Uncritical Faculties

How the University Professorate Created the Crisis in Higher Education, and How They Can Help Solve It


By Eric Lohman, August 2011

I am in­creas­ingly frus­trated by the de­luge of art­icles by ten­ured pro­fess­ors ex­plain­ing why it is an act of lun­acy for any­one to go to gradu­ate school in the hu­man­it­ies. I de­cided that it is about time that the academy hears what one of those lun­at­ics thinks, and it’s prob­ably past due for them to hear why I am fed up with their opin­ion on the mat­ter.

If Pan­na­pack­er cared for hu­man­it­ies re­search as much as he claims he does, he would not be so cava­lier about giv­ing up on it.

Ac­cord­ing to Pro­fess­or Wil­li­am Pan­na­pack­er in a Slate art­icle last sum­mer, what is needed to com­bat the ever-dwind­ling num­ber of ten­ure-track po­s­i­tions in the uni­versity is for hu­man­it­ies pro­grams to start pre­par­ing stu­dents for “real ca­reers” out­side of aca­demia by fo­cus­ing on in­tern­ships and net­work­ing1. I think his mis­guided opin­ion on the mat­ter per­fectly il­lus­trates how the prob­lem has got­ten so bad. It ap­par­ently has nev­er oc­curred to Pro­fess­or Pan­na­pack­er that this type of in­stru­ment­al lo­gic is pre­cisely why hu­man­it­ies pro­grams are de­val­ued in aca­demia. Os­tens­ibly he’s ar­guing that if a pro­gram doesn’t pre­pare stu­dents for “real ca­reers” in the real world of cap­it­al, then it is fail­ing its stu­dents. This is the ver­batim ra­tionale that has been used to squeeze out ex­pens­ive ten­ure pro­fess­or po­s­i­tions and re­place them with cheap gradu­ate stu­dent or con­tract labor. In oth­er words, Pan­na­pack­er’s solu­tion to the prob­lem is the prob­lem. Worse yet, one of his po­ten­tial rem­ed­ies is for gradu­ate stu­dents and pro­fess­ors to simply leave the uni­versity in or­der to show ad­min­is­trat­ors that they are un­happy with the state of hu­man­it­ies re­search. If Pro­fess­or Pan­na­pack­er cared for hu­man­it­ies re­search as much as he claims he does, he would not be so cava­lier about giv­ing up on it. Un­for­tu­nately, the good pro­fess­or is not the only one of his ilk who has lost touch with the nature of this prob­lem or its only real po­ten­tial rem­edy. I would like to sub­mit an al­tern­at­ive ana­lys­is of the crisis that so many pro­fess­ors in the hu­man­it­ies ap­pear to be con­cerned with, but have as of yet been in­cap­able of or un­will­ing to ar­tic­u­late prop­erly. With that, I’ll provide a solu­tion that I feel is more con­crete, and cer­tainly more likely to pro­duce sus­tained vi­ab­il­ity for uni­versity re­search and edu­ca­tion than any of the avail­able pro­pos­als.

Pro­fess­ors have much more power than they or uni­versity ad­min­is­trat­ors are will­ing to ad­mit, and I’m not afraid to say that it makes them com­pli­cit in the erosion of high­er edu­ca­tion.

It would be short­sighted to blame all of our prob­lems on uni­versity ad­min­is­trat­ors who con­tinu­ally de­mand more prof­it­able re­search from pro­fess­ors, and saddle fac­ulty with massive num­bers of un­der­gradu­ate bod­ies to teach and few­er re­sources with which to do so. That is, of course, part of the prob­lem. Or at least it would be part of the prob­lem if it wer­en’t for the fact that these ad­min­is­trat­ors are mak­ing de­mands on a body of people that hap­pen to be amongst the most highly edu­cated cit­izens in their re­spect­ive coun­tries. Amongst many pub­lic uni­versit­ies, pro­fess­ors have been able to main­tain some de­gree of uni­on strength. In the uni­versit­ies where uni­ons are ab­sent, the in­sti­tu­tion of ten­ure af­fords pro­fess­ors con­sid­er­able free speech pro­tec­tions, es­pe­cially re­gard­ing their right to speak out on is­sues of pub­lic im­port­ance. Now, in light of this new in­form­a­tion, it is hard for me to place blame squarely on the shoulders of the prof­it­eer­ing uni­versity ad­min­is­trat­ors, when in fact there is a group of people who far ex­ceed ad­min­is­tra­tion num­bers, are po­ten­tially bet­ter or­gan­ized, and have the in­sti­tu­tion­al pro­tec­tions to openly ques­tion uni­versity policies. To put it bluntly, pro­fess­ors have much more power than they or uni­versity ad­min­is­trat­ors are will­ing to ad­mit, and I’m not afraid to say that it makes them com­pli­cit in the erosion of high­er edu­ca­tion.

