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  • The Myth of Leftist Academia

    | Photo: Wikicommons

Published 4 December 2015
Professors who profess too much are easily fired when hired only by course, semester, or academic year

Among the many ludicrous things spouted on the U.S. right, few assertions are more ridiculous than the commonplace reactionary idea that United States universities and colleges are leftist hotbeds. Trust me, I know. I have a Ph.D. (in U.S history) along with a large number of academic publications, seven published books (with accolades on their back covers from leading academicians), a record of positively evaluated teaching, grant-funded research, and a long record of invited talks across the nation and down to Cuba. I have published more than 500 essays in print and online, many reproduced in numerous languages across the planet. My research and commentary has been featured in a large number of media venues, including The New York Times, and CNN, Al Jazeera, and the Chicago Tribune.

I mention this not to boast but to make a point. Bearing in mind that much of my writing and speaking has come from the openly radical anti-capitalist left, it stands to reason that I would be in some kind of minimally decent demand as a teacher and/or researcher by an academic system that was actually leftist. Without claiming to be the world’s leading left intellectual, I think it is fair to say that there would be at least some kind of minimally decent position for someone like myself in a radical left university system. The reality is quite the opposite: I would have little more than a snowball’s chance in Hell of being granted a remotely modest academic career in the U.S. today.

Part of the explanation of this curious fact has to do with an epic shift in the academic jobs racket that goes back more than three decades. U.S. “higher education” has stood for many years in the vanguard of the neoliberal reorganization of the labor market. It has converted a remarkable share of its onetime full-time and tenure-track teaching positions into hyper-exploited temporary piece-rate jobs doled out per course to a new academic sub-class of precariously situated permanent apprentices: adjuncts. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), more than 50 percent of all U.S. faculty today hold part-time appointments. Such appointees are “typically paid by the course, without benefits…. Non-tenure-track positions of all types now account for 76 percent of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education.” (I was employed [while possessing a doctorate] as an adjunct in six different Chicago-area institutions of “higher education” over five years at the end of the last Millennium. The pay fell below the federal minimum wage).

The downsizing of college and university teaching might seem ironic.  It has occurred during the same period in which U.S. college tuition has gone through the roof. But the money that is garnered from skyrocketing tuition – so high now millions upon millions of young U.S. adults are saddled for many years with unsustainable student debt – doesn’t go to sustain serious research and teaching. It goes largely into facilities, technology, and the construction of new layers of academic bureaucracy filled by highly paid administrators who lack understanding of, and concern for, the work that serious academicians do.

The last thing it is earmarked for is the employment of professors who would encourage students to look critically at the neoliberal higher education system and the broader corporate and imperial structures of power and inequality that the system serves. With an ever shrinking number of exceptions, the existing (remaining) tenured faculty understands this very well and does not wish to endanger its own relatively comfortable position by offering serious and sustained criticism of the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire. (The chilling absence of serious campus opposition to George W. Bush’s monumentally criminal invasion of Iraq was a symptom of this faint hearted mindset).

Properly cowed academic hiring committees know better than to invite trouble by bringing onto campus someone with more than merely armchair and seminar-room left politics. (The fact that I have such politics is readily available from one or two halfway intelligent Google searches of my name.) That would open them up to the charge of polluting academia with “politics.” 

So what if everything that the preponderantly un-radical majority of academics do is richly political and ideological beneath carefully constructed yet preposterous claims of detached, Mandarin-like “objectivity” and “neutrality”? And so what if a large number of transparently political operatives from the United States’ military, imperial, and corporate establishment regularly hold down prestigious and highly paid positions in U.S. colleges and universities? Those professors’ teachings and publications pose no threat to the concentrated power centers that ultimately control “higher education.” Their politics are not a problem for the powers that be. It is only leftish junior professors, temporary instructors, and adjuncts already on the margins of academe who get lectures from establishment academic scolds like Stanley Fish on how they need to “Save the World on Your Own Time” and not on the university’s dime.

If college hiring committees have any doubt about the higher authorities’ willingness to punish professors for becoming “too political” in the wrong kinds of ways, it can read about a growing number of cases in which left academics (including even tenured ones like Ward Churchill) have been stripped of their positions and essentially banned from “higher education” (like the brilliant Norman Finkelstein) for transparently political and ideological reasons.

The ideological control of the university is intimately related to the economics of “higher education” in the neoliberal era.  Professors who profess too much in ways that might offend concentrated power are easily dispensed with when they are hired only by the course, semester, or academic year.  Department chairs and deans can avoid headaches merely by not renewing the troublemakers’ contracts. Adjuncts and temporary instructors (glorified “Assistant Professors” at many universities) who wish to keep a foothold in academia are well advised not to rock doctrinal boats. As the AAUP notes, “The insecure relationship between contingent faculty members and their institutions can chill the climate for academic freedom…Contingent faculty may be less likely to take risks in the classroom or in scholarly and service work….The free exchange of ideas may be hampered by the fear of dismissal for unpopular utterances.”

The ideological disciplining power of neoliberal university economics extends down to students. Students who must begin paying off exorbitant student debts the day after they graduate are not likely to spend their college years honing their critical thinking and activist skills in ways that would help them become effective agents of social and environmental justice and revolutionary change. They need to focus on coursework that will help them garner big salaries from corporations.

Meanwhile, escalating tuition makes college unaffordable for the lower and working class students who would be most likely to challenge reigning hierarchies in meaningful ways. For that reason among many others, I find it difficult to bemoan absence from the hollowed-out halls of higher education. Children of and/or on the way to privilege are not my cup of tea and increasingly it’s the offspring of the wellborn who are the only ones left glancing at tepid professors while checking their Facebook pages in the lecture hall.

Paul Street is a teaching a course on the history of U.S. social movements this January with ZNet's World Institute for Social Change

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