At The American Prospect, Paul Waldman asks whether an attack on higher education is going to be central to the upcoming Presidential campaign. He predicts that professors will be “the villains in the story they’re going to tell.” (4/5/2012) Following on this story at Alternet (4/4/2012), in which Sara Robinson tries to decipher the point of Rick Santorum’s swiss cheesy claim that California’s public system no longer offers courses in American history, Waldman reminds us that political attacks on higher ed have a long history. Starting with William F. Buckley’s attack on secularism in the Ivy League in God and Man at Yale (first published in 1951 and now in its 86th edition!), Waldman walks us through the post-9/11 defrocking of Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado as an example of what is to come. Churchill, he argues, might have been “manufactured in the basement of Fox News to be the walking embodiment of every stereotype of the elitist academic conservatives hold, from his questionable scholarship to his equally questionable claims of Indian ancestry.” He continues:
Professors are a fat target for the right, because unlike public employee unions, they don’t have much ability to mobilize a counter-attack or coordinate whatever efforts they do take in their own defense. I doubt we’ll see tens of thousands of tweed-jacketed protesters take over state capitols. On the other hand, an attack on public universities is also mostly symbolic, in contrast to the anti-union effort, which has a clear practical goal as well, that of defunding and defanging one of the Democratic party’s pillars of support. You can mount a campaign against the tenured radicals, but there aren’t many big victories you can score against them.
Much as I appreciate Waldman raising this issue in a major publication, in his own way he is being as cavalier in his characterization of the relationship between higher education and politics as Santorum has been. Churchill is an example that obscures the daily struggles on university and college campuses that are fiscal, not directly political, in nature, and that also fall heavily on conservative faculty. Most of the professoriat does not falsely claim to be Native American, and that the vast majority of us are not so eager to publish that we re-edit the work of other people and blame it on the wife. Most faculty are concerned about higher course loads, larger class sizes, and students who drop out for lack of funds.
William F. Buckley’s elegant attack on Yale is also a poor example: it obscures nastier high points in the history of conservatism like loyalty oaths demanded from faculty during the Cold War, Governor Ronald Reagan firing Angela Davis for her political views in 1969, and the killing of anti-war students by National Guardsmen at Kent State in 1970. The attack on higher ed is well underway, and has been a consistent feature of conservative coalition building for the last 60 years. It is not symbolic, and the practical groundwork has already been laid for scoring big victories should a Santorum or a Gingrich reach the White House. The stage has been set in the decades-long refusal to raise corporate taxes to support education, the dramatic expansion of imprisonment as an alternative to educating the poor, the shifting of federal funds into military spending even as we wind down two budget-busting and immoral wars, and the current insistence that colleges and universities, and the tenured faculty who teach there, are alone responsible for the high cost of tuition.
The current de-funding of public higher education is not a threat to be deployed during a campaign, it is an ongoing reality for students, staff and faculty alike. Attacks on college professors as self-interested, liberal fat cats have been a crucial weapon since the 1980s. Even as academic front men for this project create diversions by demanding answers to stupid questions (for example, the fad a few years ago for asking departments to account for registered Republicans among their numbers and then accusing them of lacking diversity if Republicans could not be produced), legislatures have conducted a slash and burn policy on higher ed budgets (2011 budgets were the lowest in a quarter century.) Spending cuts reducing tenured faculty lines and the employment of contract faculty, while expanding an adjunct labor force that is highly vulnerable to being dismissed if it is perceived by as political, or as politicizing of classroom teaching. That the University of Wisconsin was able to mobilize successfully against Scott Walker also demonstrates that university professors (teachers’ unions and Wisco teaching assistants led the charge here, while police and firefighters’ unions offered crucial support) can mobilize effectively.
Why the investment in demonstrating how incompetent and out of it college professors are, when that is so demonstrably not the case? It’s not just people like me in the blogosphere who are activists, but there are powerful organizations like the AAC & U, the AAUP, New Faculty Majority, not to mention faculty who are now organizing under the auspices of unions like the United Auto Workers.
It’s unsurprising that a culture warrior like Rick Santorum would lie off the cuff about the lack of American history, because that’s what culture warriors do: they throw something outrageous out there and see if it has traction. Even when it is repeatedly proved untrue, a lie can be remarkably sticky, particularly when the public is growing steadily less educated about the truth. It is surprising to me that a journalist writing for a major publication would not even do a simple web search to look for the ways in which academics are organizing on their own behalf, and doing so successfully.
Could college professors do better to organize and defend the civic value of higher education? Could we do a better job of making our universities more porous to a non-matriculated public? Sure we could, and it is a vital agenda. But as the Wisconsin case, and the widespread outrage over conservative activists’ attacks on Wisco historian Bill Cronon, demonstrate, professors are neither tweedy or passive in the face of attacks. And this election season won’t be the first time we have become a target.
Political History Bonus: Patrick Buchanan’s 1992 RNC speech on America’s culture war