What do you know about faculty democracy?

A correspondent of mine at the French group Sauvons L’Université asked me what I knew about the American institution of the “Faculty Senate.” The answer, loosely speaking, is not that much. The only time this issue has really even seen the light of day, on my campus, was in 2008 when there was a controversy over the Becker (formerly Milton) Friedman Institute that provoked long debates over faculty power (or its absence). On the other hand, in an extremely well-known case at the University of Virginia this year, the faculty and many other campus constituencies protested the removal of their president (Teresa Sullivan) and ultimately managed to get her reinstated in spite of opposition from the chair of their Board of Trustees. My general suspicion would be that the collective power of the faculty is rather minimal, at most American campuses, except in certain exceptional moments of crisis.

So here’s my question for you (assuming there are still people who have this blog in their blog readers): What is your assessment of the state of faculty democracy, in your personal experience? How would you describe the balance of power in your own institutions? What cases do you think are worth talking about? And what, if anything, do you think is worth reading on the topic?

Write a word in the comments, and we’ll see what we can collectively come up with!

Against the concept of academic politics

A question that people sometimes ask me about my project is: why aren’t you more interested in the “internal politics” of the departments you work on?

My objection to this question, which has been strengthening for months like steeping tea, is the following: strictly internal politics aren’t actually politics. “Academic politics” as commonly discussed is an oxymoron and a terminological error. Loosely speaking, I would draw the following distinction: politics is about social change; but “academic politics” are merely a form of internal quarreling central to the reproduction of institutional order.

Now I agree, as someone is sure to object, that the internal affairs of a department can involve scheming and bickering and back-room deals; yes, they involve structures of power and domination, (occasional) resistance and (very seldom) subversion; certainly, they have institutionalized decision-making processes, like democratic voting or dictatorial edict. And some of these structures and processes are commonly thought to be political. But to call all of this stuff “academic politics” is, in my view, a confusion of certain means used in politics, with politics itself.

What is politics, then? — one might reasonably ask at this point. Or less grandiosely, what do I mean by politics here in this post? The term politics is obviously used to refer to a bunch of semi-overlapping things: for one thing, there’s the official “political sphere” (the thing one discovers in the politics section of the newspaper with its speeches and pundits); for another thing, there’s everything that people do to interfere with and alter social reproduction, which only seldom overlaps with the “political sphere”; for another thing, the term “politics” can be applied to anything — it becomes a traveling metaphor that can be used in whatever other contexts one likes. I guess my view, not terribly well formed but sufficient for this argument, is that politics (in those modern worlds that have it as such) is the key secular boundary zone between the sacred and the profane, a space filled with both utopian projections of nonactual, future (and presumably “better”) worlds and with bitter and inevitably compromising struggles to implement some fractions of these utopian projections.

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University teachers join french student strikes

Liberation reports that twenty universities are still affected by student strikes, and more interestingly, that teacher-researchers are joining students in the streets. One said:

«La loi attaque la fonction publique», s’indigne Noël Bernard, maître de conférence en mathématique à l’université de Savoie, à Chambéry, et membre du Snesup-FSU, premier syndicat du supérieur. Il dénonce «le recrutement massif de contractuels», «l’autoritarisme instauré pour le président d’université et son cénacle», «les équipes qui seront pieds et poing liés aux bayeurs de fond privés».

“The law attacks the public function,” exclaimed Noël Bernard, a master of conferences in mathematics at the university of Savoie, in Chambéry, and a member of Snesup-FSU, premier union for higher education. He denounced “the massive hiring of contract workers,” “the institutionalized authoritarianism for the university president and his circle,” “the research groups that will be bound hand and foot to those who lust for private funds.”

The teachers have their own group, “Sauvons l’université” (Save the university), with its own call for action.

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academic activism in israel

Israel, it would appear, has an academic system no less controversial than any other… Haaretz reports that the senior faculty at several universities have been on strike for four weeks, claiming that they are not given adequate resources and, more interestingly, have rising anxiety about their professional status:

There is also a growing feeling that the status of academia in general in Israeli society is in a steep decline. However, some say that the academic world itself is part of the problem, because it is elitist and cut off from society, and has therefore made itself irrelevant… Faculty from various fields say the high social status that once adhered to the title of professor has been eroded…

The same debates are certainly heard in the U.S., where there’s a lot of anxiety about American anti-intellectualism, but also a horde of critiques of academic elitism. It seems that Israel also converges with U.S. critical discourses on postmodernism:

One of the main arguments of the veteran professors is that the decline of the humanities is partly due to a post-modernist trend “that has given a bad name to the humanities, because they have eschewed their task of presenting a clear scale of values,” one critic of the trend says.

