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.

They explain, “Nous y défendrons une conception de la production et de la transmission du savoir qui ne peut être réduite à la vision étroite et utilitariste imposée par le gouvernement.” (We defend a conception of knowledge production and transmission that cannot be reduced to the narrow and utilitarian [instrumentalist?] vision imposed by the government.) They title their proposal, “University presidents don’t speak in our name: For a collegial university.” The Loi Pécresse amounts to a warrant for a “hyperpresidency” that could become a “form of despotism.” And they conclude:

La collégialité dans la vie et le gouvernement de l’université constitue, et a toujours constitué, le socle de l’institution universitaire : la préserver n’est pas une option mais la garantie d’un enseignement et d’une recherche libres, comme cela est le cas dans les meilleures universités du monde.

Collegiality in the life and government of the university constitutes, and always has constituted, the foundation of the academic institution: to preserve it is not an option, but the guarantee of free teaching and research, as is the case in the best universities in the world.

They don’t specify, really, what they mean by collegiality, except to lament their lack of “voice” in university reforms. Does it mean a relationship of equality and peership among academics? Does it mean a kind of cordial solidarity? Sometimes in the U.S., it’s taken to mean a kind of professional kindliness, an impersonal intimacy, a durable, reciprocal obligation to one’s colleagues, and so on. In this context, though, it’s striking that collegiality is explicitly linked it to academic freedom. In the U.S. context, as far as I’ve seen, this connection is seldom made: we often construe academic freedom as license to be politically controversial, as license to disagree, rather than as a feature of our professional relations as such. Here, on the other hand, academic freedom seems more a matter of democratic decision-making than of freedom of speech, more a matter of governance than of license to be disagreeable.

A similar kind of complaint is expressed by another group, “Sauvons la recherche” (Save research!). They say that the government has ignored the advice of the scientific community and instead proposed a false autonomy for universities which really amounts to a subjugation to political pressures. (One particularly interesting claim is that long-term research will be diminished and only short-term research will get private funds.) They propose (unsurprisingly) more autonomy and a revised system of budgeting. I’ve noticed an interesting rhetorical moment in all this: an appeal to the global system of universities is often used to legitimate national French educational politics. In Sauvons L’université, this took the form of a comparison to the “best universities in the world”; in Sauvons la recherche, they begin their petition by citing the president of Harvard:

L’enseignement et la connaissance sont importants parce qu’ils définissent ce qui, à travers les siècles, a fait de nous des humains, et non parce qu’ils peuvent améliorer notre compétitivité mondiale”, ainsi s’exprimait récemment D. Faust, présidente de l’université de Harvard.

“Knowledge and teaching are important because they define what, over the centuries, has made us human, and not because they improve our global competitiveness,” as D. Faust, president of Harvard University, recently put it.

It would seem that they must be quoting this speech, though the quoted passage doesn’t exist in the original text in the same form. But in any event, it’s odd that the pathway to French academic reform passes through through the rhetoric of Harvard.

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