i dream of being possible

the heroes of academia: a short analysis of academic exceptionalism

In a recent twitter discussion about academic freedom, free speech, and trigger warnings in academia (re: the ongoing uproar over Oberlin’s policy decision – that it has already gone back on). I remarked that from both the student’s perspective (and that of general society, I’d imagine), the faculty is indistinguishable from the administration. Dana, of course, disagrees with me.

Fortunately, I have facts and reality on my side. Because if we are about to pretend that Deans, Heads of Departments, etc. aren’t actually faculty… I’d be curious to hear what their reactions to this news is. If we are also going to pretend like faculty (beyond what I’ve mentioned) don’t fulfill many other administrative duties, well, okay. If we are also going to pretend that faculty, as a collective bargaining unit, are not the most powerful and influential group on campus… Then I’m not actually sure we are talking about universities and colleges.

Like, especially coming at this as a librarian1. Absolutely everything on campus centres the needs and wants of faculty. Yes, the students matter, but faculty come first. If we have money to buy only one book, we’ll buy the one a faculty members wants and likely not even ask a student. Even the librarian faculty at MPOW is basically oriented towards serving the needs of the ~research~ faculty over and above any of their own needs.

In this age of rockstar academics, although certain aspects of this have been present for a while, we’ve built up this mythology around the rebellious academic who challenges the status quo, speaks truth to power, and pursues knowledge even (maybe especially) when it is unpopular or controversial. This myth is grounded in the notion of academic freedom and tenure. Academics need tenure to protech their academic freedom to pursue knowledge without limits.

Except… this has never been true of academics. At least not in modern times. Yes, there are many stories of scientists and the like being persecuted by the church for controversial (but true) theories of the world. Instead, today we get rock stars like Richard Dawkins who is an unapologetic misogynist and uses atheism to disguise his racism/Islamaphobia/xenophobia. He is sometimes framed as controversial, when all he does is reinforce the status quo and not actually challenge power structures at all.

And when we take things like Orientalism into account, we can also understand how the academic by its very role of producing knowledge and determining authority actually is a driving force behind global oppression. That the ‘knowledge’ produced within the academy (especially by social science and the humanities) is far from a ‘neutral’ goal existing within a vacuum and unrelated to the social, economic, and historical contexts that frame it.

When we talk about something like disability accommodations for students within higher ed, we cannot afford to make a spurious distinction between faculty and admin, not when faculty represent a common point of failure for disabled students often by outright refusing to accommodate their needs2.

Faculty often like to think of themselves as not being the ‘system’. They like to point their finger at the administration and blame the many problems within higher ed on ‘them’. It is an interesting deferral of blame given that the entire university system and administration exists primarily to serve the needs of academics. Given the reality that many academics themselves play important administrative roles within the university. And when a situation comes up like this, it is pretty easy to see that many faculty are far more interested in protecting their privilege (academic freedom) than they are interested in the rights of their students.

More to the point, the notion that academics somehow manage to exist outside of the capitialist system that ensures that there is no ethical production of knowledge (or anything else) only serves, again, to defer their larger responsibility towards society as a whole. That (by magic maybe) the ‘knowledge’ produced within the academy somehow doesn’t have real, material impacts on the way that society functions. That the university doesn’t exist as an incubator of ideas for how the privileged can consolidate power and excercise it in increasingly subtle ways…

And before anyone mentions the existence of things like ‘women’s studies’ or ‘Asian studies’ as examples for how the academy also serves as a site of resistance to dominant ideologies and to power… It is also pretty clear to see that where these things exist, they are usually amongst the poorest depertments on campus. They can also be viewed in a Foucaultian fashion as also being manufactured by power as sites where dissidents can be monitored and co-opted (as their own livelihoods become dependent on power and they become increasingly more invested in the system).

The fact that there is something fishy going on in the academy is often revealed in the dogmatic approach that many of its adherents have to certain sacrosanct principles of the current system. Question whether or not tenure is actually living up to its principles, and you’ll get shouted down by repititive arguments. Question whether or not academic freedom is a privilege worth fighting for, and you’ll get people literally asserting that using a logical fallacy (slippery slope) is a solid defense.

For all its stated values concerning critical inquiry and discussion, academia is strangely resistent to criticism and very resistent to substantive, systematic change. And faculty are very much the embodiment of this.

  1. Yes, librarians at my institution are tenured – at least if they aren’t contingent, precarious non-union labour like me. 

  2. No joke. I think every single disabled person I’ve ever spoken to about their experiences in higher ed has had to struggle with faculty who simply feel that accommodating their needs is too much work and thus a waste of their ‘precious’ time. The reality is, is that a refusal to even consider trigger warnings in academia is the de facto stance towards disabled students. Academia is a very hostile learning environment for anyone with a disability.