Monday, March 09, 2009

The Neoliberal University

I usually dislike Stanley Fish's columns on academia a good deal. In fact, there is much about this column I dislike as well. But he is right on in describing the neoliberal university.

This new narrative has been produced (and necessitated) by the withdrawal
of the state from the funding of its so-called public universities. If the
percentage of a state’s contribution to a college’s operating expenses falls
from 80 to 10 and less (this has been the relentless trajectory of the past 40
years) and if, at the same time, demand for the “product” of higher education
rises and the cost of delivering that product (the cost of supplies, personnel,
information systems, maintenance, construction, insurance, security) skyrockets,
a huge gap opens up that will have to be filled somehow.

Faced with this situation universities have responded by (1) raising
tuition, in effect passing the burden of costs to the students who now become
consumers and debt-holders rather than beneficiaries of enlightenment (2)
entering into research partnerships with industry and thus courting the danger
of turning the pursuit of truth into the pursuit of profits and (3) hiring a
larger and larger number of short-term, part-time adjuncts who as members of a
transient and disposable workforce are in no position to challenge the
university’s practices or agitate for an academy more committed to the
realization of democratic rather than monetary goals. In short , universities
have embraced neoliberalism.

In a time when neoliberalism is increasingly discredited around the world, the university system is embracing it more than ever. This leads to the devaluing of the humanities. Since we don't bring money into the university through our work, administration, boards of regents, and state governments don't care about us. I know that at the University of New Mexico, which is currently experiencing a titanic battle between faculty and administration, the school's president flat out told humanities faculty that they were irrelevant. Whereas even in this bad job market, math, the sciences, and to a somewhat lesser extent the social sciences, still are hiring some people because they can fulfill a role in the neoliberal model, there are virtually no jobs in the humanities.

I am fully convinced that next year is my last in academia. There aren't going to be any jobs. The few universities that are hiring are going to have their pick of Ivy League graduates. Since I am unwilling to debase myself as a poorly paid and powerless adjunct, I am going to have to try and find something else to do. I have nothing to offer a neoliberal university. Of course, I am not giving up. Maybe a miracle will happen. I am certainly doing what I can to make that miracle take place. This is why I've been less active on the blog in the last 2 weeks--I have an article due on March 15 and I am incredibly nervous and stressed about it. So I'm doing what I can. But in a neoliberal academic world, what chance do historians have?

One final note--one reason why I dislike Fish is his opposition to politically engaged academics. He is totally wrong about this--many students want politically engaged professors, political engagement makes our work stronger, and most importantly, gives us a voice in the world where we can use our expertise to try and influence policy debates and larger social issues. Giving that up makes us irrelevancies that reinforce the neoliberal institution, which Fish seems to begrudginly accept. I do not accept this.