A threat to higher education

May 7th, 2010

Working from our all-volunteer basis and maintaining a commitment to light ecological footprints, the Nonstop Institute presently stands midpoint in its Higher Education Dialogues series of live video-teleconferences with leading higher education scholars from across the nation. At the current time when so many colleges and universities find themselves facing political attacks on the very idea of public purpose, along with severe economic pressures from retreating fiscal resources, our inattention to the circumstances of post-secondary educational possibility is not an option.

From this past week our second guest in this series, Professor Sheila Slaughter (University of Georgia, co-author with Gary Rhoades of Academic Capitalism and the New Economy), engaged the Nonstop audience in a discussion concerning the manner in which the new economy mode of academic capitalist thinking has become enmeshed with many dimensions of higher educational practice. Executive leaders, administrators, boards of trustees, but also many faculty are involved in enacting the current ascendancy of what Slaughter calls the “academic capitalist knowledge regime” over the “public good knowledge regime.” Whereas the public good regime views education and knowledge as a legitimate and reasonable expectation for all and to the benefit of all, the academic capitalist regime views education as a private service, and it handles knowledge as a commodity to be packaged, patented, marketed and sold.

Slaughter elaborated on a significant theme in her book concerning the essentially false promises academic capitalism proponents frequently make about turning students into “empowered customers.” In actuality, the marketing-centered university, perpetually hungry for tuition revenues, attends little to a broad consideration of individual educational needs and more commonly circumscribes student choice to the economic advantage of the organization. Despite aggressive promotion of representations to the contrary, academic capitalism in practice is not a good option for students, nor is it a good option for faculty labor, which faces increasingly less stable conditions of employment. Academic capitalist commercialization agendas quite frequently fail to cover the expense of the substantial additional administrative apparatus demanded as the cost of doing business. Slaughter provides us a great deal of food for thought and an occasion for exploring alternative ideas in efforts to move ahead.

Coming up on April 29 at 7 p,m., Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, joins Nonstop for the third teleconference installment in this series. Along with his long-standing work as a distinguished professor of modern poetry at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Nelson is widely recognized as a committed advocate for socially-just institutional practice and higher education reform. His 25 books include the 2010 volume No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom. Nelson has worked tirelessly to expand the traditional academic dialogues concerning intellectual freedom and shared governance to include meaningful consideration of graduate student employee efforts in union recognition, as well as calling attention to the systematically exploitative conditions increasingly common in many colleges and universities’ reliance upon part-time and short-term-contract faculty who are responsible for a great deal of many institution’s educational work but enjoying virtually no job security. As AAUP president, Nelson has aimed to better enable that association for taking on the significant challenges facing American higher education today.

Frequently situated as a voice of social conscience in national debate on higher education, Professor Nelson remains attuned to his educational roots in Yellow Springs. As an Antioch College alumnus he understands the importance of the educational traditions long situated in this community. He has in recent years generously shared his ongoing educational research with Nonstop, and we are pleased to welcome him back to discuss the current situation for progressive liberal education and possible paths ahead.

by Dan Reyes & Iveta Jusova

originally appearing in 4/22 YSN “Other voices”