U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Neoliberal University: A Reply (Guest Post by Jeff Williams)

(Editor’s Note: Earlier this summer, I posted a consideration of Jeff Williams’s review of Neil Gross’s book Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?  I’m delighted to present this response from Jeff, who is a Professor of English and of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. — Ben Alpers)

I was grateful for the serious attention to my essay, “The Neoliberal Bias in Higher Education,” on the USIH Blog. I was trained in literary criticism and theory in the 1980s, and, though critics would sometimes theorize the effects of History, little of it dealt with history in detail. I think that was a gap, and much of my work since has dealt with building an intellectual history of criticism alongside an institutional history (see, for instance, “The Rise of the Theory Journal,” NLH 2009).

My essay reported on Neil Gross’s book, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, although it focused more on the actual conditions of higher education in the US. My basic point was that we need several reality checks when we talk about politics and higher ed. First, I find it strange that there’s been so much attention to “liberal bias” when higher education, in the time I’ve been in it (grad school in the 80s, first professor job in 1990), has shifted from being one of the prime institutions of the redistributive liberal welfare state, that worked to provide equal opportunity to citizens previously excluded, to what I’ve called it “the post-welfare state university,” which is a more privatized enterprise, contingent on personal debt (of parents as well as students), producing saleable research (in patents or for businesses), and with its own consumer-academic multiplex. This transformation is part of a political economic shift that David Harvey describes in A Brief History of Neoliberalism.

In my piece and in my work otherwise, I have detailed some of what has happened, particularly the shift from a full employment model to the casualization of academic labor and the shift from a state-funded model to a privatized one, in the form of high tuitions, high debt loads, and record high student work hours. Yet, it seems that the chief topic of discussion in media and even among many academics has been over the presumed politics of professors. My objection is not that it doesn’t matter whether professors identify as liberal, but that this issue has taken all the air in the media room, so that it seems at best wildly disproportionate to the reality, at worst flak to distract us from what matters most concretely—that academe often fosters hardship rather than opportunity for those underemployed or indebted, and that it has actively reinforced inequality. That’s the reality for many, and it has been created through policy—that is, through actual politics, not through the box one ticks off in voting registration.

To wit, student debt. It now sometimes seems as if student debt only arose in the past decade, with the financial crisis and Occupy, but it actually began its sharp ascent in the 1980s, with the deregulation of lending under Reagan (particularly of unsecured personal loans), among other things. I have analyzed this situation in a number of essays, notably “Debt Education” (Dissent  2006) and “Student Debt and the Spirit of Indenture” (Dissent 2008), so encourage you to look at those if you want more evidence and analysis.

One problem with Gross’s book is that it plays into this representation. I have no doubt that Gross intended it in good faith to lend more reasonableness to the fraught charges about professors, but I think it’s unlikely the book will correct the debate. Rather, it will be a minor modification (“it’s not as bad as all that”), which tacitly will confirm that it’s a central issue. But I think part of our obligation as intellectuals is to provide reality checks and to speak against social and political ills.

Second, there’s a problem with method: Everyone seems to take at face value that, if someone says they’re liberal (or whatever), then they are. But that can be fool’s gold. It is like saying you are a Christian: many people say they are born again, from serial killers to Merton Society members, from corporate titans and war-mongering presidents to social workers, but what objective relevance does it really have? This is my unofficial speculation, but I think that the American love of self-declaration runs through our culture because it remains evangelical at core. Just as you are born again if you say you are born again, you are liberal if you say you are liberal. It is not about what you do—in fact, for evangelical Christianity, it is not by acts that you enter heaven, but solely the declaration. (This operates in academic culture too, insofar as one can declare to be a Marxist or other -ist in one’s work, while doing something else entirely in one’s everyday practices.)

I am not jettisoning the vocabulary that people use, as one commenter remarked. It deserves notice that professors testify to being liberal, but as I suggest in my piece, I think that probably means they lean to a certain cultural bearing, what David Brooks named “Bourgeois Bohemians,” so that their political views are part of a lifestyle package. I also give what I believe is a far better genealogy of the concern with liberalism: professors, whose numbers multiplied several fold with the massive expansion of the postwar higher education, were prime representatives of the good of the welfare state, benefitting many Americans (or their children) who made use of this new opportunity to an unprecedented extent. (Look at the numbers in my article—it was not easy for an English professor to find and calculate them.) So conservatives are not foolish to target higher education: it showed the good effects of liberal policies and institutions.

Besides its evangelical leaning to self-declaration, I also wonder if it is a particularly academic tendency to gravitate to discourse rather than to activities, since we operate primarily in a world of discourse, and it constitutes our archives.

