Monday, April 27, 2009

Not Your Cheney Kind of "Water Program," But Close

I don't know which is making me crankier, tenured Columbia professor Mark Taylor's Op-Ed piece in the Times grandstanding with his "abolish tenure" manoeuvre, or Erin O'Connor's applause:
I know it's hard for the folks who have tenure--or who hope to have tenure--to wrap their minds around the utterly vestigial character of an institution that has outlasted whatever limited purpose it might once have served to protect academic freedom in a different era, under different circumstances. But the time has really come for the people who are invested in tenure to conduct the thought experiment proposed by Taylor and others. If they can do that, they will have a fighting chance of preserving academic freedom and self-governance by other means -- and potentially of being part of a long overdue revitalization of the academy. If they don't, they will continue to be a shrinking, defensive, increasingly indefensible group with diminishing claims to authority, respect, autonomy, and, yes, academic freedom.
Taylor, as do a number of people tenured a long time, especially at higher-tiered places, takes as a given, one assumes, that he would fare well in this new system of seven year contracts he conjures up. The "thought experiment" is a fine idea, à la Rawls' veil of ignorance, but it is (why do I read Critical Mass, anyway ?), O'Connor's defeatism ("...preserving academic freedom and self-governance by other means...") that rankles, and, in fact, derives from academia-as-crumbling-fortress mentality she (and Taylor) take as a given. One wishes to take a step back, or many steps back, plague pole in hand. Academia is not the only world where advancement comes with some measure of security and freedom: lawyers make partner, all kinds of seniority and its privileges exist outside of academia, and I could go down this road suggesting other models vs. the current one, but that is precisely the trap one is being led into lately. It is the very smallness of this thinking that makes me CIA tonight indeed. Yes, there is laughable over-specialization, but that, as Taylor himself almost manages to point out, is a symptom and not a cause of some of the current malaise. Taylor is on the "problem-based" bandwagon, and suggests departments/discplines are the root of much of the evil, making this an end of spring semester piece for sure (when I arrived at his discussion of the "Water Progam," I thought I'd stumbled into satire. In fact, I imagine him in cozy New York digs strewn with oriental rugs laughing his leather loafers off...). Funny how interdisciplinarity and integrative programs are already gaining prominence. I give higher ed more credit: it is a smart animal and can transform itself without the pseudo-radical provocation from the likes of Prof. Taylor. It is here that institutions themselves must be more flexible, and open to the scholarship and kinds of classes they make possible; this may be generational, and seems to already be happening. Shi[f]t happens, and before Profs. O'Connor and Taylor and their ilk go scrambling in peri-apocalyptic survival mode, offering human sacrifices in hopes of appeasing forces over which they sense only minimal ---if any--- control, let's really get at that thought experiment: the larger questions that are diminished by the defensive mentality exhibited in Taylor's piece. The idea that only some radical reconfiguring will save us still has academia stranded on its on island, trying to build its own boat in order to land on the same shore. The larger and more compelling issues are the ones that become demonic forces in O&T species' mind (think of their initials as standing for "zero tenure"): in what kind of a society do we want to live ? If the academy becomes merely reactive instead of constructive, it will ---or has--- lost a great deal of its function in society. To be fair, I think Taylor gets at this via a jargon I can barely stomach; his piece is not a rant against tenure, and, in fact, I think we would agree that it is the role of the intellectual in the public landscape that must be expanded or re-righted to a position of prominence within public discourse. Yet this includes many areas that ought not to be subjected to the "problem-based" [spit] litmus test: do we not want a society where products of the imagination (literature, arts, new media) are valued and discussed for their own sake ? Where theoretical science may precede its application ? Taylor comes so close to a utilitarian stance without realizing it that I feel slightly ill. There are the complex questions; how to live, how to live well, what it means to be human and humane, that any decent thought experiment about academia should take on, and though a special promise of freedom of speech and practice (tenure) may seem redundant for some, it has done much to create conditions, in the best of circumstances, where creativity and intellect flourish and contribute to a better made world, better lived lives. Sometimes the bonds between the highly specialized and the clearly relevant are microfine, invisible threads, ---and, at a place like Columbia, Taylor evinces a deep sense of not being able to see the connections, even in his own department--- but one should not lose sight of the larger whole. I think Taylor would agree with this. What is not necessary, and is even quite dangerous, is a vision, a thought experiment, that opens with the view that the academy is a service industry, at least one modelled on fast food chains instead of Socrates' gadfly. I still do think that public intellectuals can exist, but they should not only or primarily be defined by their immediate use-value; and , yes, that without tenure, we lose, men and women both, a vital room of our own.


  1. Thank you, Cranky, for a wonderfully thorough response/analysis. It's one of the best I've seen.

    I've linked to it
    here along with other links, all from yesterday (there are more today, of course, see Crooked Timber, for example).

  2. Wow, Cranky. You're magnificent. Nicely done.

    ps: I hereby starrify "Shi[f]t happens" and move that it become a bumpersticker immediately!

  3. Excellent writing, Cranky.

    I also write a critical essay in response to Taylor (linked below), but more from a more political/economic perspective. Considered in that way, it's really quite disgusting.

    If you think like Taylor, then you believe that the university is a factory. So of course it makes sense to restructure it towards efficiency and profit, in this case by reducing job security, setting up comparative advantage, mandating retirement, establishing departmental quotas, etc.