Alert Top Message


What is to Be Done? Or, Optimism of the Will?

Can we stop being "other"?
By Leslie Bary

thick metal chain with broken link

What is the university now? What is a faculty member? Recently a group of new PhDs told me they did not want tenure-track jobs, only multi­year contracts and pay parity. Tenure, academic freedom, and shared gover­nance were antiquated concepts, they said. They thought me nostalgic, uncaring, and “privileged” to imagine otherwise. I thought they were abdicating the profession, but most tenured faculty also operate in a teach-and-go mode.

Today, at institutions such as mine, bodies like faculty senates and AAUP chapters are marginalized; when administrators need faculty input, they rely on handpicked task forces. It is difficult to know how to organize around the values the AAUP was formed to support—free inquiry, shared governance—when so many faculty members either are privileged enough to feel that they as individuals are assured academic freedom and a voice in institutional decisions or are so proletarianized that such rights seem unimportant. The question of the common good, and the possibil­ity of collective action, seem to have dropped out of the equation. What Henry Giroux, in an essay in Policy Futures in Education, has called the “public pedagogy” of neoliberal capitalism may have settled in our bones. Giroux writes, “Not only does neo-liberalism bankrupt public funds, hollow out public services, limit the vocabulary and imagery avail­able to recognize anti-democratic forms of power, and produce narrow models of individual agency, it also undermines the critical functions of any viable democracy by undercutting the ability of individuals to engage in the continuous translation between public considerations and private interests by collapsing the public into the realm of the private.” Where education no longer means participation in the public sphere or the development of citizens who can function in it but becomes instead a private investment in the creation of a self that can be marketed as a brand, the faculty is transformed as well. The faculty is increasingly bifur­cated, with corporate-named chairs proliferating in one realm and contingent faculty swelling in another; the regular tenured and tenure-track professors who form the AAUP’s traditional base are fewer and fewer each year.

Expectations to qualify for a tenure-track job and then secure tenure are now such that branding and marketing are at least as important as scholarship to the success of younger faculty: one goes to conferences for “exposure” almost more than to share research and keep up with the field. Administrators and outside consultants having replaced faculty leadership, collegial collaboration, even at the mundane level of the depart­ment meeting, is no longer a necessary norm.

Increasingly, faculty feel that one must become a superstar or risk becoming contingent. Contingent status lies in wait for every tenured faculty member in each state that goes the way of Wisconsin.

This atomization of the faculty makes collective action much more difficult. As with political theorist Sheldon Wolin’s “inverted totalitarianism,” where cost-effectiveness and bureaucracy replace the char­ismatic tyrant and citizens are polled for opinions but barred from participation in power, we still pay lip service to shared governance. But the neoliberal university, typically citing economic crisis and the needs of corporate partners, has drastically reduced the role of the faculty, most of whom are treated not as colleagues but as casual employees. The endlessly receding goalposts for continuing employment, or pro­motion and merit pay for the few faculty members still eligible for them, keep us tending our own gardens as the public sphere becomes more impoverished and devalued every year.

With civic life fading and disdain for community everywhere on the rise, organizing both as activity and as concept seems anomalous and strange. “What’s irritated me about the whole direction of politics in the last thirty years is that it’s always been toward the collectivist society. People have forgotten about the personal society,” Margaret Thatcher told the Sunday Times in 1981. “If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.” Thirty-seven years on, we have been trained to believe in a kind of hyperindividualism and are asked to reimagine ourselves as entrepreneurs—self-reliant and cool, as cultural critic Jim McGuigan says in Cool Capitalism. Like the “neoliberal self” he describes in an essay in Culture Unbound, we create hip courses and promote our work on slick websites. We say what is necessary to sound both radical and even-minded, but nonparticipation and noncollegiality are in fact the rule.