Just this last year, at my in­sti­tu­tion in Canada, the fac­ulty uni­on de­feated the ad­min­is­tra­tion in con­tract ne­go­ti­ations be­cause it was widely be­lieved that the uni­versity was at­tempt­ing to erode the strength of ten­ure. A full-fledged res­ist­ance was launched; much of the pub­lic re­la­tions lan­guage ex­pertly ar­tic­u­lated the uni­ver­sal un­der­stand­ing of the crisis in aca­demia. At this rather con­ser­vat­ive uni­versity, the fac­ulty uni­on was able to unite and de­fend them­selves against an ad­min­is­tra­tion that threatened their pro­fes­sion­al autonomy. At the be­gin­ning of this last fall semester, the fac­ulty also suc­cess­fully de­fen­ded the aca­dem­ic lib­rar­i­ans who were forced to strike over the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­sult­ing wage de­mands. Why was this pos­sible? It’s no secret that the ad­min­is­tra­tion, any uni­versity ad­min­is­tra­tion, is out­matched against a pro­fess­or­ate that is united in their stance, es­pe­cially when they have garnered the sup­port of oth­er groups of people in the uni­versity. But sadly, this is as far as the fight has gone. It’s true, ten­ure may be saved for those that already have it or those that may be in line to im­me­di­ately re­ceive it, but ten­ure as such is dangling by a thread, as is the fu­ture of high­er learn­ing it­self. And it is not the ad­min­is­trat­ors that stand poised to hang us, but our own ment­ors who have failed to ac­know­ledge how ten­ure is be­ing pass­ively elim­in­ated through the back door. The prob­lem then, if it is not already clear, is not the uni­versity ad­min­is­tra­tion alone, but rather the com­pla­cent, dis­or­gan­ized, dis­il­lu­sioned, and self-in­volved pro­fess­ors in the academy who have lost their re­volu­tion­ary spir­it, who have turned the oth­er cheek rather than res­ist, who have re­tired to the safety and com­fort of de­part­ment­al ob­scur­ity, and who have thus traded away the se­cur­ity of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of schol­ars in or­der to so­lid­i­fy their spot in the Ivory Tower.

The Oc­cupy move­ment has es­tab­lished a new found­a­tion for res­ist­ance, and the next lo­gic­al step is for this move­ment to spread to uni­versity cam­puses.

I am not alone in this as­sess­ment of the situ­ation. I will guar­an­tee that the armies of gradu­ate stu­dents strug­gling to stay afloat know who is to blame. So too for the con­tract lec­tur­ers and in­struct­ors. The grim job pro­spects have forced many to stay quiet out of fear that they will hurt their po­ten­tial to get a ten­ure po­s­i­tion when that times comes (per­haps the defin­i­tion of aca­dem­ic irony?). Many pro­fess­ors I know des­pise the neo­lib­er­al­iz­a­tion of the uni­versity as much as I do, they have fought ad­min­is­tra­tions on these very terms, and they un­der­stand that ex­ploit­a­tion of gradu­ate stu­dents is get­ting worse, as is the de­mand by ad­min­is­trat­ors to con­stantly in­crease gradu­ate and un­der­gradu­ate en­roll­ment. More and more teach­ing falls onto con­tract lec­tur­ers and oth­er pre­cari­ous laborers, but for whatever reas­on, no one seems will­ing to take a stand that is not dir­ectly re­lated to their own im­me­di­ate well be­ing. There is no need to dis­cuss this prob­lem amongst ourselves in­def­in­itely: we do not need to or­gan­ize a con­fer­ence to dis­cuss pos­sible solu­tions, and we cer­tainly should not con­sider throw­ing up our hands in frus­tra­tion, as though the powers that be have already won. The stakes are too high. What we need is for the pro­fess­ors of the academy to use their po­s­i­tions to help res­cue the uni­versity from the cor­por­at­ist, profit lo­gic of neo­lib­er­al­ism by openly and act­ively res­ist­ing fur­ther en­croach­ments by ad­min­is­trat­ors. The Oc­cupy move­ment has es­tab­lished a new found­a­tion for res­ist­ance, and the next lo­gic­al step is for this move­ment to spread to uni­versity cam­puses. Al­low me to provide a rough sketch of po­ten­tial ac­tion.

