Melancholy in the Academy

By Martin D. Snyder

It’s hardly news to anyone that higher education is under siege. That’s painfully clear. Self-serving politicians, self-righteous ideologues, and self-delusional bean counters are all demanding their pounds of flesh from our increasingly emaciated institutions. It’s hard not to be discouraged. Moreover, the Lilliputian stature of our leaders both in government and on our campuses does little to inspire confidence or dispel gloom. As the writer and translator Lin Yutang once wrote, “When small men begin to cast big shadows, it means that the sun is about to set.”

Under these circumstances, it’s easy to become despondent and imitate the figure of Melancholy in Albrecht Dürer’s famous 1514 engraving. Surrounded by symbols of intellectual accomplishment, she sits brooding, unable to take action using the tools at her disposal. Dürer’s depiction of Melancholy is universally praised as a masterpiece of the engraver’s art. I cannot recommend it, however, as a strategy for addressing the problems we face in the academy.

What, then, to do? Columnist Frank Bruni in his March 17, 2012, New York Times op-ed piece, “The Living after the Dying,” suggests a strategy. Describing How to Survive a Plague, a new documentary about the history of the AIDS epidemic, Bruni notes the keys to a successful activist strategy: “While the movie vividly chronicles the wages of bigotry and neglect, it even more vividly chronicles how much society can budge when the people exhorting it to are united and determined and smart and right.”

We denizens of the academy are a brainy bunch. We have the tools at our disposal to address any crisis, most especially a crisis in education. We need to employ those skills to get the facts and understand what’s going on. The AAUP can help. Use the Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, published in the March–April issue of Academe, to get the facts on salaries and compensation at your own institution and its peers. Check out the AAUP’s website for helpful answers to frequently asked questions on financial analysis. In short, do what we tell our students: research the issues carefully and arm yourself with the facts. And enlist your Association to assist you.

But the facts alone will not solve our problems. We must take action, not individually but collectively. Where there are shared governance structures in place, we must strengthen them and employ them as effectively as possible. To make shared governance effective, we have to think about it as a means to a much larger end, the maintenance and support of the whole educational enterprise, and we need to talk about it that way. We need to articulate the message that shared governance is not some prize in a power game with the administration; it is a tool entrusted to the faculty and their professional colleagues to be wielded for the good of their institutions, higher education, and society at large. Administrators need to hear that message, and so do politicians, the press, and, most importantly, our students and their parents.

Shared governance, of course, is not the only means to collective action. We also need to organize ourselves to advocate for ourselves and for our professional interests. If you have an AAUP chapter on campus, get active. If you don’t, visit the AAUP website or contact the Department of Organizing and Services to find out how to form one. If you teach at a public institution in a state where collective bargaining is possible, start talking to your colleagues about how you can define and protect your rights through a union contract. And remember, the AAUP is here to help you through the process. You are not alone.

Let’s set melancholy aside and keep in mind what really matters. When we walk or log into our classrooms, we are reminded of why we became educators and why the current battles over higher education are so important. Those battles will not subside any time soon. But if we are to have any chance of winning, we will need to get the facts and take collective action. We have the brainpower to do the job; we may not have much time. But there is hope. As Frank Bruni points out in the Times column cited above, “The fight in us eclipses the sloth and surrender, and the good really does outweigh the bad.”

Martin D. Snyder senior associate general secretary of the AAUP.