Battered US faculty plan long summer of strategising

After nationwide failure to stop their presidents from arresting student demonstrators, college instructors ponder which approaches – and friends – they can turn to

May 21, 2024
Holding a sign that said Sue USC a USC student is arrested by campus police in USC Village after calling for USC to sued and held accountable for their actions surrounding the pro-Palestinian protest on campus on Monday, May 6, 2024 in Los Angeles, CA
Source: Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images

US faculty are expecting to spend their summer debating how to wrest back control of the narrative over higher education, after large numbers of campus presidents sided against them and with politicians demanding a violent crackdown on student anti-war demonstrations.

Faculty around the US have been expressing their frustrations by passing no-confidence resolutions against their own campus leaders. Teaching assistants and researchers across the University of California system have threatened a strike over the matter.

Yet US faculty have reached this latest high-stakes showdown acutely aware that the campus protests over Israel and Gaza just gave them another hard lesson in how badly they’re losing the big-picture battle against the societal powers that want higher education whittled down to compliant arenas of corporate-favoured training – and how they need to find allies more than create enemies.

“There’s going to be a lot of bridge-building, I’m sure, on every campus over the summer,” said Reinhold Martin, a professor of architecture at Columbia University and the incoming president of his campus’ chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “This is going to be a very active summer for all of us.”

Campus podcast: what to do when the principles of free speech are tested

Less clear, however, was what strategy could possibly work, since so much of US society seems indifferent, if not overtly hostile, to the idea that taxpayers should be subsidising educational experiences that encourage students to question societal norms.

“It will take a certain kind of pushback,” said Patricia Dailey, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia who served this year as vice-president of the AAUP chapter as the university became the driving inspiration for the nationwide student protests. “And I don’t know what shape that has to be.”

Some 2,500 people have been arrested at more than 50 college campuses in demonstrations protesting against Israeli military reprisals that have now killed more than 35,000 people in Gaza.

Conservative US politicians and donors have had overwhelming success portraying the protests as threatening and antisemitic, despite the demonstrations including significant numbers of Jewish students and few moments of violence outside of police trying to shut them down.

It remained startling, Professor Martin said, how thoroughly Republican lawmakers – aided by compliant news coverage and fearful campus administrators – have been able to misrepresent the events of the past weeks and months in service of their party’s longstanding campaign to reduce the freedom of US college faculty to teach the topics they see appropriate.

Possible solutions include talking more with the media, and more directly cultivating powerful allies up to and including members of the Biden administration, Dr Dailey said. It also means confronting leading Democrats who have uncritically accepted the idea that the campus protests are more about antisemitism than about academic freedom, Professor Martin said.

“I can’t emphasise enough how much this is really related to the sustained and systematic attack on higher ed by the interests on the right that began their march in Florida and Texas, and are now moving, you could say, north to the Ivies,” he said. “This is one of the reasons that this can’t be reduced to a conflict between the administration and the faculty internally.”

The union representing the University of California’s teaching assistants and researchers – which in 2022 waged the biggest-ever job action in US higher education to get a new contract – said its new strike authorisation vote over the violent treatment of demonstrators reflected their members’ understanding of the stakes.

Dr Dailey said she was encouraged by the unity heading into the summer. “I’ve never seen my colleagues – I’ve been here for 20 years – grouped together in such a forceful way,” she said.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (1)

This is ridiculous. Who, specifically, is or are "the faculty"? There is no such undifferentiated group. The author knows nothing about US higher education.