Third, my biggest problem with Gross is that he draws a false equivalence that throws the left under the bus. He looks at William F. Buckley, using archival research, and David Horowitz, from personal interviews, to glean conservative ideas about liberal bias. As a kind of counter-balance, he then discusses Ellen Schrecker, particularly her book The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University (2010), finding that she subscribes to a conspiracy theory because she elaborates on the right’s web of organizations that have worked to transform higher ed. (He probably cubbyholes her as a conspiracy theorist because of her classic No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities.) Horowitz and Schrecker are structurally equivalent in his terms of argument but, reality check!, they are hardly equivalent in actual political power or consequence, or in material reach and effect. Schrecker is a professor at Yeshiva with books on McCarthyism and, though a long-time member of that bomb-throwing group, the AAUP, is not a major political force, whereas Horowitz is obviously a political powerbroker, controlling the David Horowitz Center for Freedom, among other organizations, and speaks and is quoted regularly in media. Gross uses Schrecker to maintain the rhetoric of objectivity, but the comparison, given their objective disparity in power, is misleading if not disingenuous. Not to mention that, as I say in my essay, the right might not rule through a clandestine cabal, but it does have a well-funded network of think tanks, foundations, and other levers, far beyond anything on the left. It is like the Yankees versus a high school team, so produces an extreme imbalance in current politics (do I hear a Koch?).

This is a textbook case of what I call “two-sidism,” the tendency in our political representations to boil things down to two sides. It is of course sometimes useful to make a distinction between one thing and another, but in politics, rarely are there two sides—more like six or eight, and curves, and moreover sides are rarely equal. To invoke two sides presumably confers balance and therefore objectivity, with the researcher removed from the two competing positions, but it often leads to absurd imbalances. For instance, climate change versus deniers are presented as equivalent, placed on the same rhetorical scale, but there is an overwhelming majority of scientists who objectively find climate change to be a fact. A countervailing view might deserve its day in debate, but to represent them as equal skewers objectivity and is actually intellectually dishonest.

My final reality check is about this exotic creature, the professor. There is a classic essay in feminist theory called “The Sex Which Is Not One,” pointing out the problem with generalizing about gender or sexuality. Similarly, there is a tendency to assume the professor is one, with a continuous history and bearing. But in my time in academe—if you take Harvey’s demarcation, according with the rise of neoliberalism—there has been greatly increased stratification, so that now only about ¼ of those teaching in higher ed are professors in a meaningful sense (that is, have fully-fledged professorial positions), whereas ¾ hold contingent, adjunct, or other lesser positions—some of whom are represented by the aptly named New Faculty Majority. That is the story of the professor in our time, not his or her putative politics, and it is glaring that a book purporting to talk about professors does not take account of this.

Lastly, one commenter says that, “Williams has to do a lot more work to show….” Please. This is the heart of pedantry: the piece was in LARB and Salon (and frankly, I doubt that you could get more factual information about the American university in three thousand words). Rather, I think the challenge is that we use our scholarly training and knowledge, and bring it to the public sphere. That’s the job of an intellectual, plus calling our culture on its holding to, or failing, our democratic ideals. Let’s make no mistake: that our public institutions of higher education have become instruments of inequality is a civic shame, and that is the politics that we should make sure not to lose sight of, whatever political label we claim to espouse.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben, I love how Prof. Williams accuses a “commenter” on your earlier post of “pedantry,” and then sends this essay to you — that very commenter! — to publish it on his behalf. Even more, I love the fact that you published it, Ben. Academic culture at its best.

    Now I think I’m going to go pop some popcorn…

  2. You’re right, that was churlish of me to accuse the host of pedantry. I should cut from “Please” to “Rather,” and instead say “Indeed, we have a lot of work to do, but I think the challenge is…” to write in the public sphere. I was probably overly polemical because I sometimes receive academic comments that writing in such fora is merely journalism, when it usually draws on scholarly research I’ve done. But I do also believe that we, particularly who are invested in what it means to be an intellectual, have an obligation to go beyond the academic default.

  3. This is a textbook case of what I call “two-sidism,” the tendency in our political representations to boil things down to two sides.

    Actually this

    First, I find it strange that there’s been so much attention to “liberal bias” when higher education, in the time I’ve been in it (grad school in the 80s, first professor job in 1990), has shifted from being one of the prime institutions of the redistributive liberal welfare state, that worked to provide equal opportunity to citizens previously excluded, to what I’ve called it “the post-welfare state university,” which is a more privatized enterprise, contingent on personal debt (of parents as well as students), producing saleable research (in patents or for businesses), and with its own consumer-academic multiplex.

    is looking at both sides of the same side, left and lefter.

    But there is a good point in here about everyone being part of the same hypocrisy–the edu-industrial complex that holds the keys to the diplomas the kids need for a nice bourgeois existence. If that means putting them in hock for a decade or two to finance our papers and conferences and dispensing of Great Thoughts, then it’s a win-win situation.

    The system works.

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