The most sociologically interesting dimension of the strike is that apparently it’s led by senior professors, who didn’t bother to consult their junior colleagues before starting their protest. Last week, apparently, the scientific researchers joined them in their strike. They say, however, that they don’t feel that the public is paying any attention to them; apparently Israeli administrators have taken no definite action so far, and have announced no intention of doing so. They may be hoping that pressure on the faculty will increase as the strike lasts longer.

Apparently, also, a lecturer was suspended from his job after demanding that a student leave class. The student was wearing an army uniform and carrying a gun, and the teacher was “an Arab lecturer who does not identify with the Israeli army and who does not share in the naturalness with which many of us accept those who carry arms among us,” according to a letter written in his support by his colleagues. Obviously this has a lot to do with local Israeli politics; but it also raises, again, the question of how teachers can express their ethics or politics in the classroom, when they clash strongly with their students’ views, or with their students’ very identities. And to investigate this, we would have to return to the question raised by the first article: what is happening to professorial identity today?

american academic politics

A recent Harvard study reported in Inside Higher Ed indicates that a majority of American professors are moderates, rather than liberals. The most unexpected trend within this overall finding is that radicals and activists tend to be older faculty – which may suggest that newer faculty are less political than a 60s generation of profs, and that the academy in general is getting less political. However, it may also mean, as various commenters pointed out, that it’s easier to be an activist once you get tenure, or that you can get more politicized as you get older, or that it’s tempting to call yourself “moderate” in an era when “liberal” is stigmatized.

That’s all on the level of just trying to interpret the survey data itself. It seems to me, though, that Diana Relke, in her comment on the InsideHigherEd story, gave by far the most perceptive critique of the whole project. Initially she says, “I’m still not convinced that you can say anything about an institution by toting up how its faculty votes on particular issues,” since “the sum [of the institution] is always greater than its parts.” Which is exactly right: the politics of the institution and the political effect of the institution aren’t reducible to the ways that faculty consciously choose to classify themselves on surveys. (Case in point: according to the comment by “Unapologetically Tenured,” “people with college degrees vote Republican in higher numbers than their less educated counterparts. Thus, either indoctrination is not occurring, or it is failing miserably.”) On the contrary, all kinds of political dynamics can operate beyond the level of conscious belief – or for that matter, beyond any clearcut political metrics.

And Relke makes another major point, which is that “in my experience, the academy is rivaled in its conservatism only by the Church. And that has nothing whatsoever to do with the voting habits of the faculty.” In other words, even a single person’s politics are highly contextually sensitive — I think of those old white male Marxists who are purportedly committed to revolutionary human liberation but who are deeply authoritarian classroom teachers. One can still ask, of course, whether there are ethically troubling contradictions between their ostensible values and their practices, or whether there’s something intrinsically objectionable about these values or practices.

At any rate, a purely descriptive response to this whole debate would be that the university is complex and politically contradictory, and that those who are trying to find a single coherent political description are doomed to self-deception. And moreover that political descriptions of the university might be context-sensitive too. For instance, sometimes I’m tempted to say that academia really is not very liberal, but other times I freely acknowledge that it does have some thriving leftist subcultures, and obviously much social and literary theory has historical connections to left politics. And there are other times when what most needs saying is that the American university is also an instrument for the reproduction of class status through educational credentials – in fact, this might be its most sociologically important function. But the point is that a political analysis of the university has to account for the proliferation of contextually specific discourses about the university’s politics.

Finally, even if we had a perfectly accurate political analysis of the contemporary American university, the normative implications would remain far from obvious. If universities are dominated by liberals, is that some sort of structural necessity or a  mere historical accident? Would a predominance of liberals be intrinsically bad, and ought the faculty (or students) to be a perfect political mirror of society at large? (Do the likes of Horowitz long for the kind of affirmative action for Republicans that they might reject if it were based on race or ethnicity?) Or if universities are dominated by their donors and boards of trustees, and indirectly by the politics of the status quo and the desire for institutional self-preservation and prestige, then what are the political implications of – in short – depoliticization? What about the politics of academics’ claim to privileged truth, knowledge and expertise? Or the broader politics of “knowledge production,” of academic research into esoteric, unprofitable, seemingly socially useless topics like the structure of dark matter, or the techniques of medieval cathedral building?

If there’s anything I’ve learned from talking about the ethics of education in my own department, it’s that the morality of scholarship is fraught with troubling and only sometimes inevitable institutional compromises. I don’t know where this leaves us, except with the sense that the demographics of the political spectrum aren’t the best place to start thinking about academic politics. That said, however, the actual text of the study is much more analytical and interesting than the news coverage — it analyzes degrees of “cosmopolitanism” among faculty, for instance, and generally conveys a more sophisticated view of faculty politics than the news coverage would suggest. Moreover, it has a fascinating bibliography that I recommend, especially to myself, wholeheartedly.