Neoliberal Landscape

In a recent interview, University of California presi­dent Janet Napolitano pointed to the “upward trajec­tory” of philanthropy as a source of funding for the university. “The point of fact is that public funding at the level it was at is unlikely to be restored,” she emphasized. Most of us have heard similar statements from other administrators insisting on the inevitability of dependence on private charity and the adoption of corporate models. This, however, is a point not of fact but of politics.

Organizing requires us to speak of politics in the sense of work for the common good and participation in power; faculty rights and academic values mean little if there is no truly public, or truly nonprofit, uni­versity in which to exercise them. We have retained the language of academic freedom and shared governance, and vestiges of the tenure system that once supported them, but at many institutions the administrative practices of the corporate university have hollowed out their meaning.

It is not that we are not politicized, but campus activism and national discussion concentrate on high-profile free-speech cases and identity politics rather than on funding cuts and privatization. The canon wars have resolved into a multiculturalism that adds to the “coolness” of the market university; the AAUP’s 2003 statement Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession indicates that in the decade during which these battles were fought, three of four new faculty appointments were contingent. Faculty would have done well in the 1990s to look as closely at class and exploitation as we did at “inclusion” of marginalized identities and voices. We could now, as Yasmin Nair points out in The Baffler, “foreground movements,” not just identities. Regarding academic freedom and individual free-speech cases, we should emphasize “abstract concepts, not the cult of personal­ity and celebrity.” But most of us remain in reactive mode, or are still blinking as we struggle to under­stand what our workplaces have become.

New writing on the situation appears daily, citing research our more prescient colleagues produced in the past, yet many of us are still disoriented. This is in part because the market values that seem so new also appear as natural as rain. They and other undemocratic values have long been present in our universities, and the shift to the current model has taken a generation—during which “fast capitalism,” liquid capital, and neoliberal culture were taking hold in all facets of life, as sociologist Ben Agger points out in Fast Capitalism: A Critical Theory of Significance. Key is that these antidemocratic changes have been presented, and often received, not as state violence or thickening authoritarianism but as new freedoms, new protections, and new pleasures. The uncertainty that now shapes our lives, absorbing our gaze as we hedge our bets and plan our next career or survival move, is another element in the concealment of repression.

Those of us on the job market and the tenure track saw signs of the changes but lacked the perspective to interpret them. If you are moving among regions, you may not see in real time that you are adjusting not to new places and different institutions but to a global shift. The tenured suffer from a similar lack of vision, and not always because they are too privileged to care. Part of the problem is that the terms in which we are accustomed to framing our endeavors—academic freedom and shared governance, for example—are still used, although none mean quite what they once did, and institutions like faculty senates still exist, even if they lack the power they had at one time. Yet more insidiously, as sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant note in an article in Radical Philosophy, the “planetary vulgate” of the new economy foregrounds keywords like modernization, excellence, efficiency, flexibility, and agility, along with progressive-sounding terms like multiculturalism, to naturalize the neoliberal landscape and to make it attractive, tantalizing.

Barriers to Organizing

Where domination and inequality are seen as imagin­ings of individuals who have not “taken responsi­bility” and become “accountable,” it is difficult to organize. The values the AAUP espouses come as if from another universe. Shared governance is the concept that seems the most foreign to faculty who never expected to be asked their opinion and would rather be “doing their jobs” or going home, and aca­demic freedom is increasingly irrelevant when research means product development with corporate partners and when teaching means negotiating for a commer­cially produced learning program and administer­ing it. Working conditions that some senior faculty remember as the norm sound either too revolutionary or insufferably nostalgic to people who came into the profession less than a generation ago. That, I think, is why my colleagues give me the long stare when I pitch AAUP activism to them.

