Notes From a Recovering Academic

Heart shaped sculpture dedicated to Vaclav Havel
The heart-shaped tribute to Václav Havel in Prague. Photo by Joshua Doležal.

Below is rather pertinent today. I have felt a distinct decline for my beloved profession for quite some time. A kind of impending dread. there is something liberating about acknowledging that something is over, that the rot is systemic, and that one must move on. We cling to the delusions as long as we can, but in the end, reality prevails. Please find the link to the original at the end of the piece. Thank you Joshua Dolezal.

Academe is suffering from foreign occupiers

Lessons from Václav Havel for a profession in decline

“A famous saying goes something like this: If you are not a communist before the age of 20, you have no heart. If you are a communist after the age of 30, you have no head. The line has been falsely attributed to Winston Churchill and many other world leaders, often with “liberal” or “socialist” subbing in for “communist.” The upshot is that age transforms idealism into practical sensibility. 

Many of us don’t fit that mold. Just three years shy of 50, I am traveling in Prague, feeling quite at home in a city of dreamers, and drinking deeply at the well of Václav Havel, one of the Czech Republic’s most beloved leaders. 

Havel died more than ten years ago, but his legacy of unapologetic idealism continues to influence Czech identity, as the tribute to him in Prague shows. The thought experiment I indulge today risks a narrow view of Havel’s oeuvre. But taking risks was one thing he did best, and so I will forge ahead in that spirit. 

In an interview first published in 1991, after the Velvet Revolution restored freedom to the Czech Republic, Havel claims that capitalism and communism equally strip people of their humanity by prioritizing the needs of the corporation or the state. I am convinced that if he could see the way that colleges and universities increasingly function like corporations and sometimes like countries troubled by communist occupiers, Havel would say much the same about higher education today. 

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1. It all turns on love

Havel’s core conviction is that human beings should not be forced to accommodate themselves to economic systems, but that social and economic systems should be tailored to human needs and relationships: “Man should be the measure of all structures, including economic structures, and not…be made to measure for those structures.” 

An economy that is thoroughly nationalized or centralized, Havel believes, is toxic to relationships. 

“Having lost his personal relationship to his work, his company, to the many decisions about the substance and the purpose of his work and its consequences, he loses interest in the work itself…. Everything falls into the enormous pit of impersonal, anonymous, automatic economic functioning, from work done by the least hired hand right up to decisions made by the bureaucrats in the office of central planning.” 

It would be entirely consistent with Havel’s message to say that faculty, staff, and students should be the measure of all university structures. The people who define an intellectual community should never be made to measure for a curriculum, a governance system, or an organizational structure. 

Yet higher ed flips these priorities – sometimes with the misguided aim of being student-centered, but more often because the institutional brand becomes the imperative that subordinates all human needs to its own. The brand becomes the centralizing principle in the university. 

Students want degrees and jobs, but first they want relationships with one another and with passionate teachers. Alumni do not donate money to a school purely to honor a transactional exchange: you got me this high-paying job, and so I’m paying it back. Loyalty flows from nostalgia for places where we knew we were loved. I can think of nothing more destructive to the financial health of an institution than attacking the sources of this love.

One example from my former institution was a new structure for the Matriculation Convocation, when all first-year students gathered in an auditorium for a welcome ceremony that was meant to anticipate their commencement four years later. When I joined the faculty in 2005, the keynote speaker for this convocation was a professor who had won a teaching award the previous spring. That sent a message: faculty matter here. But after the college did some branding work and developed slogans that we were all encouraged to reinforce in our conversations with students, like a party platform, the Matriculation event featured a top-down lineup of President, Vice President, and a newly created administrator called a Class Dean. The professors were to sit quietly in the background in full regalia lending an aura of prestige while three administrators spoke directly to the first-year class. 

Some of us entertained ourselves by playing “slogan bingo,” listening for those catch phrases the consultants had crafted that were meant to convey the sense that we were a unified and welcoming community. But what we really cared about were those students looking back at us, who wanted us to be their friends and their guides, and who we saw as our raison d’être.

The sad truth? The brand tries to commodify love. But nobody actually loves the brand.

2. The brand hates experts

The heart of a college or university used to be its faculty. These were the musicians, scientists, and scholars who defined their cities and towns in the way that Michael Jordan once was Chicago. Even in the little hamlet where I worked this used to be true. For many years it was the professor, not the president, who was the face of the college to the community.

