As an academic, I am increasingly convinced that a mass defunding of public higher education is coming to an unprecedented degree and at an unprecedented scale. People enjoy telling me that this has already occurred — that state support of our public universities has already declined precipitously. But things can always get worse, much worse.The universities have always offered safe haven for subversive and transgressive thinkers. Playing with ideas is like that, and sometimes the play leads to good things. Plus, the outbreak of social justice warriors engaging in verbal terrorism is not unprecedented.
In my network of professional academics, almost no one recognizes that our lopsided liberalism presents a threat to academia itself. Many would reply to the Pew Research Center’s findings with glee. They would tell you that they don’t want the support of Republicans. My fellow academics won’t grapple with the simple, pragmatic realities of political power and how it threatens vulnerable institutions whose funding is in doubt. That’s because there is no professional or social incentive in the academy to think strategically or to engage with the world beyond campus.Note, dear reader, that the paragraph says nothing about the nature of teaching and learning that goes on, or not, in those politicized departments. What good does it do to stay one micro-aggression ahead of the most easily triggered matriculant, if none of the graduates can rebut an argument or re-stock a coffee house?
Instead, all of the incentives point toward affirming one’s position in the aristocracy of the academy. There are no repercussions to ignoring how the university and its subsidiary departments function in our broader society, at least not in the humanities and, for the most part, not in the social sciences either.
Universities make up a powerful lobbying bloc, and they have proved to be durable institutions. I don’t think you’ll see many flagship institutions shuttered soon. But an acceleration of the deprofessionalization of the university teaching corps through part-time adjuncts? Shuttering departments such as Women’s Studies or similar? Passing harsh restrictions on campus groups and how they can organize? That’s coming, and our own behavior as academics will make it easier for reactionary power, every step of the way.
Our public universities are under massive pressure and at immense risk, and those who should be defenders of public universities still don’t understand that they’ve created the conditions for their destruction.