  1. What is needed first — un­for­tu­nate as it may be as a first step — is for fac­ulty to de­cide wheth­er or not the uni­versity is a busi­ness, or an in­sti­tu­tion of learn­ing; it can no longer be both of these things at once. It has served as a con­veni­ent scape­goat for tired pro­fess­ors, who care­fully walk the line between busi­ness and cri­ti­cism de­pend­ing on their needs at the mo­ment. The uni­versity has to be either a space of in­tel­lec­tu­al ex­plor­a­tion and free thought, or it is a fact­ory in which stu­dents show up and ex­change money for a de­gree. The in­con­sist­ent hy­po­crisy of uni­versity fac­ulty on this mat­ter has been noth­ing short of ap­palling. Treat­ing the academy as both a busi­ness, whose sole pur­pose is profit, and also an in­sti­tu­tion of un­bound and crit­ic­al re­flec­tion charged with tran­scend­ing the ideo­lo­gies of cap­it­al, race, gender, and sexu­al­ity, is coun­ter­in­tu­it­ive and un­sus­tain­able. It works only in the in­terest of uni­versity ad­min­is­trat­ors who have cap­it­al­ized on the myths of what the uni­versity used to stand for, in or­der to fill the lec­ture halls and at­tract donors; it has led to the situ­ation we find ourselves in at the present mo­ment.
  2. As­sum­ing that the hard truths re­gard­ing how we lost our way can be mag­nan­im­ously ac­cep­ted, the next step is or­gan­iz­a­tion. Fac­ulty, gradu­ate stu­dents, post-doc­tor­al fel­lows, un­der­gradu­ates, uni­versity em­ploy­ees, con­tract lec­tur­ers, and whomever else is in­clined should be­gin at once to hold gen­er­al as­sem­blies in or­der to identi­fy what role the uni­versity ought to be play­ing in so­ci­ety and the cur­rent bar­ri­ers to its ful­fill­ment. This I be­lieve will lead to an erosion of the hier­arch­ic­al bar­ri­ers between the in­volved act­ors, and will help us all identi­fy what we de­sire from one an­oth­er so that we may all help each oth­er real­ize our com­mon goals. Fore­most, we need to stop think­ing about what we can do, or are al­lowed to do, or what we can af­ford, or what we have done in the past, and in­stead we need to fo­cus on what it is we be­lieve the uni­versity is sup­posed to be about, and work from that po­s­i­tion and that po­s­i­tion alone.
  3. The fi­nal step should be to provide ad­min­is­trat­ors with the as­sembly’s griev­ances, and the ways in which they can be rec­ti­fied. The ul­ti­mate goal should be to wrestle con­trol of eco­nom­ic re­sources and sole de­cision-mak­ing au­thor­ity out of the hands of ad­min­is­trat­ors, whose in­stru­ment­al reas­on­ing and profit motives are turn­ing the uni­versity in­to a dip­loma fact­ory, made pos­sible through the ex­ploit­a­tion of gradu­ate stu­dent and con­tract labor. Ob­vi­ously, I don’t be­lieve that the ad­min­is­trat­ors will be re­cept­ive to the idea of re­lin­quish­ing power to a gen­er­al as­sembly. Faced with this in­ev­it­ab­il­ity, all should be pre­pared to hold a series of peace­ful demon­stra­tions, strikes, walkouts, and oc­cu­pa­tions, in or­der to dis­rupt all uni­versity busi­ness for as long as it takes to re­gain some level of con­trol and autonomy.

I real­ize I put my­self at con­sid­er­able risk pub­lish­ing this po­lem­ic. True, the fear of ali­en­at­ing my­self from the very fac­ulties I seek to join would ap­pear to be reas­on enough to stay quiet, but if someone doesn’t speak up soon, there will be no uni­versity to pro­tect. At my in­sti­tu­tion, our fac­ulty is spread thin amongst a cadre of ad­mit­tedly needy gradu­ate stu­dents, so much so that they are now at­tempt­ing to jus­ti­fy the re­fus­al of ref­er­ence let­ters and com­mit­tee ob­lig­a­tions. This is un­ac­cept­able. More gradu­ate stu­dents will be ac­cep­ted next year no doubt, but there is already no fund­ing for con­fer­ence travel. My will­ing­ness to speak out il­lus­trates that the situ­ation has got­ten so bad for us that as gradu­ate stu­dents, we are no longer con­cerned about the pos­sib­il­ity of get­ting a ten­ure track po­s­i­tion. In my eyes, ten­ure is already gone. Maybe aca­dem­ic free­dom will be next? After that, what’s to stop them from elim­in­at­ing all of the un­pop­u­lar or un­prof­it­able sub­jects? Claim­ing “in­sti­tu­tion­al pres­sures” was an ex­cuse that worked for the pro­fess­or­ate as long as the next gen­er­a­tion of gradu­ate stu­dents be­lieved there was still a uni­versity to go to. We once be­lieved we could de­fer uni­versity act­iv­ism un­til after ten­ure. Let this be the un­of­fi­cial no­tice that we no longer be­lieve that. There is in­deed a crisis in aca­demia, which is not de­bat­able. But the point at which it can still be saved is upon us. The meth­ods I pro­pose per­haps seem rad­ic­al, but I im­plore you, if we con­sider what is at stake, if we fail to save the very found­a­tion of thought, then we should all hang our heads in shame for what we’ve al­lowed to hap­pen.


  1. Overedu­cated, Un­der­em­ployed: How to fix hu­man­it­ies grad school.” Slate Ju­ly 27, 2011. 

Eric Lohman is a PhD student in Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, where he researches intersections of feminism and the social reproduction of labour power in the media.

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