The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University
Ellen Schrecker New Press: 2010. 304 pp. $27.95
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The university of today is a fractious collection of interest groups in which customers (formerly known as students) demand high grades for their money, while researchers with large frequent-flyer accounts (formerly known as faculty) seek to minimize their teaching 'loads'. Meanwhile, property developers, who were once called academic administrators, relentlessly push for institutional expansion.
Or so a raft of books on the imminent collapse of higher education in North America would have you believe. As with most caricatures, this one contains elements of truth. I am sufficiently concerned about the state of the academy that I have taken leave from Columbia University in New York to lead a new college in Canada — Quest University — developed from scratch to place teaching and learning back at the centre. But the above portrait is oversimplified and exaggerated. Two books, Naomi Schaefer Riley's The Faculty Lounges and Ellen Schrecker's The Lost Soul of Higher Education, add to the debate — and the exaggeration.
The tenure system protects professors but can be a block to academic freedom for untenured staff.
An oft-repeated story highlights the authors' differing attitudes towards academia. When Dwight Eisenhower became president of Columbia University, two years before he became US president, he began his first faculty address with “Employees of the University...”. Columbia physicist I. I. Rabi interrupted: “Excuse me, sir, but we are the University.”
These authors split along similar lines: Riley decries the power that tenured professors wield across the university system, whereas Schrecker bemoans the loss of academic freedom and faculty governance brought about by the rise of corporatization. Both cannot be right; neither is.
Schrecker is a former editor of Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors, the century-old, self-appointed guardian of the US tenure system. She presents a history of academic-freedom cases, both well known and obscure. Writing from a liberal standpoint, she argues that the “barrage” of conservative criticism now aimed at universities is not so much about curricula or concerns about taxpayer-supported radicals, but is a consequence of the progressive social mission of colleges. As the last haven for serious dissent and a vehicle for social mobility, she writes, the US university has become “a surrogate for everything that its critics dislike about American society”.