U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Politics in the Neoliberal University: A Slight Return

First, I want to thank Jeff Williams for taking the time to reply to my earlier post on his review of Neil Gross’s book.

Though I started writing this post as a comment on Jeff’s post, I realized that it would be easier to read as a stand-alone post. I want to start by emphasizing how much I agree with Jeff about the state of the university.  I think he is 100% correct that the casualization of academic labor and the shift to a model of private funding are at the heart of a serious crisis in higher education.  I also agree that this crisis is far more materially significant than the purported liberal biases of professors.

Although I have still only begun to read Gross’s book (as I said in my original post, I was really responding to Jeff Williams, not Neil Gross), I also agree with Jeff about two other things he says in his reply to me: 1) Ellen Schrecker and David Horowitz are not equivalent, either in terms of their cultural power (Jeff’s focus) or the quality of their work and 2) what Jeff calls “two-sidism” is a very real problem in our political discourse that should be avoided. To the extent that Gross suggests that Schrecker  and Horowitz are equivalent or that there are only two sides to this issue, Gross deserves to be criticized for that.

So where do I disagree with Jeff?  In two areas which are, I think, relatively speaking minor, but still significant.

First, I think that the subject of Neil Gross’s book – the purported liberal bias of university faculty – is an important one and worthy of consideration in its own right.  It has been a major theme on the American right for over a half century. It has framed many public debates about the university during that time. And it has grounded many successful attacks on it.

Secondly, I remain unsure of what Jeff thinks the relationship is between the political self-understandings – real and imagined – of university faculty and the problems that he is most concerned with: the casualization of academic labor and public disinvestment in public higher education.   And, to the extent that I think I understand what Jeff is arguing about that relationship, I’m unconvinced.

It’s not very interesting (or very fair), in my opinion, to simply demand that an author (like Gross) write about topic x instead of topic y because topic x is more important than topic y. And, frankly, if that were all that I felt that Jeff  was saying about Neil Gross’s book, I wouldn’t have bothered responding.  Instead, as I said in my earlier post, I thought that Jeff was making a much more significant and cogent critique:

Williams is, I think, making an important point here.  Insofar as we continue to understand professors’ politics as disconnected from the policies and practices of higher education itself, we will neither understand professors’ politics nor how academia has changed in recent decades.

The question, then, is what is the relationship between professors’ political self-understandings and the rise of the neoliberal university.  And, I’d add, how might that relationship add to our understanding of the rise of the neoliberal university.

I should pause here to add that I find “neoliberalism” more satisfying as a description of the contemporary U.S. university than as an explanation of it….and even as a description one needs to use the term judiciously, as “neoliberalism” sometimes becomes, in our discourse, more of an epithet than a precise description.  As an explanation, neoliberalism shares many of the problems of other, broad, lumbering abstract nouns when they are proposed as historical actors in and of themselves. When one blames particular historical outcomes on, say, patriarchy, capitalism, socialism, or globalization, one is necessarily cutting corners that one shouldn’t cut.  David Harvey might, indeed, be the beginning of an explanation for how American higher education became what it has today. But to complete the explanation one needs to discuss many additional steps in the process.

Most crucially, in the context of this discussion, the role played by the faculty in bringing about these changes is very unclear to me. One of the other developments in American higher ed in the last forty years or so is that the power of faculty, even the 25% of us who are still in tenured or tenure-track positions, within the university has been greatly reduced.  The ongoing weakening of faculty governance has progressed alongside the processes of casualization and privatization. And while it is certainly possible that professors are, ideologically and practically, complicit in the neoliberalization of the American academy, it’s hardly necessary. Given our reduced ability to participate in critical administrative decisions, holding faculty principally responsible for casualization and privatization (which, incidentally I don’t think Jeff Williams is doing) makes as little sense as blaming faculty salaries for tuition increases.

So if one is going to draw connections between, on the hand, faculty members’ self-understandings of their politics and public debates about the political leanings of professors and, on the other, the rise of the neoliberal university, there’s a lot of work to be done. I certainly don’t expect such work to appear in book review in the Los Angeles Review of Books. But for me to accept Jeff’s assertions that professors’ self-understood liberalism is offered in bad faith or that it represents a total misunderstanding of contemporary politics or that (as he puts it in his reply) these self-understandings are just an instance of an empty kind of American “love of self-declaration” will take a lot more work by somebody somewhere. Because I don’t buy these claims simply as assertions. This is what I meant when I wrote in comments on my original post, “I think one would have to do a ton more work than Williams does here to justify such a move.” This is not an expectation about book reviews in popular publications but rather a suggestion that I’m not ready to accept arguments presented with insufficient evidence.

One doesn’t have to buy into a two-sidist understanding of American political life, in which the liberal-conservative divide explains everything, to believe that that divide explains some things.  Indeed, if we’re serious about avoiding two-sidism, we’re not going to do so by replacing the two-sidism of liberalism vs. conservatism with a two-sidism built around neoliberalism (though, in fact, the discourse around neoliberalism sometimes feels like a kind of one-sidism, in which everyone, or at least everyone who counts, is actually neoliberal).

So just as I continue to feel that the subject of Neil Gross’s book (if not Gross’s handling of it, about which I do have an informed opinion) remains significant, I also believe that, if we’re going to relate that subject to the absolutely crucial issues regarding the neoliberal university that Jeff Williams is concerned about, we need to take the political self-understandings of actors on the ground seriously and not simply come up with elaborate ways to dismiss them.