I do not mean to suggest that there ever was a golden age in higher education, merely that there were periods when academe functioned much more like Havel’s notion of a humane economy:

“The most important thing today is for economic units to maintain – or, rather, renew – their relationship with individuals, so that the work those people perform has human substance and meaning, so that people can see into how the enterprise they work for works, have a say in that, and assume responsibility for it. Such enterprises must have … human dimension; people must be able to work in them as people, as beings with a soul and a sense of responsibility, not as robots, regardless of how primitive or highly intelligent they may be.”

Now, the foremost imperative is the brand, often associated with revenue generating programs like athletics, proven majors, and new programs that show the institution’s response to market needs.

In this system, faculty expertise is valuable only insofar as it burnishes the brand with a patina of prestige. As the documentary film Operation Varsity Blues explains in its exposé of the college admissions fraud scandal, the word prestige derives from the French term for “conjuring trick” and the Latin praestigium, which means “illusion.” 

It does not matter what faculty expertise is, precisely, only that it seems “good” or “elite,” depending on how the institution sees itself. While it is possible that a college might successfully recruit students and balance its budget in this way, doing so estranges faculty from the enterprise they work for, deprives them of a say in it, and strips away their sense of responsibility for it. 

I’ll offer another athletic analogy. Pittsburgh Pirates fans the world over know that their owner, Robert Nutting, sees the team solely as a way of enriching his family. He invests only as much in payroll for on-field talent as the team earns in concessions, ticket sales, and parking. This is an absurdly low amount ($55-75 million-ish, depending on the year). He keeps the lion’s share of the profits from television and other sources ($200+ million). I can’t imagine any player ever wanting to stay in Pittsburgh, because their employer clearly does not value their talent for its own sake or care about them as people. If they succeed, they will see no reward, even if their achievement increases the value of the Pirate brand to its owner’s benefit. Few colleges or universities can skim millions of dollars in profit off the backs of their faculty, but many academics feel like Pirate ballplayers: passionate about their craft, devoted to their students (or fans), but scorned by those in charge of the money.

A professor has typically completed six years of graduate school and sacrificed more lucrative professional prospects to become an expert in their field. Participating meaningfully in a university community means being seen as a scholar, valued for that specific expertise, and promoted for those unique credentials by the institution. If the things that matter to a scholar with a high command of her craft hold little influence over the enterprise paying her salary, she naturally feels an ebbing responsibility to that enterprise.

If this seems petty, consider the rising rates of suicide among faculty: what one scholar calls “an invisible crisis.” Three sources from my research on faculty departures from academe have told me that they suffered stress-induced heart attacks that they believe were triggered by feelings of invisibility or futility at their institutions. One former professor told me that his wife gave him an ultimatum — their marriage or his job — because she was sure the job would kill him inside of a year. These are high-performing professionals who embrace challenges. It’s not the workload that’s killing them, it’s the waning sense of purpose. The feeling that they simply do not matter within their own enterprise.

I recall a meeting at my college years ago that was billed as strategic planning for the arts. A consultant had been hired to help with that, and he tipped his hand at one point by rhapsodizing about how the arts create a feeling of “us-ness.” A colleague of mine, a poet, recognized that the real purpose of the meeting was to appropriate art for a budget purpose: student retention. “I thought we were going to talk about the arts,” he said. I’m not sure I had ever seen him angry before that day.

3. Budgets should serve human beings. Human beings do not exist to serve budgets.

The brand supposedly attracts students, who pay tuition, which balances budgets. Because the brand creates a corporate identity, budget managers occupy positions with the most compensation and status. It is not lost on faculty that the next level of advancement beyond the rank of full Professor is typically a deanlet position that can build the resume necessary for further advancement into what some of us call the administrati. 

Havel would say that this is a structural problem, because most incentives lead away from teaching, research, and service, the relationship-driven work that ought to lie at the heart of what a college or university is. When excellence in teaching is not affirmed or incentivized in the way that excellence in budget management is, teachers feel another painful blow to their sense of responsibility for the enterprise.

The structure for advancement in academe mimics corporate models. But the main difference in how academe actually functions is that healthy corporations have structures for sharing budget management. The scarcity of resources in academe, increasing opaqueness about how those resources are allocated, and the gradual removal of faculty oversight over budgets is much more like a communistic state than a corporation. 

When I began directing a first-year seminar near the beginning of my tenure, I enjoyed nearly complete autonomy over how that generous budget was spent: on visiting speakers, on a workshop for faculty teaching the course for the first time, and on other events that enriched the program. Some years later, during a second term as director, I logged on to my computer one morning to discover that I no longer had access to the budget at all. The funds had been removed without any warning and pooled with a pot of other dwindling monies that was now overseen by an associate dean. There were no dollar amounts that I could count on for anything. Every expenditure required a separate appeal to the associate dean, who had to clear it with his superior (the actual dean), which became a form of abasement that any self-respecting expert ought to abhor. 

