The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

Academe (Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors)

Paula M. Krebs, Editor.  May/June 2007.  Magazine format.  144  pp. 

Academe is not necessarily a positive term nowadays, as it enters its final phase of corporate co-optation.  It has not become a bastion for vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy, but rather one of free-speech restricting behavior codes, political correctitude, pomp and circumstance, and image exaggeration, not to mention rampant professorial self-censorship and cowardice.  The following review was sent to the editor, but she wanted it truncated to death before she'd even consider it for publication (see correspondence below). 

Cary NelsonThe current issue of Academe, a magazine I’d never read,was upon the give-away counter at campus mail.  So, I picked it up.  It was my last day at the university and possibly, if not likely, my last day as an employed professor… and not out of choice.  My intention was not to review it, just to leaf through it.  But the idea took hold.  Academe—not the magazine—tends to be pretty safe from hardcore criticism.  For example, it had been next to impossible for me to get tough critique published in The Chronicle of Higher Education and impossible to interest Thought & Action.  The former tended to prefer mild, cutesy how-my-husband-and-I-both-got-tenure-at-the-same-university articles authored by anonymous pen-name professors.  To get one column in response to the 52-guest columns authored by one professor praising his university in the local newspaper, I had to fight tooth and nail with the editor for several months.  Take a look at that column.  Then you’ll know why I had to fight.

To my amazement, on the very top of Academe’s masthead, listed as AAUP president, was none other than Mr. Tenured Radical himself, Cary Nelson.  Was I dreaming?  Would Professor Nelson soon be writing another book, Manifesto of a Tenured Goon in Academic Robe?  Let’s hope so. 

One feature story in Academe caught my attention, in particular, because it summed up what academe had become.  No, the story was not “Why Most Tenured Professors Don’t Need Academic Freedom” or “How Collegiality Has Replaced Truth in Higher Education,” but rather “Who Retires When and How?”  Exuberantly, the editor states:  “Examine your own college’s policies in light of the report; use it to help in your own activism on campus around issues of retirement benefits.”  Ah, so they called that activism today!    

Pages 4-5 constituted an advertisement-article for the AAUP’s efforts to raise $10 million for an endowment fund.  Money, indeed, was what higher education had become all about today.  What would the AAUP do with more money, if not assure the academic status quo of self-censorship, backslapping, self-congratulating, and image hyperinflation?  “Academic Freedom for a Free Society” was its motto.  But the reality was rather Academic Enslavement for a Corporate Society.  The AAUP boasted that it “defends the academic freedom of the professoriate,” but to do what, if not to do business as usual and otherwise fully cooperate in the corporate co-optation of the university by always exchanging silence for monetary remuneration?  Academe was festering with tenured-professor functionaries and bureaucrats, those “goons in academic robes,” in the words of Cary Nelson, and seemed to be quite content manufacturing more of the same.  It’s the system, dummy!  The AAUP ought to have been fighting, not for more money, but, for example, to put an end to the three letters of recommendation requisite in the hiring process because those letters assured a candidate likely not to exercise his or her First Amendment rights.  Instead, they certified the candidate unlikely to engage in vigorous debate concerning issues at his or her particular institution.  At this very moment, I found myself in a self-censorship dilemma because the dean had promised to write a letter of recommendation.  Why didn’t anybody speak out about that dubious institution?  A simple statement by an employer of an employee’s attendance and assiduity should replace those letters. 

Mayra Besosa’s article, “Golden State Solidarity,” was somewhat interesting especially the discussion on the attempt to apply “private-sector management models to the public sector” in higher education, otherwise known as New Public Management.  In her concluding statement, Besosa noted:  “as tenure-track faculty members become a smaller percentage of the professoriate, contingent [adjunct] faculty will increasingly have to carry the torch in the struggle to save higher education.”  That sounded nice, but why had higher education gone down the tubes when tenure-track faculty had existed in larger numbers, if not because most tenured faculty were simply uninterested in truth and democracy at their particular institutions?  Their interest tended to be more monetary and job-security than anything else.  “Together, we (adjunct and tenure-track faculty) can challenge the notion that anyone should have to sacrifice human dignity and respect to the needs of cost-efficiency.”  Again, that sounded fine and dandy, but what about those tenured faculty—the large majority—who didn’t seem to give a damn about dignity?  What was most needed in higher education were faculty who would “go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways” (Emerson) and who would let their lives “be a counterfriction to stop the machine” (Thoreau).  So rare were such faculty in higher education today that one had to conclude tenure or the absence thereof had simply become irrelevant.  Instead, faculty members overly concerned with offending or being offended had proliferated. 

