Austerity and Academic Freedom

Questioning the commonplace on the terrain of austerity.
By Anthony Paul Farley

Higher education places the entire society in which it takes place on trial. Education indicts the commonplace notions upon which society is built. Its purpose is to produce people who question everything, especially the commonplaces. James Baldwin argued that although “no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around,” having such people around is “the only hope society has.” Higher education produces this hope and is therefore a public good.

Recent struggles over higher education have taken place on the terrain of austerity, where a new “business” model of higher education has called for the dramatic reduction of labor costs through such means as the elimination of tenure and the replacement of full-time academics with adjuncts. The idea of higher education as a public good has, it seems, very little purchase in the discourse of austerity.

Everything that can be measured is measured. Money becomes the measure of all things. This metaphysics of austerity has consequences for things not measurable in monetary terms. If the value of an academic discipline cannot be measured in such terms, then it does not exist. If, as Ludwig Wittgenstein once observed, “The philosopher strives to find the liberating word, that is, the word that finally permits us to grasp what up to now has intangibly weighed down upon our consciousness,” then austerity is goodbye to all that. Nothing now weighs upon our consciousness.

What happens to disciplines and discourses born of struggle? What happens to the search for the “liberating word”? Institutions like racism achieve hegemony to the extent they succeed in hiding their operations in their society’s unexamined commonplaces. Nothing is more common than money.

The value of words in the discourse of austerity has to do only with their purchasing power. The “liberating word” is irrelevant. Words are worth only what they can buy, buying is freedom, and there is only the market. The rest is silence, the rest are silenced, and, to go back to Wittgenstein’s earliest philosophy, “whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent.”

Within this silence, stupidity has replaced thought. Donald J. Trump can now expect to be admired for his wisdom when he says, “I know words. I have the best words.” Because Trump has money, his words, however commonplace, are to be regarded at “the best words,” and the man himself, who is nothing if not common, is to be exalted as a wise man.

We are witnessing the triumph of bourgeois reason. José Ortega y Gasset described this triumph in La rebelión de las masas (1930): “The average reader, who has never concerned himself with this subject, if he reads does so with the view, not of learning something from the writer, but rather, of pronouncing judgment on him when he is not in agreement with the commonplaces that the said reader carries in his head.”

Austerity replaces reasons, and reason itself, with money. Money makes all things common. Governance by money reduces education to an exchange of commonplaces. Professors become vendors, students become customers, and, because the customer is always right, there is precious little to be done at colleges and universities. Austerity’s reign does not end with mass ignorance. Mass ignorance is the rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. Ortega y Gasset is again helpful: “The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will.”

The commonplace mind, ascendant under austerity, fills the silence with all our sins. The American “commonplace” is a wild howl of white-over-black racism, among other things. Education, higher education, does not and cannot eradicate this racism, but higher education can and does put the American commonplace, including racism, on trial. Austerity reverses this order. There is no indictment of the commonplace, there is no trial, and there is no notion of the university as a public good.

The excluded idea of the university as a public good is accompanied by other exclusions. Racial inclusion has its origin in the idea of higher education as a public good. Inclusion, secured only by the specter of black revolution after two hundred American cities were set on fire in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, is ever under threat from the American commonplace. Tenure, then, has everything to do with academic freedom, and academic freedom has everything to do with the notion of university education as a public good.

The AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure cogently expresses the connection between tenure and the mission of the university:

Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition. Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. . . . Tenure is a means to [these] ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.

To give just one example, it would be difficult to imagine critical race theory—an intellectual framework that has deepened understandings of race in US society, particularly in legal fields and the social sciences— emerging within an environment that did not protect academic freedom through tenure. It is also difficult to see a way to defend the right to primary and secondary education without an adequate defense of the right to postsecondary and postgraduate education.

The logic of the financially austere university fits seamlessly with a global neoliberalism that seems to question the very idea of the public, let alone the public good. The social scientist Sylvia Federici likens today’s austerity struggles over higher education in the United States to struggles occasioned by International Monetary Fund (IMF) structural-adjustment programs in Africa in the 1980s. “Africa does not need universities,” she quotes IMF and World Bank officials as asserting. Cultural critic Henry Giroux argues that the struggle over higher education is about much more than the immediate nickels and dimes, or even millions of dollars, to be “saved” here or there by this or that cut or reduction. The struggle is over the future of free thought; the struggle is for the production of an ever-less-independent intellectual class.

A century of evidence shows that without tenure there is no academic freedom. Without academic freedom we become technical functionaries of the superstructures, not free thinkers. As boards of trustees become owners, as administrators become bosses, and as various forms of at-will and part-time employment come to replace tenured professorships, the university-based search for the “liberating word” becomes impossible, at least as a professional matter.

One might, of course, elect a life outside of the university and thus retain the right to write what one likes. But the fact remains that the university has been the most secure home that free thought has had for the past century. The building of this structure, the cornerstone of which is tenure, was not completed overnight. If tenure goes, then it may be gone forever, along with many other things of inestimable value. Certainly no one will know for a hundred years whether it can be brought back. And what happens when free thought, no longer integral to the university, is forced to go a-rambling? The replacements, the army of intellectually unfree men and women, at-will employees of whatever the university will have become, will write what their employers like or risk replacement.

No one really wants to hear about racism. When we describe racism, as we do, as a problem of our society, we do not do so to make friends. To paraphrase Steve Biko, we write what we like. That is what it is to search for the “liberating word.” Doing so is a public good and our only hope. This hope is what freedom is for, and what the university, freed from austerity, can provide.   

Anthony Paul Farley is James Campbell Matthews Distinguished Professor of Jurisprudence at Albany Law School. His e-mail address is [email protected].