Academic Freedom in the Corporate University

Article excerpt

Juan Hong was a tenured professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of California-Irvine. He had several concerns about his department, chiefly its overuse of adjuncts and temporary instructors. At the time he raised the issue, six out of the eight required courses for the major were being taught by non-tenure track faculty members. When he complained to the administration, his superiors retaliated against him--or at least he thought so. Not only did they deny him a merit raise and increase his teaching load, but they also threatened to revoke his tenure. Hong's internal appeal failed. He turned to litigation, suing the university on the grounds that the Irvine administration had violated his academic freedom.

His timing could not have been worse. In the case of Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006) the Supreme Court had just ruled 5-4 against a Los Angeles assistant district attorney who had been sanctioned for complaining about misconduct within the DA's office. According to that decision, the First Amendment did not protect the job-related speech of government employees. For college and university teachers, the overwhelming percentage of whom work for public institutions, the case set a frightening precedent. After all, just about everything a faculty member says or writes is related to his or her job. Garcetti's implications were so ominous, that Justice David Souter, in an impassioned dissent, specifically denounced its threat to academic freedom.

The federal judge who handled Hong's case in 2007 cited Garcetti. Ignoring Souter's dissent, he based his decision against the by-then retired Irvine professor on a technicality and, thus, avoided dealing with free speech or academic freedom. Hong appealed. The American Association of University Professors submitted an amicus brief explaining how academic freedom, if it is to be effective, must extend beyond the traditional faculty pursuits of teaching and research to the service activities connected with university governance, and hence to criticism of one's department or administration. The appeals court explicitly ducked the academic freedom issue by relying on the same technicality as the lower court.

Juan Hong's case illustrates many of the problems that currently plague our colleges and universities. To begin with, academic freedom is under attack--both in its traditional form as the protection of the faculty's freedom of expression in and outside of class, as well as in its equally important, though less obvious, role in preserving the faculty's autonomy and ability to carry out its academic responsibilities. Garcetti has diminished that autonomy.

Other challenges to the professoriate come from areas that we might not necessarily associate with academic freedom, but that are actually more of a threat to it and to the future of American higher education. Most result from the corporate-style restructuring of the academy that has been taking place over the past forty years.

Perhaps the most serious of those threats to the academic community--and one that Juan Hong was particularly concerned about--is the casualization of faculty labor. At the moment, roughly 75 percent of instructors in American colleges and universities are part- or full-timers who are neither tenured nor on the tenure track. The increasing use of faculty members with contingent appointments not only hollows out the academic profession by assigning most of its former work to people without professional rights and conditions of employment, but also undermines the quality of higher education, because even though most adjuncts are dedicated and well qualified, the often abysmal circumstances of their teaching, including low pay and lack of professional autonomy, make it hard for them to do what regular faculty members do.

Of course, this threat to the academy does not exist within a vacuum. The infusion of market values into American higher education, as well as the heightened assault on academic freedom within the penumbra of the "war on terror," make it clear that the problems facing the nation's campuses reflect broader forces within our society. …