Absent from the occupy protests throughout this country, as with most meaningful movements in recent memory, are faculty of our major universities. Aside from the symbolic arrest of Cornel West and passive words of support from Noam Chomsky, the academic profession has been notably absent from this exhilarating movement.
This is particularly bothersome because one of the primary grievances of the protestors is the cost of higher education, and the larger role of indebtedness in informing the present precariousness of young people. Education debt, even more than housing debt, plays a repugnant role in this society, insofar as it preys on the young and ambitious, ultimately leaving citizens shackled to the financial industry for the bulk of their adult lives. Before anyone is capable of making sound fiscal decisions in life, they find themselves five-figures in the red, just for doing what they grew up believing to be the “right thing.”
When British students rallied against fee increases last year, professors were present alongside. The same goes for several waves of protests dealing with fees and the precariousness of youth in France, dating back to the CPE protests of 2006. These alliances between students and faculty were integral to the growth and widespread popularity of these movements. Meanwhile, the student-professor alliance has historically explained the affordability of higher education throughout Western Europe.
In the United States, we see no such alliance. Professors will offer themselves as speakers at rallies or teach-ins, maintaining a top-down relationship with students, but will rarely support as brothers-in-arms. This stems from a social authoritarianism in this culture, where the opinions of the credentialed are taken more seriously than the “commoner.” As someone who has experienced living on both sides of the Atlantic, I can say that Americans have a problem trusting your average person. Rather than judging someone based on the merit of their argument, the American tends to ignore the argument and judge based on ceremonial merit (such as whether the person has a PhD or not.) As such, professors have generally only been involved as credibility lending figureheads in American social movements.
I am happy that Dr. West has participated in this protest, but wish that it wasn’t such a breaking story. He possesses no more intrinsic value than the other 99%, and should be busily organizing his colleagues at Princeton to join along on next visit. The same goes for Chomsky and his colleagues at MIT. If this vigorously anti-totalitarian movement is to thrive, we need the academic egos to dissipate and the academic masses to bring numbers to the protests.
For this to occur, they will have to identify their support as a moral imperative rather than mere intellectual exercise. By allowing the present system of higher education to continue without their condemnation, professors become complicit in the overarching moral crisis this country is facing. Since the beginning of the 80s, American wages have been stagnant, while the average cost of a college education has risen over 4-fold (adjusted for inflation). Meanwhile, we have seen nary a peep of moral outrage from faculty. By excluding Americans of modest means from the enrichment of the university experience, this country is hampering the human potential of millions of young people. By not providing quality higher education to all Americans for free (or a nominal fee), we remain a second-rate society.
Academics are ostensibly progressive in nature: you would expect such of open, intelligent minds. However, they have proven particularly meek in the United States. There are several reasonable explanations for this. For one, we have a climate of repression and anti-intellectualism that is simply not known throughout Western Europe. The recent experiences of Ward Churchill and Norman Finkelstein are evidence enough of this. Furthermore, large American research institutions tend to be located in small “campus towns” rather than inside major urban hubs, thus dislocating professors from the bulk of the industrial workforce. This design has served to de-radicalize labor through the last century, and also explains the lack of involvement of professors in the ongoing protests (though there are a few notable universities on Manhattan). Moreover, many professors enjoy tenure and six-figure salaries, thus outpacing their Western European counterparts. This serves to supplement their geographic isolation from labor with added socioeconomic distance.
Nonetheless, this professorial passivity must end: not solely for the aforementioned moral reasons, but also because professors have an important stake in this political moment. As austerity measures have placed an increasing pinch on the higher education system, knowledge is treated as more of a commodity than a social good. Universities are forced to run more like businesses than loci of the grands discours. This commodification of knowledge has resulted in the increasing social alienation of professors. Tight university systems, intent on cutting costs and increasing class sizes, will increasingly see professors as expendable. You compound this with the growing authoritarianism in post 9-11 America and professors will increasingly feel pressured to conform or produce favorable results (a la the University of Chicago Economics Department).
Lastly, professors possess great power to change the financial racket that poses as higher education in this country. They are the mode of production for that industry. A national professor’s strike committed to the long-haul will force states to close their budget shortfalls through progressive tax measures or sane monetary policy. The latter is just one way to address systemic pre-tax injustices in our economic system: spend money into existence rather than charging the people interest by lending into existence. Either way, forced with a non-compliant faculty at their flagships school, states will have to learn to get innovative, if that is possible with the class of charlatans that governs from both political parties.
Professors largely supported Barack Obama in the 2008 election. As with most other progressives in this country, they fell into the passivity of hope. At this juncture, we need them to muster the courage for action. It is their moral imperative, and also in their own interest. In order to defend the integrity of the academic profession, the vision of education as a social good and a right to all regardless of class, professors need to join the 99%. When is it going to happen?