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tip-toeing through academia

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The Academy and Academic Freedom

4 June 2011

When i came to graduate school, i admired those female faculty who had never sought, or perhaps never were granted, tenure. There was, just four short years ago, a growing dis-sentimentality about tenure. The complaints generally tended toward third-hand stories about laziness-after-tenure (LAT) – that once faculty have received tenure, they stopped caring about their teaching, they stopped publishing, they sat comfortably in their offices, pleased at their own accomplishments.

But the growing numbers of faculty-hunts, smear campaigns, and firings coupled with the massive de-funding of public education, and, really, even research and scholarship (the recent cuts to the Foreign Language Area Studies and the Congressionally-mandated Fullbright-Hayes, being the latest victim in a long line of slashes), has shifted my perceptions.

The number of tenured faculty has been dropping steadily for the last 35 years. This, coupled with the rising number of part-time faculty, is making for a very unstable environment for academics.

But it is the witch-hunt that has me most nervous. First William Cronon and now Barbara VanDyck. We are being told, as young academics, “Be careful. Get your tenure, then let loose.” But should we have to wait?

Really – that’s not actually my biggest concern. What i am overwhelmed by is the ways in which thoseĀ  in power continually look for new ways to manage that power, to navigate towards a singular kind of monopoly over power. The point of tenure, as i see it, is to protect academic freedom. There will always be LAT’s, just as there will always be slackers and all manner of people who don’t fit into some self-proclaimed frame of appropriateness – but the exceptions are not the rule.

Without tenure (and particularly in light of the kind of witch hunts that are happening across the world), we lose our ability to be singular voices of difference within the din of the status quo. Our job, as academics, is to think critically through the tough ideas, sift through them, disagree with them, with each other, to teach the possibility of a different world, whether we are right or wrong. Tenure, as i see it, is a guarantee that there is a possibility of thinking in new ways.

Our job is to push boundaries. We don’t run countries, we don’t control money or political decisions. We teach. We think. We share.

And we should be able to do it without fear.

I brought this up today with a colleague, and he said, “Just imagine those countries where academics get killed”…ironically enough, Professor Dashtiari was gunned down just a few days ago.

What worries me is that those with so very little power are considered so very dangerous…

But perhaps more frustrating and frightening, is the desperate attachment to their status that has driven some faculty to completely stand back as funding for graduate and undergraduate education has been gutted. Writing centers are closing, incidental costsĀ  are being pushed off on undergrads and grads, tuition jumps (and tuition-setting has been handed over to the board of regents – oh crap!), rowdy grad students are reprimanded, and a new president is hired at $800,000 a year.

We are losing.

Our beloved public education is being sold off to the highest bidder (are we all headed toward marketized departments like FSU’s Economics Department?) and our tenured faculty say things like, “Well, there just isn’t any money.”

Where are they? The country can fund wars and bailouts of corporations, but not the intellectual future of our own country, and our tenured faculty quietly sit back – cowed (?) into acquiescence…or is it laziness…?

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