Along with many others, I received an email last week from Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors. Because the AAUP is best known for defending academic freedom, valued by both liberals and conservatives, and because it represents the academic profession as a whole, it has cultivated a reputation for nonpartisanship.
Fichtenbaum was in touch about the AAUP’s Centennial Declaration, which, far from being a throwaway, constitutes a “charter of values that should define the colleges and universities of the twenty-first century.” It is also the most nakedly partisan document to emerge from the AAUP in recent memory.
According to the Declaration, higher education faces one and only one enemy, “corporations or business interests,” which, the document implies, seek to “dictate teaching or research agendas.” The Declaration goes on to observe that “Research is not just about enhancing the profit margins of corporations.”
All is in tune with Fichtenbaum’s address to the AAUP’s 2015 meeting, which sets higher education’s woes at the feet of a nebulous “corporate agenda” that “seeks to destroy the ability of higher education to serve the common good,” or of “forces that seek to privatize higher education and use it to promote their own narrow interests.” Fichtenbaum insists that we must place this corporate conspiracy against higher education in the context of a broader “neoliberal attack on working people,” which includes “the rule of markets, cutting taxes on the wealthy, reducing public expenditures that support working and middle class families, mass incarceration of African American males, deregulation, privatization, and the elimination of public goods.” The goal of the AAUP in the next century is to become “part of a social justice movement.”
It is therefore not surprising that two days after I received the Fichtenbaum email, I received another from Gwendolyn Bradley, a senior program officer at AAUP, with a call for proposals to present at AAUP’s 2016 conference. They are inviting “reflection on racial, social, and labor justice in higher education.”
No one who has been paying attention to higher education over the past decade will think that concerns about the “corporatization” of higher education are the exclusive province of the left. Devotees of liberal education, whether they are on the right or the left, are concerned that colleges and universities preserve alternatives to, rather than merely serve and ape, the present order, and corporate capitalism is certainly one prominent aspect of that order. But to home in on and declare oneself the enemy of “neoliberalism,” and shady “corporate interests” is to set the AAUP squarely to the left of the present day Democratic party. It is also to dramatically oversimplify the problems that higher education faces. And it is to forfeit whatever reputation for nonpartisanship the AAUP may once have had.