08 August 2015

Want to Be My Provost or Chancellor? Quote a Poem I Don't Already Know by Heart.

When I first started blogging about Salaita, one of several questions that baffled me was why STEM faculty seemed so indifferent to the issues raised by his unhiring.  It seemed continuous with a humanities/STEM divide that had emerged in the course of faculty unionizing, but it was also different in important ways: different stakes, different consequences, different collective action.  I expended a lot of bandwidth trying out different formulations: dead canaries, boiled frogs, competing polarities.

A year has passed since the unhiring news broke.  My job duties have changed, and I now spend more time with administrative professionals from various campus units, less with fellow humanities faculty.  The issue now looks much more straightforward to me, but also much bleaker.  The corporate university has won.  The humanities and interpretive social sciences linger on as quaint vestiges of the ways things used to be done, but nobody who isn't us really knows why they're still here or what they're for, apart from supplying certain service courses.

After any meeting with my non-LAS counterparts, I find myself feeling as if I'm living in an inverted, nightmarish, gruesomely distorted version of Plato's cave: my tenure-stream colleagues, inside the cave, continue to watch their shadows on the wall, blissfully unaware that the cave is about to be razed to create a techno-shopping-R&D-corporate park, where a Liberal Arts Museum Boutique will allow some of them to continue to play with their shadows.

I really, really hope the recent ruling in the Salaita case, the demise of Phyllis Wise's chancellorship, and the FOIA'ed emails will change things.  There's a lot of attention focused on the dirty laundry flapping in the breeze here. Deo volente, some good will come of it, if only a clearer understanding of what we need to do to keep the dream of liberal arts education alive.

I am struck by how one of the released emails confirms one reading of the STEM/humanities divide that I offered last fall.  Here's what I said,

Money isn't institutional influence or freedom here--at least not to the degree we (in the humanities) think it is. For those in STEM, it means being a subcontractor or a tenant farmer. Everyone has to perform a certain amount of teaching labor and cough up a certain amount of grant money, in exchange for a building to work in and an institutional affiliation. The general contractor/landlord can be capricious, tyrannical, and opaque. Shared governance inheres in the fact that most of the time the politicians, thugs, powerful interests, and protestors are scared off, permitting the subcontractor/tenant farmer to get on with the work at hand.  
In this economy, the humanities are the folks camping in the woods. Sure, nobody really knows what they're doing out there, but whatever it is, it doesn't cost much money and isn't really hurting anyone, so nobody pays much attention. Exhibit A: The Salaita Affair, in which one of those happy-go-lucky sprites has unfortunately run afoul of the forces that ordinarily ignore them. The General Contractor/Landlord decided, as sometimes happen, to withhold her protection, and so the sprites, unused to these encounters and unfamiliar with the Landlord’s autocratic hand, are outraged. They need to just get over it--everyone else does! 
... Do faculty decisions get overturned? Are research findings vetted for their potential to offend powerful stakeholders? Is a certain amount of administrative overreach and malfeasance part of the price of doing business? Well, of course! The important thing (and this is the point everyone agrees on): the research goes on, and so does the money to support it. It is the height of arrogance, in this latter scenario, for those in the humanities to think that they exist outside these inevitable compromises just because they are too insignificant to face them on a regular basis. 
And here's what Douglas Beck (of the U. of I Department of Physics) said, reporting back to Chancellor Wise on a conversation with Kirk Sanders (of the U of I Departments of Philosophy and of Classics):

No, Beck doesn't call Sanders a woodland sprite, but he does divide the world into serious people who "get" the kinds of pressures bearing down on upper administration, and naifs who don't.  What he appears not to have noticed is that "good leadership" recognizes shared governance: it understands the decisions that faculty do need to be a part of, follows the procedures that protect those decisions, and treats faculty with the same transparency, good-faith, and mutual respect that are accorded any other stakeholder.  These principles are precisely what it means for faculty to "teach their classes and seminars, read and write, with little interference."

The subcontracting model that defines academic life for many faculty blinds them to the anti-intellectual effects of imperial decision-making in the corporate university, and it also insulates them. Humanities faculty, dependent as they are on the institution itself for their existence, are infinitely more vulnerable to administrators who don't understand their work and yet have power over it.

If the humanities and interpretive social sciences, the artiest of the liberal arts, are to survive in a recognizable form, we need administrators who come from those disciplines and understand them. It's not enough to quote the predictable lines from Yeats, read CP Snow's Two Cultures, or engage in patronizing listening tours.  We need to share governance with higher-ups who understand why public higher education needs the work we in these fields do, because they have perceived its value enough to do it themselves.


  1. You are a kind and thoughtful reader of this situation. Certainly more so than I can bring myself to be. It is the language about needing to "do a little realignment of expectations and realities" and "plant[ing] this notion with Nick [Burbules]" that makes it hard for me to read this even as benignly as you have here. We are not so much seen as forest sprites, as unruly children. Of course, this email explains VERY CLEARLY why Burbules launched his "shared governance doesn't mean what you think it means" campaign in the campus senate last year.

  2. Thanks for your careful attention to all these matters. I think about this stuff day and night but rarely write anything in a public or semi-public format because of despair, mostly. The thing I wish the agents of the neoliberal, technocratic corporate university model would realize is that it's every bit as much a shadows-on-the-wall game as what they think the artsy-fartsy academics are up to.

    I worked for a multinational corporation for 2 1/2 years while on a break from my Ph.D. program. I was already a trained anthropologist, so I was essentially doing fieldwork that couldn't be published because I hadn't done an IRB. My biggest takeaway is that not even *corporations* are running on the alleged corporate model of rationality and efficiency. The organization in which I worked had divisional in-fighting, communication problems between the sales field and upper management, a "ready, fire, aim" style of planning for the future that was mostly fear-based, and a problem retaining new talent (not to mention rampant sexism and a lack of diversity). My experience there led me to believe that the problems universities face are not necessarily qualitatively different from those that corporations face, because both are human organizations. Yes, the stated goals appear to be different, but both have always been nexuses of power of one kind or another. I feel like it would really help the cause of academia if we could somehow enlighten the public on the real lack of difference between supposed "real-world" businesses and alleged "ivory tower" academic institutions.