Impact on Professors and We the People
Rodolfo F. Acuña
Stanley Fish, “Neoliberalism and Higher Education”, wrote that few of his colleagues had ever come across the term “neoliberalism” or knew what it meant.
According to Fish, neoliberal principles are embedded “in culture’s way of thinking [and its] institutions.” While the term neoliberal is not frequently used, its supporters “mime and extend neoliberal principles on every opportunity.”
On university campuses in a relatively brief time this ideology has changed the mission of academy from an institution searching for the truth to a marketplace.
Privatization is the cornerstone of neoliberalism. Privatization is touted as the silver bullet that will solve the funding woes of “social security, health care, and K-12 education, the maintenance of toll–roads, railways, airlines, energy production, and communication systems.” According to them, the private sector can run them cheaper and more efficiently.
Americans, puzzled as to why Europeans tolerate being taxed so heavily, ask why do Europeans support such an expensive welfare state? The answer is that much of Europe is based on communitarianism, a philosophy that emphasizes the connection between the individual and the community rather than like the U.S. where individualism is taken to an extreme.
Critics of neoliberalism such as Noam Chomsky argue that neoliberalism benefits the rich and increases inequalities “both within and between states.”
Cash strapped public universities, after years of resistance, have succumbed to the failed philosophy of the Reagan Revolution and reproduced a new narrative that claims that the “withdrawal of the percentage of a state’s contribution to a college’s operating expenses” actually increases demand for the “product” of higher education which will lower the cost of delivering it without the need to raise taxes.
Meanwhile, in order to offset the lack of public funding, administrators have raised tuition with students becoming the primary consumers and debt-holders. Iinstitutions have entered into research partnerships with industry shifting the pursuit of truth to the pursuit of profits. To accelerate this “molting,” they have “hired a larger and larger number of short-term, part-time adjuncts.” This has created large armies of transient and disposable workers who “are in no position to challenge the university’s practices or agitate for “democratic rather than monetary goals.”
The problem is aggravated by the fact that most administrators do not know what neoliberalism is. Many come out of the humanities and the arts and those coming out of the social sciences have a rudimentary knowledge of economics.
Neoliberalism in order to grow must build a justification. Take the case of Shirley V. Svorny, a Professor of Economics and former chair of the department. In a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed piece titled, “Make College Cost More” (November 22, 2010), Svorny argued that “Artificially low fees attract some students to higher education who simply aren’t suited to the academic rigors of a university.” Svorny blamed unqualified students for tuition increases.
As insulting as her premise is the controversy was ignored by the administration and the faculty who increasingly retire to their “professional enclaves…” concentrating on their specialties that lack “a clear connection to the public interest.”
Most public colleges and universities are nonprofit institutions in name only. They are marketplaces pursuing neoliberal agendas. “Forty years of privatization, stagnant wages, a weak economy, a lack of jobs, and budget cuts have forced college administrators to find alternative forms of funding.”
The market logic is omnipotent. It guides faculty, academic managers and managerial professionals seeking commercial gain related to academic and nonacademic products. Faculty and students are rewarded, and programs are developed whose purpose it is to generate revenue with little attention paid to “pedagogical or knowledge-related outcomes.”
Few studies are available on the effects of neoliberal discourse on the behavior of students. Research on the motivation, scope, and how they shift institutional priorities are rare. Even Alexander W. Astin’s (1998) study fails “to connect [the theme] to the rise of academic capitalism or the power of neoliberalism.”
Essential to understanding students’ motivations is knowing the pressures of conformity. The Italian intellectual Antonio Gramsci called it the hegemonic project, i.e., the process where the ruling class’s ideas and beliefs become the common sense values of society. Through this process, neoliberalism becomes internalized and unequivocally accepted.
From my experience, the hegemonic process has had a profound impact on administrators, professors and students in making their choices. Students select majors and research topics in terms of marketability.
In my opinion, this mindset spells doom for students at the lower margins as well as ethnic studies programs. Since the 1990s, this has become very noticeable with many new faculty lacking communitarian values common to those in the 1970s.
The importance of the common good has given way to what is good for me, which overemphasizes personal autonomy and individual rights. Asking what promotes the common good is less common.
Neoliberalism also interferes with understanding or dealing with community needs. This is very noticeable among recently hired faculty members. They participate less in student events and faculty governance.
According to Gramsci, the bourgeoisie establishes and maintains its control through a cultural hegemony, Therefore, it is natural that new professors who have spent most of their lives in the academy adopt the culture of the university. For them, bourgeois values represent the "natural" or "normal" values of society.
Forty years ago, these bourgeois ideas were countered by a few ideological members who sought to construct an academic community. These dissidents heavily influenced intellectual discourse. This potential for political or ideological resistance has weakened, however.
In today’s academy, ideology is passé. There is noticeably less concern for the common good and more with the individual product. New faculty spends less time in the department and more time visiting colleagues in their discipline than meeting with students or Chicana/os studies faculty.
The first thing some new faculty complain about is the size of their offices. When it is explained that we have small offices by choice – the students have a reception area in exchange for a reduction in the size of our faculty offices – they ask who made this decision? The conversation is about their product and its value.
Other faculty members spend more time in departments of their discipline, although many of these departments have refused to accept them as permanent members. It is the product that is important and they believe it is enhanced by associating with scholars outside the Chicana/o community.
Part timers often do not want to do anything to damage their product. Take the UNAM (National University of Mexico) controversy: they ignored the political ramifications of neoliberalism. It did not matter to them. Neither did the human rights atrocities in Mexico, i.e., the disappearance of the 43 normalistas.
They are not sellouts in the popular sense of the word. They care about the issues as long as they do not affect the value of their product. Economics for them is an ideology and supply and demand are the only important factors in their decisions, Ultimately what is important is sustaining the value of the product they are selling.