Faculty–Overseers or Slaves?

Against the Current, No. 70, September/October 1997

Donald W. Bray

IN 1967 JERRY Farber penned probably the most widely read piece by a member of the California State University, Los Angeles faculty, The Student as Nigger.

Jerry didn’t get tenure, I did. Upon my retirement, our academic fates and ideas call for reflection.

Jerry had written, “students are society’s slaves…teachers are no more than overseers.” Since the sixties, many faculty have resisted being mere “overseers” for the establishment. Indeed, our erstwhile Cal State LA colleague William Domhoff (in Who Rules America?) laid the U.S. ruling class bare and remained in the academy.

There is the danger now, however, that faculty are being forced by university administration to become themselves slaves of an emerging international order, in which transnational corporations rule through institutions of their devising.

The historic 1965 Teach-In at Berkeley galvanized emotion against a disastrous foreign war. In April 1997, in the same city, another call to intellectual and political arms was sounded at a teach-in on globalization, where three days of presentations and workshops made an overwhelming case that the issue of globalization will be the equivalent of the Vietnam War for this generation.

Tellingly, most of the 90 highly academically qualified and well-published speakers at this teach-in were not affiliated with universities.

Corporate-dominated globalization, unfettered by democratic control, poses a hazard to all the earth’s life forms, not only threatening the environment but worsening conditions of life for the majority of human beings. Its ideology, neoliberalism, has swept the world.

Globalization’s critics quarrel not with productive international cooperation, but with the political-economic juggernaut of modern transnational corporations and associated banks, propelled by the logic of profit, that answers to no one.

As the generator of ideas and concepts that can challenge the established order, the university should be a strategic fortress against these ravages, pointing the way toward greater human dignity and social justice. Yet present university administration officials have embraced neoliberal corporatization with relish.

Under the headship of Chancellor Barry Munitz the California State University system, the largest in the country, is careening toward a corporate future.

Cornerstones or Tombstones?

After you left, Jerry, we voted to form a union. Opponents argued that a Board of Trustees were in fact trustees of the interests of students, staff, faculty and administration, who would better protect the institution that union bargaining which would corrode professional relations.

As it turned out, preemptive powers were driving all professions toward the corporate model (it is happening to physicians in the absence of a doctors’ union). Our union is all we have; it puts us in the right camp, even though its bargaining stance is timid and it is fettered by no-strike legislation.

Munitz and company have produced a blueprint for corporatization called “Cornerstones.” (Some call it millstones or tombstones.) Munitz peddles his plans with state-of-the-art audiovisuals, even as instructional infrastructure is gutted.

The Chancellor is surrendering in advance to the assumed politics of the current state legislature. He gratuitously accepts that future students will have to pay painfully increased tuition, though present levels are already closing the door to qualified applicants.

He promotes the notion of virtual universities with virtual students, virtual professors and virtual libraries, which would end the possibility of a meaningful university and faculty whose personal interactions are the heart of learning.

He created the system of PSSI’s (which faculty pronounce pissies) or “merit” promotions, which allow university presidents to shape the faculty with an inordinate grant of power by largely separating faculty-governed appointment, tenure and promotion from remuneration. (More like an ordinary corporation.)

Advocates of “merit” policies claim that they are protecting tenure, while they secretly flirt with its elimination. In any case, appeals of personnel decisions are already routinely squelched by the bureaucracy.

Tenure is the real cornerstone of academic freedom and creativity. Despite imperfections, it is the only bulwark protecting advocacy of unpopular ideas in the classroom against the tyranny of the powerful. It is needed now more than ever.

Faculty senates are already in decline. Their role is being appropriated by the regional accrediting associations and the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE), guided and funded by a cabal of education-oriented foundations directed by coopted liberals.

Following their lead senior administrators devise university policy with only a token input from faculties. (The privileged position of administrators is manifested at Cal State LA where hey have carpeted offices, new furniture and skilled support services, while faculty function in infrastructural poverty.)

The cabal does the blueprint, faculties do the touchup. The blueprint has a political agenda: the production of obedient corporate citizens.

For example, Cal State University system campuses are redrawing their general education requirements. Included are mandated courses nominally prompted by past racial riots. These courses will have the effect of glossing social inequality as culturally enriching “diversity” or multiculturalism. “Can’t we all just get along?”

Get Tickets Punched Here

Thus, underlying “Cornerstones” is the assumption that the California State University system’s role is to design curriculum to please corporate personnel officers. Its students are not to ask what kind of society they want to forge and to live in, but how do they get their employment ticket punched.

The asking of profound questions is to be left to prestige institutions. Ours will be education for the technicians.

Included among the changes being mandated by the cabal are requirements for “assessment” which will have the potential to undermine academic freedom, by standardizing intellectual outcomes and invading individual classrooms in the name of maintaining “excellence.”

This will stifle ideas that would challenge hegemonic corporate norms. It may also have the effect of redefining a bachelor’s degree so as to reduce the college-educated population. This could fall most heavily upon “diversity” students whose cultures we are now supposed to extol; it will also mean that students who remain emerge from our institutions with cookie-cutter educations.

Hopeful faculty believe that Chancellor Munitz is offering concessions to politicians in order to save as much as he can of “what is best” in the system. Or, perhaps, like any other corporate downsizer, is he paying the devil his due in order to reach his next higher corporate position?

Munitz hints that he looks forward to a job in the Cal State LA English Department. At our wages? That was your department, Jerry.

[Postcript: Alas, no English teaching job for Barry Munitz. In July he left CSU to take another position with the Getty Museum. We received this information from Edward S. Malecki, chair of the CSU LA Political Science Department, who aptly comments: “This is an all too typical scenario…As usual the workers get left holding the bag while the top guy bails out for even more money elsewhere in order to spread his ‘vision'”–ed.]

Resistance and Refusal Coming?

Rationalizers of these programs say that their purpose to head off legislative requirements for “accountability” in public education. In California, however, as the increasing number of state legislators who graduate from the CSU system become aware of the implications of “Cornerstones,” they will confront the reality of consigning their alma maters to a corporate service function.

Students have already registered their opinion of the tuition increase proposal by voting two to one against it in a referendum at the San Luis Obispo campus.

The struggle is not over. Heroic department chairs, deans, and even some within the within the Cornerstones project strive to resist being overpowered.

Corporate organization is not a suitable habitat for the tradition of liberal learning. It still employs the medieval military model: each person at their post taking orders from superior, a format for academic disaster.

Now there has been added a nefarious principle: The soldiers are to be recruited on the basis of “can you get the [grant] money?” This is the same principle used today by Republicans and Democrats for selecting political candidates.

State universities are in dire jeopardy of being sucked up into the neoliberal vortex. For this to happen, their faculties must be relegated to “N” word status. We haven’t surrendered yet, Jerry.