Sunday, January 24, 2010

On Cary Nelson’s No University is an Island

Cary Nelson’s new book, No University is an Island, brings together many of the different issues currently facing the University of California and other higher education institutions. While his main theme is academic freedom, he is able to locate this central educational value at the intersection of several interlocking forces: privatization, casualization, corporatization, and globalization. Nelson, the current president of AAUP, asks the essential question of what happens to the ability of faculty to teach, research, and communicate when profit has replaced the public good, and when public institutions are being privatized while job security is being casualized. By invoking the general concept of neoliberalism, Nelson is able to show how even the most secure and privileged faculty are threatened by the growing power of business-oriented administrators who have wrestled most aspects of shared governance away from professors. From his perspective, without tenure, there can be no academic freedom, and without academic freedom, there can be no shared governance.

I was surprised to note that virtually all of the examples of corporatization and privatization that Nelson documents from around the world have recently occurred in the UC system. This includes administrators pushing expensive, untested online programs, faculty having their emails read, Right-wing groups trying to censor teachers, the creation of ad hoc committees to circumvent normal shared governance, the push to defund the humanities, the creation of false budget emergencies to enact hidden agendas, and the persecution of university whistleblowers to name just a few. Not only have I discussed all of these issues in my blog, but my program has been victimized by all of these destructive processes.

Not only did I discover this year that some administrators were receiving all of my program’s emails, but our campus, UCLA, recently had to fight an outside Right-wing group that was paying students to record teachers saying anti-conservative and “anti-American” things. If this was not bad enough, UCLA recently decided to set up their own internal web site so that students and other community members could report acts of bias. This type of digital surveillance system surely has a chilling effect on academic freedom.

Of course, one of the greatest threats to academic freedom that Nelson discusses is the growing use of contingent faculty who often have no academic freedom protections. While the union contract regulating the lecturers in the UC system gives the non-tenured faculty the same academic freedom rights as the tenured faculty, lecturers often have to self-censor themselves because many of them rely on getting high student evaluations to keep their jobs, and most of these contingent faculty members can be fired without just cause. We have found that even the lecturers with job security and due process can be eliminated if the university declares a fiscal emergency.

The greatest strength of Nelson’s book is that it constantly returns to the idea that only the faculty working collectively can defend the university as a public good. By chiding some of his colleagues for focusing too much on their own careers, he makes a strong plea for all of us to take back our institutions. Furthermore, by documenting cases of effective faculty resistance, Nelson provides a glimmer of hope in these dark times.


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