A Coming War On Universities?

When Rick Santorum went after the University of California the other day, it might have seemed like a one-off, fact-free hors d'ouvre of resentment, the kind of criticism of elitist liberal professors that we've come to expect from conservative culture warriors like him. Sara Robinson, however, sees this as the first shot in a coming war on public universities, following up as it did on a report from the Hoover Institution about how the academy is dominated by liberals. And she may be right:

But the content of this Hoover report isn't as important as the fact of its provenance, its existence, and its publication on the pages of the WSJ. Right-wing crusades almost always start with think-tank reports; and are issuized on the pages of conservative magazines and newspapers. From there, the ideas are picked up and disseminated by Fox, politicians, conservative ministers, and right-wing bloggers. If all goes well, within weeks, legislators will be paying attention, and lobbyists will be presenting them with ready-written legislation to propose to deal with this manufactured "problem."

This is the path we're on now. Santorum was setting the stage. He warned us, very clearly: Following the War on Public Employees and the War on Women, this will be the summer of the War on Public Universities. Whether the proposals will be to revoke their charters, close campuses, or sell off their facilities to for-profit colleges, you can bet that ALEC already has the bills in the can, and will be introducing them in state legislatures presently.

This is something of an old story on the right; William F. Buckley's "God and Man At Yale" came out 60 years ago, and carnival barkers like David Horowitz have made careers out of shouting about radical professors poisoning our children's minds. But short of the radical steps Sara mentions, what kind of things can a motivated Republican legislature do? Well, they can cut funding here and there, but that mostly hurts the students. So my guess is they'll go after faculty salaries.

That's because the professors are the villains in the story they're going to tell. Remember Ward Churchill, the Colorado professor who wrote some stupid things right after September 11? It was almost like he was manufactured in the basement of Fox News to be the walking embodiment of every stereotype of the elitist academic conservatives hold, from his questionable scholarship to his equally questionable claims of Indian ancestry. Fox turned him into a national figure. Believe you me, if this effort goes forward, they'll find some other professors at public universities they can turn into the next Ward Churchill.

Professors are a fat target for the right, because unlike public employee unions, they don't have much ability to mobilize a counter-attack or coordinate whatever efforts they do take in their own defense. I doubt we'll see tens of thousands of tweed-jacketed protesters take over state capitols. On the other hand, an attack on public universities is also mostly symbolic, in contrast to the anti-union effort, which has a clear practical goal as well, that of defunding and defanging one of the Democratic party's pillars of support. You can mount a campaign against the tenured radicals, but there aren't many big victories you can score against them. Unless I'm just not thinking creatively enough. We'll see.

Comments

About ten years ago, I recall looking at some ads for tenure-track faculty members - "Must have Ph.D. and at least two years of full-time teaching experience" - I'll grant that the jobs included benefits, but the salaries were in the vicinity of $50K. I'm not going to say that's a terrible salary as compared to the average worker's salary, that the working conditions are anything close to the most onerous, or that the colleges advertising those positions couldn't expect to get large numbers of applications. Competition for tenure track teaching positions is fierce, and the ratio of candidates to openings seems to work very much in favor of colleges. Despite the argument of those who claim that college professors are paid as well or better than comparably educated professionals, I'm not seeing it. With a few exceptions (business schools, law schools, medical schools), the typical professor seems to be sacrificing income to gain room for intellectual exploration and autonomy.

I will grant that there are some college professors teaching in fields that have little to no "real world" market value, but leaving aside the question of whether study of those subjects largely adds to the undergraduate experience (I would argue "yes"), I can think of few who wouldn't earn more had they spent a similar amount of time and money obtaining degrees that have 'market value'.

Did you see this editorial?

I don't think you're thinking nearly creatively enough. A few years ago, a member of the Utah state legislature, in response to a defense of a high school programed aimed at "socializing young people into a culture of learning" solemnly declared that "socialization" has failed every where it's been tried; he didn't know the difference between socialism and socialization and didn't want to learn.

I can see the state legislature here in Utah dragging college professors into hearings and asking them insane questions - "Prof. Gladhander, I see that you studied at the University of Chicago. Please explain the 9 ways in which you've applied the teachings of Saul Alinsky in your classroom." Some college professor will use the word "pedagogy" and that night on the news a state legislator will warn against pervert pedagogues in our college classrooms. They'll start hearings looking into the sex lives of college professors.

We will start reading op-eds by employees at neutral sounding think tanks warning us of the evils of college professors, and suddenly we'll be having a discussion about the risks of higher education because the mainstream media is too lazy to fact check conservative commentators. They will host debates between fire breathing conservatives declaring college professors are the spawn of the devil and a gobsmacked college president who, because he or she is literate, will believe education is a good thing.

The whole campaign will turn public universities into a vast sinkhole of waste and moral rot. We'll start hearing the praises of for profit schools and how they are so much more efficient. College students will rally to protect their schools and be tarred and feathered as nothing more than latter day hippies and parasites doing drugs,having sex and getting abortions on the quad. Half the public will be confused, one third ready to close public colleges and universities and the rest of us on the defensive. Unwilling to side with yuppie abortion sluts and professorial pedagogues, too many spineless Democrats will vote to defund the English departments at the state college. It will go bad fast. Think what the right did to ACORN only bigger, uglier and far more damaging in the long run.

Yeah, I'm afraid you're wrong here, Paul. Not only is there a lot that the right *can* do to professors, they effectively already have.

Two-thirds of professors -- teachers at the college/university level are -- now adjuncts. That means that most of them work on casual basis, often holding several part-time jobs, often without benefits, and certainly without the time needed to actually advance their own research and thereby establish a CV that could get them into a more stable situation. Across whole divisions of the university system, there essentially is no job market. See http://adjunctproject.com/

As always, we could choose to talk about this in terms of the "necessities of the budget," etc., but of course this is exactly how the right

    always

talks about cutting social programs. We've chosen to do this to our universities, and the damage it does to both teaching and research (not to mention the lives of teachers and researchers) is unmistakable: http://www.alternet.org/labor/154817/disposable_professors_how_the_labor_crisis_in_higher_ed_is_compromising_your_child%27s_education

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