Sunday, September 05, 2010

September It Is + Abolishing Tenure? + Warburg Institute Woes

Now that Labor Day is upon us I'm finally returning from my little blog hiatus. As I mentioned back at the beginning of August, I had a number of blog-post stubs from July that I needed to finish, but I ended up devoting my energies to other things for most of this month, so I ended up reconstituting most of them into the photo spreads that precede today's entry.  Out of necessity my focus has turned to the upcoming school year, which begins in a few weeks. I have two courses, a graduate fiction workshop and an undergraduate African-American literature class, both of which I'm excited about, and several graduate and undergraduate advisees that I've been working with. Things are humming along.  I'm not, however, looking forward to the seasonal, geographical uprooting.  But such is life. On to the rest of this post....


Continuing on the higher educational theme, I've seen several different articles and blogposts over the past year on the topic of academic tenure and its possible tweaking or abolition, and have been meaning at the very least to point to them on here, but then I came across Christopher Shea's essay in today's New York Times, which revisits the issue in a brief discussion of two books.  One is Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — And What We Can Do About It (Times Books, 2010), by Queens College emeritus professor Andrew Hacker and journalist Claudia Dreifus, the other Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (Knopf, 2010) by Mark C. Taylor, a professor of religion at Columbia University.

I admit not to having read either of these two books, though I have followed Andrew Hacker's work for years, and have often found his arguments on higher education illuminating and persuasive, and I did read Mark Taylor's previous, above-linked New York Times piece, that Shea cites, "End the University As We Know It." I thought it unnecessarily outrageous.  In both cases, I will take Shea's word about the arguments of each book, which in Hacker's and Dreifus's case range from getting universities out of the research business altogether and focusing on teaching, to Taylor's push for greater cooperation with business and use of "efficiency-enhancing technologies" (the Internet?). Nothing that new in either case, really. Both, it appears, also believe that tenure, as it's currently constituted, ought to be abolished, and Shea points out that rather than coming from conservative critics, in the cases of Hacker and Taylor, both are ideologically on the left.

It's hardly news that critics from the right have long assailed universities, targeting above all the liberalism of the professoriate, and have sought ways to curb professors' and more broadly, academe's influence, not just in education but in society and the public sphere.  It may be news, however, to some that to a great degree they have succeeded, as the debates around climate change and global warming, to take just one and very pressing topic, demonstrate.  From the creation of parallel quasi-academic institutions and "think tanks" to media campaigns to undermine professionalized knowledge and expertise, Glenn Beck's "University" being a ridiculous but salient example, figures and institutions on the right have exploited not only widespread ignorance, class resentment, and the power of money, via mass media, to shape public perceptions, but also the US's long-standing anti-intellectual tradition.  Even still, there is the pesky problem of resistent academics being ensconced in their positions. You can create all kinds of pseudo-science you want, generate non-scandals that tie the media in knots about emails, and so forth, but you still have tenured (and tenure-track) atmospheric chemists and meteorologists, for example, who can conduct studies that establish rather conclusively that man-made climate change is occurring.  Abolishing tenure, and the security for (dissident and oppositional) scholars and scholarship that usually but not always comes with them, would thus mark a particular coup. 

I'd suggest that if Hacker and Dreifus think that tenure prevents new forms of knowledge from emerging (an estimation I find based on my personal experience not be grounded in reality), just imagine what would happen if people in academe felt that they had little to no security, not just economic, but ideological and political, whatsoever to do their work? As things go, the situation is already difficult for scholars and artists who do not have real job security, and present work that might be politically charged or difficult.  Moreover, given the now dominant economic utility model in American higher education, certain fields of inquiry at many institutions may be completely foreclosed.  An atmospheric chemist might be able to make a convincing argument to deans, the provost, a college's president and trustees, about the economic utility of her work, and may be able to secure if not government funding, then corporate or private foundation support. But what about someone who is studying non-extant Native American languages of northern Canada? Or the relationship between iconography, public culture, and the emergence of statehood in early European slavery-era Africa? Or writing a play and a commentary on it? Or, imagine then if everyone in academe were in this boat: if there were every incentive not to study topics with more immediate social, if not economic utility (though I would argue they are there), such as the complex roots of the widespread violence that broke out in late 1960s urban America, say, or the potential carcinogenic effects of formaldehyde, only a brave (and financially independent) few might dare do it, if at all, and would include at the sorts of financially-dependent institutes and research centers that Hacker and Dreifus are calling for. 

