race, Sex, and Abilities,” “Fast Times at Corporate Higher Ed.,” and “Twilight of Academia: Critical Pedagogy, Engaged Intellectuals, and Political Resistance.” Here I will touch on two I found especially compelling.

Henry Giroux’s “Higher Education after September 11th” exposes a toxic brew of mercantilism, militarism, and managerialism that he feels has strained academic freedom, as codified by the AAUP and like-minded groups, since September 11. His account of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s “Minerva Consortium,” a federal initiative meant to renew academia by funneling its brain power into projects such as the “Human Terrain System,” is wryly entertaining. (The project’s name could be translated as “Do anthropological research in occupied countries for strategic purposes.”) Playing ironically on the name of the initiative, Giroux sounds out its implications for domestic politics:

Unfortunately, Gates’s view of the university as a militarized knowledge factory, Professor Leopold’s instrumental understanding of faculty as a “brand name,” and the university as a new marketplace of commerce are not lines drawn from a gag by Jon Stewart. . . . Instead such ideas have become influential in shaping the purpose and meaning of higher education. Hence, it no longer seems unreasonable to argue that, just as democracy is being emptied out, the university is also being stripped of its role in a democratic setting where . . . a democratic ethos can be cultivated, practiced, and sustained over generations.

Giroux traces the above “branding” to an ideological control that cultural conservatives have sought to wield over academia for the last two centuries, activities spurred by religious or nationalistic fundamentalism. This phenomenon explains mid-twentieth-century campus offshoots of McCarthyism, such as the founding of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and William F. Buckley’s antisecularist God and Man at Yale. Giroux shows that similar tendencies persist after September 11 in the surveillance of academics and nonacademics, notably by conservative activist David Horowitz and organizations such as Campus Watch and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. He makes the case by asking, “Can one really believe that Horowitz is a voice for open inquiry when he portrays the late Peter Jennings, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Garrison Keillor, and Katie Couric as activists for ‘left-wing agendas and causes’?”
No less penetrating in its insight is Ali Shehzad Zaidi’s “Powerful Compassion: The Strike at Syracuse.” In this gem of historical reportage, Zaidi recounts the 1998 strike as counterpoint to a theme trumpeted endlessly by corporatized university administrations: the ends justify the means. This strike involved walkouts by students, faculty, and staff to protest both substandard wages paid to university employees and the routine subcontracting of jobs in the name of administrative “flexibility.” While the strike achieved its goals, thanks to the Syracuse local of the Service Employees International Union, it capped decades of exploitation whose “rationale” had been articulated six years earlier by the university’s president:

In order to insure their survival, institutions of higher learning must now devote their energies to the enterprise of sausage making. . . . Even with the most carefully chosen ingredients and healthful ingredients . . . sausage making is an ugly process to witness. But after all the slicing, chopping, blood and gore, the end product can be delicious, nutritious, and of remarkable quality. In short, America’s . . . universities must now pursue the kind of painful restructuring that is akin to sausage making and [has] been taken up in earnest by many U.S. corporations. . . . Ugly in process, but, if done well, healthy in the outcome.

The president’s grisly metaphor assumed an unspoken consensus on the proposition that academic survival equals corporate survival. For him, this equation justified draconian measures against employees who, subject to “painful” restructuring, became the detritus of the academic sausage-making machine. Equally bizarre was the president’s charge to faculty protestors after the strike that they “voluntarily inform their deans of the time missed so that their paychecks [could] be adjusted accordingly. [He was] motivated by a desire [not] to punish, but to ensure that the lesson of civil disobedience [was] not lost on . . . students . . . [that] passionately held beliefs are worth sacrifice.”

What are the unspoken propositions here? (1) The university has “managerial prerogative” willfully to violate binding contracts made with academic employees; (2) the proposed giveback was not intended to punish, merely to “teach” protesting faculty members the professional blowback of civil disobedience, conveniently forgetting that the goal of such action was to uphold (teach?) constitutional law; and (3) the administration itself lacks “passionately held beliefs.” Were it to concede having such beliefs, it would demand sacrifice only from those individuals who opposed them. Zaidi’s essay is notable in many ways, because it vividly records the collaboration of a diverse workforce in response to corporatization that stymies the shortand long-term operation of an educational institution.

While Academic Repression has many strengths, it has three flaws. First, it lacks contributions by academics in the physical sciences. Second, blatant editing errors, such as the endnotes missing from Takis Fotopoulos’s essay, detract from overall quality. Third, the book lacks both a bibliography and an index, which could have helped readers trace common threads among the essays, such as references to the AAUP. On the whole, however, this book is commendable for linking across multiple perspectives the external and internal politics in contemporary academia.

Ira Braus is associate professor of music history at the Hartt School, University of Hartford. His essays have appeared in 19th-Century Music, the Journal of Musicological Research, Brahms Studies, and Music Perception. His e-mail address is [email protected].