From the Editor: The Annexation of Academia

By Aaron Barlow

Perfessor: “It was a title of respect for an itinerant wizard who robbed the people by sheer power of language.” In Ross Lockridge’s Raintree County, it is also the name for the closest thing the county has to a scholar and teacher. Americans have long had both distrust and respect for real professors along with an often unavowed admiration for successful con artists. This has led us to create distance between academia and Main Street, but it also makes us want to exert as much control as possible over academics, whom we see as the flimflammers. Somehow, we have come to put faith in business while remaining suspicious of the “perfessor.” All evidence to the contrary, it’s the money managers we trust and the intellectuals we fear are scamming us.

The result has been an annexation of academia by the commercial world, almost without protest. The only people upset are those suspect “perfessors.” And they’re just in it for themselves, anyway—or so too many believe. The world of learning is becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of the corporate universe. No longer is it ruled by the people most involved in its activities, the faculty; today, money managers who might never set foot on campus are taking advantage of the situation and turning more and more of our colleges into vocational schools, aimed only at training workers to meet corporate needs.

This issue of Academe continues our exploration of the state of the modern American university—and a sorry state it sometimes seems to be. Yet, thanks to the efforts of the real professors, American higher education continues to graduate some of the best-educated people in the world. How long can this last as the power to shape the curriculum slips further from real educators’ grasp?

No one knows.

In the first article of this issue, David J. Weerts argues that the solution to our looming problem is the building of a new culture, one “that restores public trust in America’s colleges and universities.” His article is followed by Marcus Peter Ford’s consideration of the common good, rather than individual success, as the focus of higher education.

Barry Eisenberg then shows how higher education may be following a path forged by the health-care industry, and Alvin G. Burstein explores the changing idea of what a university should be. Joyce Milambiling, citing her personal experience, shows how distant we on the faculty can become from one another, even while we are engaged in necessary parts of our professional development. Next, Paul-Olivier Dehaye explores the growth of digital movements like massive open online courses that reduce the professoriate to content producers. In the final article of the print edition, Eva Swidler considers a companion problem: according to the logic by which faculty members are reduced to content producers, there is no reason all of us should not be in contingent positions. The situation of today’s adjuncts should be a warning about what may soon be the fate of us all.

In the digital edition of this issue, Kevin R. McClure updates Robert Birnbaum’s examination of crisis and fad in higher education, and, on a more positive note, Ronny Priefer describes how an effective faculty senate can be created.

John Wickliff Shawnessy, the main character of Lockridge’s novel, and the perfessor, Jerusalem Webster Stiles, share initials for a reason. The corporate and academic worlds are connected—but one is not the other, Johnny is not the perfessor, and their differences need to be respected if both are to benefit all.

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