Of little if any interest was the superficial “filler” article authored by William C. Handorf, “Football or Physics?”  It dealt with higher education… as featured on commemorative postal stamps over the years and how to make suggestions for future stamps.  That article would have made a great feature story in The Chronicle of Higher Education!  Well, I’d like to make a suggestion or two:  a professor in black gown and multicolored court-jester hat or a professor holding a sword thrust into the heart of democracy. Hmm.    

The report on institutions censured by the AAUP was of interest, listing 43 such institutions and developments regarding each one.  But 43 seemed relatively small.  I would have expected 99% of all institutions of higher education to be deserving of censure for intolerance of free speech and expression.  It’s the system, dummy!  The AAUP stipulated that its “censure is visited specifically upon” an institution’s “administration,” not faculty.  Perhaps it was time it contemplated censuring the latter too.  The institutions where I’ve taught all ought to have been censured for corrupt administrations and cowardly faculty bodies, yet not one of them appeared on the list, not Elmira College, Fitchburg State College, Bennett College, Grambling State College, nor Davenport University.  Interestingly, some of the censured institutions had been on the AAUP list since the sixties and seventies and some clearly didn’t give a damn about their status. 

More than half of this issue of Academe was devoted to a rather tedious business-like special report on Katrina and the diverse Louisiana universities affected by her.  I did not read the report, only the very beginning. 

Finally, Cary Nelson’s last-page editorial, “No Campus Is an Island,” dealt with tenure and the purported great fear of professors of the possibility of losing it!  Well, that alone ought to have helped keep their muzzles firmly in place.  But why would professors who rarely if ever dared openly criticize their particular institutions be so concerned with losing their jobs?  That was a question Nelson did not address.  Clearly, free speech was not the concern at all and perhaps ought not to be confused with academic freedom, which more likely dealt with the freedom not to publish, not to refresh ones courses with new materials, not to engage students sufficiently, and especially not to be an ardent supporter of the First Amendment.  Nelson seemed to focus on—what else is new?—money, arguing that tenured faculty needed to “hold common cause” (i.e., holding on to tenure), but “How much solidarity should an assistant professor of art feel with an assistant professor of business earning more than twice as much?”  Tenure ought to be eliminated.  The majority of professors, who had it, clearly didn’t deserve it because they failed miserably to meet their moral obligation to encourage free speech and expression and vigorous debate on their particular campuses.  With that regard, I tested the waters at each and every institution where I taught. Most professors (99%) were simply uninterested.  That was the nature of the beast. 

By the way, in the mid-90s, in vain, I tried to obtain help from the AAUP regarding the corruption I experienced first hand on the tenure track at a public college.  AAUP members at that college (Fitchburg State, MA) proved entirely indifferent and unsupportive.  Some even proved hostile. That college ended up paying me a secret monetary settlement because the corruption my case underscored was egregious.  Yet those AAUP members chose to either ignore or belittle it.  Most of them are still festering at that institution, ever grubbing for mo’ money…
                                                                                                                                                                                         —The Editor

Date:  Tue, 29 May 2007 10:04:31 -0700 (PDT)
From:  "George Slone" <>  
Subject:  Review of ACADEME
Dear Editor,
The following is a review of the current issue of Academe.  Please place it in your letters section.  If you’d like a cartoon on Cary Nelson to illustrate it, I can have one finished in a week.  In any case, I’m working on that cartoon and will send it whether you’re interested or not.  Please forward Nelson’s email, so he might be able to contemplate it.  Thank you. 
G. Tod Slone, Editor


Date:  Tue, 29 May 2007 19:37:41 -0400
From:  "Paula Krebs" <>  
To:  "George Slone" <>
Subject:  Review of ACADEME

Dear Dr. Slone:
Academe accepts letters to the editor of three hundred words or less and reserves the right to edit letters.  Submissions must include the writer's name and phone number. 
If you would care to resubmit your review as a letter of three hundred words or less, I will consider it for publication.    Thank you. 
--Paula Krebs

Date:  Wed, 30 May 2007 09:05:33 -0700 (PDT)
From:    "Paula Krebs" <>  
To:  "Paula Krebs" <>
Subject:  Review of ACADEME

It would be quite difficult to reduce that review to 300 words.  Besides, I wouldn't want to spend the time cutting it down if you'd be apt not to publish it, which I suspect for egregiously evident reasons would be the case.  Why not permit the piece as a refreshingly honest guest editorial instead?  Well, again, it all comes down to the hollowness of AAUP's grandiose proclamations.  Thank you for your response.
G. Tod

[No further correspondence received]
                                                                                                                                                                                              —The Editor