Neoliberalism is a pedagogy, and it has had its effect, particularly with regard to governance and collective action. The university as community of scholars—the Humboldtian model on which so many of our institutions were founded, and whose val­ues were instilled in us through our own university experiences—has long existed in uneasy relation­ship to industry. Its engulfment by, or mutation into, an academic-industrial complex that serves private interest and not the public good means that public values dissipate as the institutions that they sustained and that sustained them have been marketized and compelled to operate on an entrepreneurial model. In university systems where corporatization began to take hold in the 1970s and ramped up with the 2008 financial crisis, faculty seem to take one of a few avail­able options: retire or leave the profession; move into a more lucrative administrative post; give up, and hide in class or the office; or engage, through what is left of the old structures of shared governance, in an increas­ingly quixotic battle to resurrect the university of the past. Some would give up tenure if collective bargain­ing were a realistic option. But the ability to negotiate some aspects of working conditions will not forestall the end of the university that we once knew and that many students still aspire to attend. How then can we have a collective voice? Do we want one? Or is it best to seek individual favor and, if we fail, promote our individual brands on off-campus websites? Is academic freedom superfluous, as one senior colleague told me, and free speech sufficient—despite the claims of offices on marketing and branding about their right to limit public expression of views? When public space and “the public” are already unfamiliar concepts, how do we posit the university as a public good?

The AAUP asserts that the faculty is one, or should be, united in common interests. Indeed, everyone working toward collective action in universities emphasizes the rights of all faculty and students and the preservation of academic values. But the reasons my colleagues give for not joining the AAUP or run­ning for the faculty senate suggest that we may all be atomized, neoliberal subjects, whether we realize it or not. And if our university is corporatized and the administration ignores traditional mechanisms for shared governance, do institutions like a faculty senate or the AAUP chapter mean anything anymore? Are professors even professors now, or have we been “unbundled” into a set of discrete functions, as John V. Lombardi suggested more than a decade ago in his seminal Inside Higher Ed essay, “Deconstructing Faculty Work”?

If we are not interested in academic freedom or shared governance, and we can negotiate long-term employment and good salaries individually or, more ideally, for all through collective bargaining, what is the purpose of tenure? If the contingent have the com­mittee votes they should, and the tenured relinquish the leadership responsibilities tenure implies, are those new PhDs desirous only of multiyear contracts and pay parity not the most realistic of people?

With complacency and demoralization common at many colleges and universities and class distinctions among faculty sharpening both within institutions and across the profession, it does not appear to me that we are one faculty. We do not inhabit the same worlds, and we share common goals only in the most diffuse sense.

A New Strategy

One reason we cannot organize around the faculty senate and the AAUP as we once did might be that there is something lacking in our analysis of the situa­tion. I believe that a shift in perspective or analysis, or at least some strategic thinking, could make it easier to organize. The missing element is not the idea of the university as public good, or even the concept of the public good, but the idea of the public itself. With this article, I hope to initiate a discussion of organizing strategy at the national level that takes this problem into account. It is my contention that work at this level would provide the consciousness raising, the camaraderie, and also the joy that are so sorely needed at the present juncture.

A colleague who tells me the AAUP and its strate­gies are out of date because of what he, like many others, sees as our adversarial and primarily reactive stance toward the administration offers an organizing strategy that he says could turn state and system pol­icy around. Senior faculty in our state, he says, should carefully cultivate members of the board of regents and do so in a way that is respectful of the administra­tion, and the chaired professors, who have the ear of the administration, should use this to the advantage of us all. This strategy involves student government and the press. The faculty senate, he points out, can form a core of actual long-term strategic thinking and insti­tutional memory that administrations lack. We should point out to administrators that greater influence will improve morale and thus faculty outcomes; it will make their lives easier and improve student success at the same time. We should assert ourselves through fac­ulty climate surveys, op-eds in local and state papers, and student sit-ins. We must elect state and national-level candidates able to convince boards of trustees of the nature and importance of state universities. We need to build collegiality and trust, so we should avoid walkouts and votes of no confidence, tactics he associ­ates with the AAUP.

We might draw inspiration from the European labor movement, which is different from ours in that it emphasizes politics and policy, not just wages and hours or other working conditions. We could invite someone from a European union—Britain’s University and College Union, for example—to consult.

