Following a series of high-profile right-wing faculty bulling campaigns -- from Johnny Eric Williams to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Randa Jarrar and Rochelle Gutiérrez -- the white supremacist blitz against activist scholars has continued. Recently, George Ciccariello-Maher resigned under pressure from right-wing assailants. We activists who have undergone this abuse get frequent calls from one after another targeted colleague needing advice and support.
The presence of outright thuggery at colleges and universities seems like a new development in the Trump era. Indeed, he has emboldened white supremacists and anti-intellectuals. But such bullying is, in fact, a social movement tactic that is closely tied to other, long-term attempts to minimize the critical potential of universities. Attacks on professors are part of a collective, social movement phenomenon. Our responses, accordingly, must also be collective in nature.
Confronting the Original Pro-Capitalist University
Those who would defend a progressive vision of higher education have faced material and ideological pressure from all directions for a long time. For example, anti-intellectualism was commonplace as an attempt to discredit Communism in the 1950s. The university at that time was highly corporatized and largely captured for use by the militarized state during the Cold War, in spite of emerging democratic and Marxist critique in history, economics and across the humanities.
Hal Draper, an activist at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s, wrote an analysis of “the mind of” Berkeley president Clark Kerr. Kerr defined the university as a site of profitable knowledge production on an industrial model, a merger among education, industry and politics. That goal motivated Kerr to crack down on student protests on his campus: opening up the university to radical politics challenged his vision of a corporate “multiversity” run by bureaucrats and driven by profit, Draper says, as Kerr saw the university as a factory producing compliant workers and the knowledge necessary to run a capitalist society.
But the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley rejected the idea of a corporate university and asserted the mission of a democratic institution that could produce knowledge for the common good. The eruption of dissent across that campus was a struggle over the purpose of knowledge. And the activists won a great deal: the right to assemble and protest, the inclusion of black and immigrant students, attention to the oppression of women and exclusion of LGBTQIA citizens, and more.
In the 1960s and 1970s, campuses were sites of struggles over freedom of expression, inclusion and integration. They embraced a proliferation of knowledge from marginalized perspectives. Disciplines devoted to critique and empowering knowledge -- women’s studies and black studies, for example -- exploded as hubs of thought and organizing. All academic disciplines were challenged by their members to incorporate new voices and overthrow canonical thought.
Backlash and the Corporatization of the Academy
In the 1980s, the backlash against the vision of a vibrant democratic university came under the banner of a culture war and an attack on “political correctness” -- the ruling class’s term for the inclusion of minorities and women in higher education. The turn to racism and sexism was, and remains, tied to efforts to cut public spending on higher education. The attacks on women and minorities by the right warranted the state’s withdrawal from support for higher education. Universities focused increasingly on education in science and engineering in order to attract corporate and state funding.
As Henry Heller argues in his book The Capitalist University (Pluto Books, 2016), this backlash was tied to the proletarianization of faculty and the erosion of distinctions between university operations and the rules of business. At the same time, knowledge increasingly because treated as a commodity, a source of external funding and intellectual property.
Since the 1990s, administrators have escalated the rhetoric and practices of austerity, claiming budget deficits to deny faculty raises, student scholarships and staff jobs -- all while spending millions on the beautification of campuses and administrative bloat. Meanwhile students left behind by state and university support have taken on impossible amounts of student loan debt that they will never be able to repay.
The recent Trump tax bill threatened graduate students with taxing their rebated tuition as if it were income, raising the typical student’s tax bill by thousands of dollars. Although that provision was defeated by protest, other parts of the bill would deny students’ deducting their student loan interest from their taxable income.
The legislative onslaught against universities is best exemplified by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s deep cuts in the budgets of state universities and pressure for the elimination of tenure -- along with the academic freedom that it guarantees to scholars engaged in critique, controversy and activism.
The Role of Higher Education in Capitalism
As Nancy Welch explains in International Socialist Review, the assault on the material security of faculty is part of this picture. In the 1970s, 75 percent of college and university faculty members in the United States had secure, tenure-track employment. Today, that percentage is reversed. More than 75 percent of faculty are contingent, teaching on a per-course basis without health care or other benefits. At the same time, university presidents and other administrators are bringing in salaries at a level previously reserved only for corporate executives.
Severe cuts in state funding have meanwhile left many universities scrambling for corporate money. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reports that state funding of higher education in 2017 was $9 billion less than in 2008, writing, “The funding decline has contributed to higher tuition and reduced quality on campuses … At a time when the benefit of a college education has never been greater, state policy makers have made going to college less affordable and less accessible to the students most in need.”
Tuition has risen at a record rate since the 2008 economic crisis, by 35 percent on average between 2008 and 2017 -- much faster than the median income. Moreover, universities are making deep cuts in faculty and staff positions as well as in vital student services like health care.
Most public universities face serious financial difficulty due to the decline in state support. In response, they have significantly raised tuition and adopted an ideology unmoored from any responsibility for the common good. It is crucial to understand how administrators’ aggressive push to subordinate every aspect of the university to the needs of capital coincides with the right’s targeting of the left on campuses.
As Welch explains, the university fills an important niche in the reproduction of capitalist society, equipping a population with the knowledge, values and practices of a competent and compliant work force. The university also serves this purpose when it mirrors in its functioning the ordering logics of the broader society. To put it more starkly: the targeting of faculty for bullying and abuse coincides with the needs of the Trump administration in particular and of capitalist society in general.