Critics on the left other than Hacker, Dreifus and Taylor have conversely critiqued the increasing corporatization of universities and colleges, and the neoliberal ethos that higher education, like other systems adopted throughout the rest of the West.  The corporatization of the University of California system led to strikes and protests last year, which were mirrored at a number of other American private and public universities, and a similar move, based on the Bologna Declaration of 1999 "reform" model, led to protests at German and Austrian universities.  Some left critics have also noted how higher educational institutions, especially the richer ones, have not changed as quickly in terms of their institutional structures, nor created opportunities for new generations of scholars, many of whom find themselves in serious debt after years of study, and with few prospects. To some extent this is laid at the doorstep of the tenure system. Although we have witnessed the effects of deregulation and an almost religious belief in the (not truly) "free market," which resulted in a global financial near-collapse, neoliberalism, the rhetoric of choice and individualism, and the idea that an ideal(ized) (yet-unrealized) capitalistic business model maps well onto higher education continues apace.  If I read Shea's reading of Taylor correctly, this is what he's arguing; but then what about institutions like the University of California system, where, as I noted, the corporatized model is having problematic effects on the educational experiences of all, save those at the very top?  What about the many public institutions that have seen sharp drops in funding, leading to the elimination or consolidation of departments and programs, which has meant not only the loss of majors and classes for their students, who are nevertheless enrolling at such institutions at higher numbers because of cost considerations, leading to a diminished educational experience and potentially also to losses in possibly vital forms and modes of knowledge? I am not suggesting that institutions of higher education do not have to keep an eye on their financial ledgers, but the idea that every department or program should represent a profit center or be subjected to market forces is highly problematic too. What is college for, what are universities for, what are the roles of teachers and students at and in them?

Shea's piece is ultimately is less about changes in the tenure system and more about the growing inequalities between institutions and their stakeholders, especially teachers and students.  Abolishing or limiting tenure--as Bennington has done, yet it remains one of the most expensive colleges in the US--is not going to resolve many of the issues at the core of the crises American higher education is facing, but calling for it does seem, at least from the preponderance of these articles, to be increasingly popular now.  I would only say to anyone who hasn't thought through the ramifications: beware!

(Bookforum's Omnivore blog devotes an entire post, full of links, to discussions on "the bonfire of the universities." Read it and...weep?)


On yet another related note, on the New York Review of Books' Blog scholars Anthony Grafton and Jeffrey Hamburger call attention to the threat the esteemed and incomparable Warburg Institute at the University of London is facing as the University, the largest in the UK and one of Britain's leading academic institutions, finds itself under increasing financial stress because of years of declining support and an increasingly corporate model imposed by both Labour and the Conservative governments over the last 35 years.

The University, which controls the Institute's funds, has since 2007 requested "'economic' space rental charges" of the Institute, which it cannot afford, and, according to Grafton and Hamburger, is considering as a solution the dispersal of the priceless library and archive (the "Mnemosyne-Atlas" 1924-29, above left, that historian and theorist of art and culture Aby Warburg (1866-1929) had initially assembled, in his native Hamburg.  This library and archive constituted the heart of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg in 1921, which in turn became affiliated with the University of Hamburg, moved to London after the Nazi takeover in 1933, was incorporated into the University of London in 1944, and became a founding institute of that university's School of Advanced Study in 1994.  Among the institute's former scholars, fellows and students, in Germany and the UK, number some of the illustrious figures in Western intellectual thought, in addition to Warburg, Erwin Panofsky, Ernst Cassirer, Fritz Saxl, E. H. Gombrich, Arnaldo Momigliano, Frances Yates, Michael Baxandall, Charles Saumarez Smith, Giorgio Agamben, and Grafton himself.

Ironically, Grafton and Hamburger believe that returning the Warburg Institute (at right, Wikipedia) to Germany might indeed save it as it's current constituted, though I wonder if they're being too hopeful in that regard.  As The Economist's September 2, 2010 article "Germany's mediocre universities: on shaky foundations" argues, German higher education isn't in the best state right now either. (It's behind a firewall.)  This entire situation unfortunately underlines the point I made earlier, about what universities and colleges, but especially ones dependent upon public funds, including highly ranked ones such as the University of London, are facing these days.

While I sincerely hope that Warburg Institute can and does stay in London, one of the world capitals of the study and practice of fine arts, as an integral part of a major public institution, I had to wonder how long might it be, if worse came to worst in terms of British funding, before some enterprising faculty and administrators, supported by wealthy donors, moved it to one of the richer private universities in the United States? Will it come to that?

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