26 August 2014

On the Changing Mission of the Public University

Academic freedom was never free, though our conviction that it should be has always helped us look past the thousands of necessary, daily ways that it's not.  Scholars have to eat, the buildings don't build themselves, books come from somewhere.  Whoever pays the bills gets a say: tax-payers, parents writing checks for tuition, alumni donors, grant-funding agencies, publishers, founders, legislative bodies, politicians.  And why shouldn't they?  So often, their concerns are mild and legitimate, the accommodation not so painful, the appeal to a greater cause easily made.

And then higher education stopped being regarded as a public good, worthy of state funding, and things changed.  So much so, that I've had this cynical thought this past week:
It would have been better if the UIUC Chancellor could have said to the American Indian Studies program, "Hiring Steven Salaita is going to cost this institution $XK in lost donations and tuition, even taking into account the inevitable law suit.  We can't afford it.  I'm sorry, AIS, but you will just have to suck it up."  It would have been the end of AIS, obviously, which is bad.  But what we've got is worse.  In order to preserve the illusion that academia isn't for sale, our Chancellor, with the backing of the Board of Trustees, has sold out the very principles of academic freedom and faculty governance.  
It would be nice to know how much we got for it. 
The faculty in STEM and professional fields still don't seem to care that much.  No discipline-wide boycotts, and apart from a few emeritus faculty, no letters.  Not much signing of things either.  The ability to pull external grants and create entrepreneurship opportunities insulates fields that can do those things.  The likelihood that the BoT will "unhire" a well-funded chemist, say, because his climate change activism offends generous alumni who've grown rich from the burning of fossil fuels, is remote. It also means, of course, that STEM faculty have other things to worry about, different problems of dwindling resources, a whole different set of compromises to be made with entities outside the university.  There is, though, this consequence of the public defunding of higher education: it creates a divisive hierarchy of monetary value within the university, in which the humanities cease to matter.

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