Review: The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University

The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University
The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University by Ellen Schrecker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ellen Schrecker is a historian and what she writes is a history of academic freedom issues at universities through the twentieth century. The surprising thing to me is that by and large, there are very few instances, and most in the McCarthy era of breaches of academic freedom. Even here it seems that Schrecker is working with a far more expansive idea of academic freedom that simply the freedom of a professor to address curriculum objectives in the matter he or she deems best and to choose freely one’s lines of research inquiry. What is less clear in the whole area of academic freedom what protection should be given to speech and associations that have nothing to do with one’s discipline but affect the reputation of the institution you work with. The truth is, except for rare instances, even here tenured faculty are generally protected. Primarily, Schrecker’s finding is that the exception almost always involves the squeeky wheel who doesn’t get along with colleagues or who insists upon saying outrageous things outside the classroom context, such as the Ward Churchill incident.

The last third of the book focuses on corporatization, and it seemed to me that the book could have simply focused here. Her account of the cost economies brought on by the recession of 2008, the increases in contingent or adjunct faculty and the almost complete lack of standing these individuals have is probably the most revealing part of the book. This has major implications for the quality of instruction,the governance of the university, as well as the just treatment of the new teaching “underclass”. The real story of the lack of academic freedom is here–adjuncts are employed “at will”, often have no offices or even university emails. Indeed, they hardly exist outside the classes they teach in the university’s eyes.

In sum, I thought this was really two books in one. Each was worthy of treatment. I suspect the historic survey of academic freedom was attractive to the author while the corporatization issues far more pressing. I also would have like a greater consideration of academic responsibility–what are the obligations of faculty that go along with the freedom and protections for which this author advocates. Here, Stanley Fish in Save the World on Your Own Time was actually far more helpful in outlining both the obligations,and in his mind, limits of academic freedom, which doesn’t extend to proselytizing students for one’s own cause or to one’s out of classroom and research activity.

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