The Life and Death of Academic Freedom

By Ellen Messer-Davidow

The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University. Ellen Schrecker. New York: New Press, 2010.

Among this fall’s new book offerings is The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University, authored by Ellen Schrecker, the eminent historian of McCarthyism’s impact on academe and the nation. Potential readers should not hastily infer that title’s apocalyptic phrasing signals inflammatory polemics between the covers. On the contrary, Schrecker’s historically nuanced and empirically grounded account of academic freedom encourages us to conceive it more broadly than we have in the past.

Early in the first chapter, she paraphrases Justice Potter Stewart’s famous statement about pornography: that he couldn’t define it, but he knew it when he saw it. No doubt AAUP members are better informed on academic matters than Justice Stewart was on pornography and can provide something like Schrecker’s initial definition that academic freedom consists of principles and policies—buttressed by scholarly expertise, peer review, tenure, and faculty governance—that ensure a large measure of individual and institutional autonomy in research, teaching, and service.

But for many people inside and outside of higher education, academic freedom is a fuzzy concept they know only when they see egregious violations—faculty members dismissed from their positions for taking politically unpopular or intellectually unorthodox positions, outside speakers disinvited for having promulgated controversial views, and institutions pressured to withdraw assigned books that offend the sensibilities of certain constituencies. Nevertheless, as both knowledgeable and novice readers progress through Schrecker’s book, they will realize that academic freedom has always been a structural effect—an amalgam of processes constantly re-formed by the internal and external forces that structure American higher education.

The book traces academic freedom through three phases, each generously textured with what Clifford Geertz called “thick description” of individual and institutional case studies, lawsuits and legislation, movement-triggered reforms and backlashes, and shifting flows of resources. The first two chapters relate the familiar story of academic freedom’s conditions of possibility in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—the rise of research and land-grant universities, the founding of disciplinary associations, the expansion and professionalization of the faculty, and the definition and institutionalization of standards for academic due process, tenure, and faculty governance. But tenure and due process did not prevent abuses of power by administrators who, often with faculty acquiescence, retaliated against cantankerous whistle-blowing professors and later caved in to the McCarthyite persecution of allegedly “red” ones.

Chapters 3 through 5 reprise the drama of social movement struggle from the 1960s to the century’s end. Emerging from the vortex of civil rights, New Left, and antiwar activism, faculty and students organized caucuses in disciplinary associations, pried open the doors of universities and colleges to excluded groups, infused the disciplines with new knowledge, and launched programs in feminist, gay-lesbianbisexual- transgendered, ethnic, and cultural studies. During this same period, conservatives built a movement infrastructure consisting of think tanks, law centers, issue-advocacy groups, and media outlets.

Funding from a bevy of conservative foundations—Bradley, Coors, Olin, Scaife, Smith Richardson— supported such academic organizations as the National Association of Scholars, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a chain of student-run newspapers, campus-based policy institutes, and conservative economics programs. The nonacademic and academic organizations worked together to train conservative students for campus activism as well as careers in mainstream journalism, electoral politics, and government.

From the mid-1980s onward, these organizations mounted wideranging  campaigns against academic reforms—feminist and multicultural scholarship, poststructuralist theory, area studies programs, scientific research on climate change, and campus policies on affirmative action, sexual harassment, and hate speech, to name a few. The criticism fed the action: the Center for Individual Rights and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education filed lawsuits, David Horowitz badgered state legislatures to adopt his repressive Academic Bill of Rights, and federal officials expanded the government’s monitoring and regulation of higher education.

Many of Schrecker’s readers will have all-too-vivid memories of the culture wars, but they may not recognize the structural innovation driving them. Conservatives did borrow such strategies from the civil rights movement as recruiting and training members, building alternative institutions, choreographing direct action, and working through the official channels of litigation and legislation. But where civil rights organizations could only pressure government, conservatives formed a new hybrid by welding their organizations to the machinery of conservative-controlled legislatures in a seamless policy-making process.

The remaining chapters usher readers through the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first, an era of neoliberal government, the war on terrorism, and globalizing capitalism. We can easily submerge ourselves in Schrecker’s fascinating analyses of the recent trends eroding academic freedom, such as the corporatization of academic management, the commodification of knowledge through business sponsorship and patent law, the conversion of tenure-line faculties to casualized adjunct labor, and the tuition increases that priced some students out of college and compelled others to take on heavy loan debt. The coll ege affordability crisis is real, but short-sighted politicians and media pundits who place the blame on academic institutions are overlooking the long-term impact of economic forces.

Starting in the mid-1970s, academic institutions found themselves crunched on one side of the ledger by the soaring costs of energy, building maintenance, health-care benefits, library acquisitions, and new technologies and on the other side by declining revenues from federal and state governments. While chronically underfunded community colleges and universities with costly medical and scientific enterprises were hit harder than well-endowed private colleges and universities, all institutions pursued the double-pronged strategy of cutting costs and ramping up revenues from businesses, foundations, private donors, and tuition. Then in 2001 they experienced a triple whammy—the stock market tanked, the George W. Bush administration launched a costly war on terrorism, and states slashed their higher education appropriations. There was no recovery: the 2008 economic meltdown turned academe’s fiscal crunch into a fullblown crisis.

Ordinary Americans have suffered as well from the pro-business trends driving “the new economy.” Workers experienced mass unemployment and underemployment resulting from corporate downsizing, offshoring, and conversion of livingwage jobs with benefits to low-wage, no-benefits jobs. As their incomes declined, families used home loans and credit cards to pay the skyrocketing costs of housing, transportation, health care, child care, and education; when that failed, some turned to government assistance programs and others were pauperized. Academic workers are experiencing similar effects as universities cut pay and benefits, furlough tenure-line faculty, terminate the appointments of staff and nontenure- line instructors, trim academic programs, and couch the frenzied attempts to shore up their institutions in rhetoric promising leaner and meaner academic excellence.

As long as higher education remains gripped by the convulsions of neoliberal government and globalizing capitalism, individual and institutional self-determination will be increasingly curtailed. While the AAUP and other associations should continue to mount traditional defenses of academic freedom, such as case-by-case investigations, censures, amicus briefs, policy lobbying, and support for unionization, these methods will not restore academic freedom, which, as Schrecker’s book suggests, is embedded in the nation’s failing political and economic systems. Faculty members don’t have the power to reform these systems, but we can attempt to make common cause with the many Americans who now realize that they don’t share in the profits.

Ellen Messer-Davidow is professor of English at the University of Minnesota. Her work focuses on the intersections of American social movements, higher education, and public policy.