I agree with many of these suggestions and endorse them, although I note that my friend has sketched out a very large campaign. I differ from him in that I believe it is, in fact, the AAUP chapter or state conference that should undertake it. I do not notice senior faculty approaching board members, or chaired professors negotiating for anyone but themselves or their own programs; the faculty senate cannot offer long-term strategic thinking and provide institutional memory if its power has already been eviscerated. Many AAUP chapters, in my region at least, are far too reactive, coming alive to focus on individual tenure cases or to oppose particularly egregious administrative or legislative decisions but remaining quiet a great deal of the time. At the top, the organi­zation can seem unsure of its role in a world where tenure is no longer present to protect shared gover­nance and academic freedom.

I would like the AAUP in my state to be more visible, more unabashedly political, and to take initia­tive in the broader fight to reclaim the university. My AAUP chapter members and fellow faculty senators, however, would have to be optimistic enough to lend practical support to this effort. In Louisiana, state AAUP conference leaders and the statewide associa­tion of faculty senates have decided that we should organize at the state level, since local chapters tend to be weak and senates limited in power. I hope to suc­ceed, but I also want to think further ahead.

We need to increase membership, which sometimes appears to be all the national organization asks of us. But to accomplish that, we have to have a good time and also broaden our scope. Right now, we are the group that jumps up and shouts, “Procedure! Proce­dure!” when everyone else just wants to get on with things. We need to be more proactive and creative, to become better friends with each other, to enjoy life and work together, and to make new friends. This is particularly important in a situation where it is unclear how long the university will exist at all.

Most of us seem to feel the game is up, and mani­fest this through various forms of inaction or denial. The Edu-Factory Collective, among other advocates of the autonomous university, has declared that the university as we commonly understand it is as dead as the nation-state; refusing mourning and nostalgia, they support the emergence of new forms of education. But I still work at a public university, and as long as I am doing that, I want to advocate for the recreation of the public sphere. Public schoolteachers are striking for matters of policy, not just for wages; I, too, want to build a movement. Anyone who has tenure knows how to build and protect a career as an individual; I want to see us begin to support one another and our constituents as the corporate university supports its “stakeholders.”

The fact that we are not “one faculty” at my university could actually help us unite, since the university has many workers who contribute to the production of knowledge but are not faculty at all, and since knowledge is also produced outside the university—and not only by the university’s partners in research and development. If, rather than discuss only what we have in common with colleagues, we talk about differences in our increasingly hierarchical institutions, and if the people we organize to travel to trustee meetings include not just faculty members but also students and parents, staff whose children would like to be students, and neighbors who are not at the university at all, we might begin to build understand­ing and trusting relationships and reclaim for our century ideas like the public and the common good.

These things are important because, as philosopher Ron Srigley argues in his devastating essay “Whose University Is It, Anyway?” for the Los Angeles Review of Books, the corporatized, administrative university may well have won after a decades-long assault. The many critiques of what has happened, including my own, are written in hindsight. Like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, we look back, wishing to make whole what has been smashed. Conundrums like how much to emphasize collective bargaining or how much time to invest in the faculty senate arise because we lack a full appreciation of the current landscape. As we com­prehend that landscape more completely, we may also see more clearly where to act. Let Benjamin’s angel, looking backward but blown into the future by the storm called “progress,” be cheered by that Borgesian hope.

Leslie Bary teaches Latin American literature and cultural theory at the University of Louisiana–Lafayette. She is currently president of the Louisiana AAUP conference as well as District V representative on the AAUP’s Council and vice president of the UL Lafayette AAUP chapter. Her email address is [email protected].


