14 June 2015

The Silence of the Brands

First, a few words about the current state of play:

The AAUP voted yesterday to censure the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  It feels anticlimactic, much like final BOT approval of a tenure and promotion decision: everyone knew it was coming, but now it's officially official.  And as with that final stamp of approval on the tenure decision, everybody is at a bit of a loss.  The big surges of emotion at various stages earlier in the process have left little in the reservoir for this moment.  Any sense of vindication is cancelled out by a profound sense of "now what?"

Tenure brings with it less ambient anxiety but more service and higher expectations.  Censure brings with it...well, what really?  Life goes on as it as for the past year, except that our local crisis over academic freedom has been overshadowed by threatened catastrophic budget cuts and the demise of tenure in Wisconsin.

Chancellor Wise responded to the news with a mass email to the faculty, which many of us could have written for her, so familiar have we become with her language for talking around the problem instead of addressing it.  So long as Salaita remains un-reinstated, his unhiring marks invisible lines that faculty can only be permitted to see when they've crossed them.  Under what circumstances is the BOT justified in rejecting a faculty appointment?  Which unnamed and influential stakeholders in the University of Illinois can trump the principles of shared governance? As faculty have pointed out in a variety of venues, revising the procedures to make such intervention easier does not answer these questions, much less affirm the principles of shared governance.  But so far, revised procedures are all Chancellor Wise has to offer.

That's all a familiar story at this point.  Now what?

Some faculty are hopeful that AAUP censure will harm the U of I's "brand" in ways that the upper administration will have to confront.  They take it for granted that the liberal arts departments that feel the shame of AAUP censure most acutely are central to the U of I's brand.  I've been looking hard for evidence this past year that the upper administration sees the liberal arts as anything but a vestigial adornment to its brand, and I haven't been finding it.   Hence my recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece, "How to Advocate for the Liberal Arts."   Nobody is doing it for us.

The sad truth is, it's hard to see how we can start doing it for ourselves, either.   There are no, none, zero institutional rewards for the kind of advocacy I describe in that article. Tenure, promotion, professional accolades, and recognition accrue to those who write for a narrow band of specialists. Anything that drains energy away from research narrowly construed in those terms (and the teaching that supports it) hinders professional advancement in very real ways. Besides, the Ph.D. trains teachers and scholars to function within a world where their importance is taken for granted--not to bring that world into being.

Thus it is that while that piece was extensively retweeted and reposted by academics all over the country, the tenure stream faculty at my institution--apart from a few with administrative responsibilities--have generally let it pass unremarked.  This silence makes complete sense to me. We're all trying in our ways to survive the latest and most devastating incarnation of the crisis in the humanities, for which Illinois and Wisconsin are ground zero.  Where "branding" is the benchmark of value, everything we know how to do is already beside the point, yet it feels like the only secure space to occupy.

No comments :

Post a Comment