Faculty know better than most how to live frugally. They lived in poverty for years to complete their degrees. They can be trusted to understand limits on resources, and they will do wonders with those resources if allowed to function as collaborative equals rather than as underlings grubbing for a favor from their superiors in The Party.

An occupied homeland

Academics have a lot in common with Czechs. Neither group aspires to build empires. Each is proud of its heritage but has no interest in colonizing others. When either group is deprived of its freedom or pressed into a general mediocrity by an occupying force, it prefers nonviolent resistance and persuasion.

Some can only face the future as emigrés once their homeland has been seized. Others persist and adapt as best they can. But academics and Czechs do not stop thinking of themselves as countrymen whether they stay or go. 

As an emigré from higher education, I have sometimes convinced myself that the academic part of me was the problem. The part that made me different from other people. The part that still believes in the arts and humanities as more than auxiliaries to capitalism. The part of me that needs to play music, write essays, study history, and talk about books for more than 20 seconds to feel truly alive. 

While reading Václav Havel and feeling the resonance between his vision for national liberty and my own view of what a healthy college ought to be, I have returned to the conviction that academe is one of my homelands. Many of my kinfolk still live there. The occupying government takes many shapes: accreditation, assessment, consulting, and marketing. The occupiers insist that we align ourselves with their priorities and thus have displaced many of us from anchors of culture, language, and heritage.

The occupying force insists on investing more resources in what has already not been working, such as the absurd new position at the University of California-Irvine: the pedagogical wellness specialist. Instead of paying teachers more, listening to them about what is making their life miserable, and giving them real influence over their own enterprise, UC-Irvine is paying someone with less experience in academe to try to convince academic professionals that they are the ones who need healing, not the system that they are being forced to accommodate. This Emperor truly has no clothes.

One of my sources for The Chronicle of Higher Education described a nightmare scenario at her institution where faculty and staff were gathered into one enormous Zoom call, informed that there would be layoffs, and then asked to stay at their computers to await further news. The layoffs then happened throughout the day in smaller Zoom meetings. Everyone was asked to return to the giant Zoom message at the end of the day to say a prayer for those who were leaving “the family.” Brotherhood and comradeship feature prominently in Communist propaganda, but few oppressors pretend to be brothers or sisters to those they are casting into exile. The cruelty of this can scarcely be overstated.

Those of us who have left academe might come back, like Czechs flooding home after the Soviets left in 1989, if the occupiers could be overthrown. But even if we don’t, we can never stop thinking of the campus and the classroom as our native places. Like the Czechs, our anthem begins with the words “Where is my home?” We know where it is.

All of this might sound like a coda to John Lennon’s “Imagine” if it were not clear that higher education is losing the public trust. People don’t think college is necessarily worth the cost any longer. Many think that college simply helps rig the economy for the rich. And I am but a drop in the sea of faculty who are voluntarily relinquishing hard-earned benefits, such as lifelong tenure, free tuition for their children, and a flexible summer schedule because we believe the unknown is preferable to an iron lid on the horizon. 

Freedom came to the Czech Republic. Czechs took back what was rightfully theirs. It is not preposterous to think it could happen in academe.

Havel believed that “a genuinely fundamental and hopeful improvement in ‘systems’ [could not] happen without a significant shift in human consciousness.” He said that it was not possible to enact meaningful change “through a simple organizational trick.” Consultants and new logos and carefully honed messages will not shore up the enterprise of higher education if people are falling out of love with their work and feeling cut off from relationships that sustain them. Bolstering the brand while subordinating people to its uniform imperatives will always outrage the human need for dignity, freedom, and belonging. “

see the original post here; https://joshuadolezal.substack.com/p/academe-is-suffering-from-foreign?fbclid=IwAR2qxvNe1NhjdmJSC9N5PNRkhK1r0w9sAy08meXaggrx2j0PgsL_WmbDrlQ&fs=e&s=cl

2 thoughts on “Notes From a Recovering Academic

  1. Ashley

    I cannot agree more! Well said.

    I have been taking MOOCS (up until making babies) and it’s a fantastic way to gain a following and become an “influencer” (you can pick and choose what products, ideals, etc.)

    Coursera, Udacity, and other platforms offer(ed) amazing classes for free just for the same lectures, information, and passion you have in the classroom or travel online and accessible anytime.

    I am appalled by the educational system here and hope we can do better in the future. Good for you standing up to what you believe.

    Like

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