Leslie Bary cogently analyzes the problems facing many work-based associations, especially our own. The academic profession is one that, perhaps more than others, can tend to attract and foster the kind of individualism that discourages collective action. This tendency or 'original sin', so to speak, has been exacerbated by the enormous financial pressures on institutions, which have been translated into a fragmentation of the faculty's work conditions (tenure-track, full-time non-tenure track, part-time, etc.). Such fragmentation creates the 'near occasion of sin' that makes it easier to succumb to individualism, tempted by the thought that 'I can develop a personal relationship with my chair, dean, etc. and get a better deal'. Early-career colleagues who do not yet have significant family commitments may believe that tenure is not needed; those in large departments who believe that they are protected from budget cuts may see faculty governance as unnecessary or outmoded. Many faculty members think of the AAUP solely in terms of individual faculty members with tenure problems rather than as an association offering a wealth of information synthesized in reports and assistance in acting collectively to address issues that all faculty members face.
However, sooner or later every institution and/or its administration will act in ways that even indifferent faculty members realize are inimical to their professional wellbeing. As Leslie and her colleague noted, these are important opportunities for AAUP chapters and conferences to provide services, resources, and fellow faculty to support corrective action. This leads to increased membership, which results in a greater role in the institution. Chapters and conferences whose members and leaders recognize growing problems and develop tools for faculty action attract new members and retain ongoing ones.
Leslie herself, in the offices that she holds in the Louisiana Conference of which she is currently president, has undertaken a number of initiatives to increase faculty involvement and membership. These include social gatherings, a newsletter, and a revitalized listserv. Bringing colleagues together to share interests and concerns is the first step in building solidarity and collective action to solve problems and create the renewed sense of the common good that she calls for and that many of us feel the need for. Another Louisiana colleague, Kevin Cope, leads the faculty senate of Louisiana State University with great vigor. He has revitalized the statewide Association of Louisiana Faculty Senates, established by earlier AAUP activists, with regular meetings that attract faculty members from many campuses and feature presentations by and discussions with higher education officials in the state government and faculty experts on various topics. Again, there is always a pleasant social component in the gatherings. Kevin also served on National Council. A previous Louisiana Conference president, Ravi Rau, helped to establish a committee of regional conference presidents who would meet to discuss solutions to common problems.
My colleagues at the Tulane University chapter provide further examples. Recent chapter presidents have conducted faculty polls about issues of concern and addressed them. Among the first was a cluster of issues: the administration's move to non-tenure-track lines, low faculty salaries, low funding of faculty research, and low funding of graduate programs. The chapter undertook a survey of faculty attitudes toward them and developed a letter to the Board of Administrators presenting improved salaries and funding and increased tenure-track lines as integral to achieving some of the administration's goals for the university, including in research status and student retention. Chapter members worked with colleagues in their own and other faculties to obtain hundreds of faculty signatures to the letter, which was sent to the Board and resulted in a meeting with the administration and several Board members. Also taken up by the chapter were particular questions of faculty status in the Medical School and the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. By regularly meeting at their campus (separate and rather far from the main campus) and working with those faculty members to address their issues, the chapter increased membership in those schools. An issue that Leslie takes up in her article, faculty governance and the problem of established faculty bodies being by-passed for committees appointed by the administration, was also faced by the Tulane Chapter, which encouraged its members to become candidates for University Senate positions and to revitalize the Senate's role in university governance, resulting in a greater faculty role in university decisions. An ongoing rewriting of the Faculty Handbook provided an excellent opportunity for the chapter to involve its members, many of whom had specific areas of expertise in faculty governance, to act as consultants to whom Senators could refer proposed changes. Again, this resulted in a greater faculty contribution to decisions. In all of these endeavors, moreover, the chapter frequently turned to the national office for advice and assistance that enhanced and focused their efforts.
Professional organizations remain vital when they offer the members of the profession needed services as well as the opportunity to share professional issues, concerns, and discussions. Leslie has opened up this topic and shared many valuable insights and I hope that other colleagues will join in with their contributions.

...and thank you for *your* work in Louisiana. You were often the only visible person, and you unflaggingly pointed us to resources and research that helped to raise consciousness and spirits, and to keep programs afloat.

Add new comment

We welcome your comments. See our commenting policy.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.