The heralding of STEM education -- even at colleges and universities with other strengths -- also serves a political and economic function. President Trump’s National Security Strategy document spells out how prioritizing science and technology in education is key to keeping the United States prosperous and at a competitive advantage against other nations. He calls on us to “lead in research, technology, invention and innovation,” not because such knowledge is intrinsically worthwhile but because it enables the United States to “retain advantages over our competitors.” This plan depends upon subordinating university education to private industry and the federal government.
University administrations' valuing of STEM education over and above the humanities thus represents attacks on the gains won in the 1960s in the academy and in the broader society. The erosion of women’s studies and minority studies, as well as programs in the humanities, affects the people also most virulently targeted by the right. The emergence of queer theory and sexuality studies, antiracist and women’s studies, and the critiques of imperialism that were the result of popular movements of the 1960s have become real threats to the hegemony of right-wing ideas on our campuses -- and therefore threats to the restoration of a university system compliant with the imperatives of neoliberal capitalism.
Austerity as Context for Recent Events
All of this history should inform our understanding of why the right is bullying individual professors and attempting to get a toehold on our campuses in the form of student organizations and campus watch groups. The tactic of bullying individual professors is part of the larger pattern of neoliberal assault on both resources and ideas. The contemporary (post-McCarthy) campaigns against individual professors began in the 2000s. I endured the first of three bullying campaigns when David Horowitz published a list of those he considered to be the “100 most dangerous professors.” I was on that list as a result of my opposition to war. Later, I was targeted as an outspoken advocate of Palestinian liberation.
In a study of my own hate mail, I discovered how the people attacking me were organized and trained through right-wing radio programs and websites in the language to use against intellectuals; they were set off like arrows from a bow. It was clear that the right-wing culture leaders and pundits were leading the charge, and it was not about me or any other individual. It was a clear, organized political effort to demean and demoralize us -- thus weakening campuses as sites of critique and activism.
Today, this assault is a product not only of a recent proto-fascist movement in our society but also a longer history of pressure on the academy to give in completely to the imperatives of a version of capitalism that requires greater austerity, privatization of social responsibility, massive student debt and a resulting downward standard of living among ordinary people.
The other thing it requires is a quiescent population. The system’s advocates want to squash the creativity, energy and openness to radical politics among the next generations of citizens. The state, the corporations and their pundits think that they can make campuses safe for white supremacists -- who are again pitching their campaigns against antiracist “political correctness.”
The question facing faculty, staff and students today is: How do we fight back?
Multifront and Labor Organizing on Campuses
I recently published a brief “how to” for academics facing right-wing bullying. Targeted faculty members should secure their safety, use evidence and public support to pressure administrators, and build movements in their defense. We should also start a list or network of targeted intellectuals (such as the Campus Antifascist Network) because we have nowhere to keep up-to-date with the right’s campaigns or to offer support to the next targets.
Yet it is also time to think more broadly about how to respond. We need to look to the Berkeley movements in the 1960s to see how they challenged the corporate agenda. All academics should organize, not only on our own behalf, but on behalf of every member of the academic community. Faculty, staff and students should organize against racism, sexism, anti-LGBTQIA activity and other injustices as part and parcel of protecting ourselves from the right. The American Association of University Professors is a good resource for organizing. So are particular political organizations like the Campus Antifascist Network or the one I belong to, the International Socialist Organization.
In addition to those resources, the biggest source of power for us will be unions.
Since the National Labor Relations Board decision in 2016, graduate students in both public and private universities across the country have used their unions to win real gains and protect themselves against austerity and exploitation. Despite some defeats and bitter opposition by their administrations, they have won higher stipends and better working conditions at the University of Chicago, Columbia University, New York University, Yale University and many other places.
It is more difficult to organize faculty members into unions because professors think primarily about themselves as individuals in a meritocracy, believing that if they just work hard enough, publish enough, get good enough teaching evaluations and so on, they will be protected from precarity. But over the decades of the right-wing capitalist assault on the academy, things have only gotten worse for professors. And where faculty are unionized, they do better. It is little wonder that faculty unions are on the rise.
We can find dozens of examples of faculty unionizing over the past year. In July, unionized contingent and part-time faculty at Duke University won higher pay and longer-term appointments. In March, administrators at Ithaca College, threatened with a strike, gave in to worker demands. In November, in a union election held by the National Labor Relations Board, Fordham University contingent faculty voted overwhelmingly to join Service Employees International Union Local 200United.
The other source of power we have is unity. The Atlantic has reported that the assaults on higher education, including the tax bill, have brought together broad coalitions of activists. We should unite with labor beyond the university, as well. Nancy Welch argues that the division between industrial and intellectual labor is an ideological fiction that obscures the ways in which scholars face the same employers’ offensive as workers outside the academy’s walls.
Learning the alternative histories and experiences of oppressed people could lead naturally to challenging the system that requires that oppression: capitalism. We can only mount such a challenge together. As a unified economic force, unionized professors and graduate students can threaten a university’s profitability and reputation. They can bargain for all faculty and/or all graduate students as a bloc, securing protections and advances for everyone.
We are not just defending ourselves against the thuggery of the Trump era. We are pushing back against a decades-long attempt to render our campuses safe for capitalism and dangerous for the rest of us. Our collective, unified economic power is the most serious weapon we have in this fight. We can use it not only to improve the terms of our work but also to keep our public spaces of dialogue, critique, controversy and activism alive. As inspiration, we must look to the past, when students, staff and faculty rebelled against McCarthyism and the corporate university and demanded change on campuses around the world.