Henry Giroux makes the case meticulously that higher education is being de-linked ever further from academic ideals and standards and increasingly colonized by the profit-making centers of society. Academia has long been moving in this direction, but the economic crisis has sped up its transformation from a forum where power can be criticized into a combination corporate indoctrination camp and instrumentalized technical research center. Academia has never been perfect -- what institution is? -- but at least it previously resisted the impositions of power, whether economic or military, and traditionally tried to maintain space for non-commercial values. As Giroux says:
“Public spheres that once offered at least the glimmer of progressive ideas, enlightened social policies, non-commodified values, and critical exchange have been increasingly commercialized—or replaced by private spaces and corporate settings whose ultimate fidelity is to expanding profit margins. For example, higher education is increasingly defined as another core element of corporate power and culture. Public spaces such as libraries are detached from the language of public discourse and viewed increasingly as a waste of taxpayers’ money. No longer vibrant political spheres and ethical sites, public spaces are reduced to dead spaces in which it becomes almost impossible to construct those modes of knowledge, communication, agency, and meaningful interventions necessary for an aspiring democracy. What has become clear is that the neoliberal attack on the social state, workers, and unions is now being matched by a full-fledged assault on higher education.”
A university, as Giroux reminds us, ought to be a place where complex ideas are debated openly, where education in history enables putting the claims of the powerful into context, and where the humanities, philosophy, and art are learned so that young minds may develop their full capacities. Instead, the protection that tenure provides for new or controversial ideas has shrunk and weakened, the privatization and defunding of public higher education are making universities dependent on private capital, and disciplines that grow the whole person get shrunk or eliminated while business, technical, and applied fields get the lion’s share of the budget. Only what is useful for capitalism is allowed to prosper, and certainly nothing critical of it. This will ultimately make American higher education into a laughing stock, except in a few technical fields.
The ever-widening proletarianization of university labor is a grave injustice, and the public lacks a full awareness of the problem. Most teaching and research work is now done by graduate students or precariously employed professors working in part-time adjunct or contract positions that are very poorly paid and lack basic health care and retirement benefits. I have read of professors with PhDs who have been forced to live out of their cars because they cannot find full-time tenure track jobs, and I have a close friend who shuttles between three community colleges teaching eight classes per semester just to feed his family -- that’s twice the standard 40-hour a week teaching load, and four times the standard teaching load of a research professorship. I myself worked for two years as an adjunct instructor, and was making about $15,000 per year (before taxes) with no health or retirement benefits. I was about 60-90 days from bankruptcy when I got a job with the federal government. People are actually dying because of the indignities and inhumanities of adjunct work, and any established academic who doesn’t take some sort of action to correct it, even as little as donating to grad student unions or forming university committees to begin examining the problem, is morally complicit in this exploitation. If you are comfortably tenured but have done nothing to help your suffering grad students -- then yes, you are responsible.
To be sure, working in such conditions doing academic work is not as bad as working in a sweatshop in the developing world. But that is hardly the standard which we should be striving toward, and instead we need to ask to demand that universities become exemplars of fairness and democracy in the workplace -- because if they are not, then they cannot fulfill their public responsibilities to educate citizens and leaders for our democratic republic.
Such stories need to make it into the wider public discourse, not in the least because the Right has made much political hay over the years of the caricature of professors as out-of-touch ivory tower elitists who do not understand regular American’s values or their struggles. I am confident, however, that the spirit of the Occupy movement will begin correcting that lie soon, as well as taking steps to stop academia’s own 1% from continuing to abuse its