New AAUP chief to fight 'academic capitalism'

John Gill meets the man who pledges to restore intellectual freedom to US university campuses

August 28, 2008

Gary Rhoades believes the threat to academic freedom in the US is as severe today as it was in the McCarthy era.

He knows what he is talking about - he has just been appointed the next general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, the principal guardian of academic freedom in the country.

"Our academy, profession and institutions are at a critical point in their history," he said in an interview with Times Higher Education, adding that what happens in the US, as is so often the case in higher education, is likely to set the tone for the rest of the world.

Professor Rhoades has, since 1986, been based at the University of Arizona at Tucson, where he heads the Centre for the Study of Higher Education.

His work has focused on the restructuring of higher education systems, institutions and professions, but he freely admits that Tucson, just 60 miles from the Mexican border, is "on the margins".

His move to Washington DC, where he will take up his AAUP post in January 2009, will, he hopes, put him centre stage.

The challenges facing the sector include threats to academic freedom, marketisation, governance and working conditions. They are huge, he said, adding that not least of them is the restriction of access for overseas scholars since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"It is as significant an issue as it was in the 1950s and 1960s," he said. "We think of the McCarthy era as the time when academic freedom was most threatened, but I think with 9/11 and the Bush Administration, entry to the US is a huge issue both for academics and for institutions with international students."

Every year the AAUP, which has a membership of about 45,000, fields hundreds of allegations that academic freedom has been compromised.

"The numbers are impressive and disturbing, and there's no sense that they are declining, but the nature of the threat has changed over time," Professor Rhoades said.

Whereas in the past most faculty were full time, the majority are now either part time or full time without tenure. This, the AAUP argues, makes academic freedom more important and more threatened than ever.

"Another development is that, as universities have become increasingly connected to the marketplace, the freedom of academics to pursue issues that run counter to the interests of, let's say, companies that their departments have a large contract with have become compromised. There are some pretty scary cases of that," Professor Rhoades said.

An example, he said, is a controversial deal struck between pharmaceutical company Novartis and the University of California, Berkeley in 1999, which critics claimed left Berkeley beholden to commercial interests.

"This was a striking case because Berkeley has historically been known for having very strong faculty governance, but in this case, in spite of the opposition of the faculty, the deal went ahead," he said.

The issue of commercialisation is one Professor Rhoades is keen for the AAUP to address.

"Sometimes this is characterised as corporate takeover, but I've argued that universities and faculty, in fact, are quite complicit in the expansion of this activity," he said.

"It's not just a case of corporations coming in and trying to take over - their involvement is being solicited, partly because of the financial situation, particularly in public higher education, as state support declines in relative terms in per-student funding.

"Institutions are feeling they have to go out and generate other revenue streams, and this is happening in Europe too."

Linked to this, he believes, is a continuing threat to shared governance, which has seen the influence of faculty decline in recent decades.

"With the market orientation of institutions, this idea that we've got to move quickly, be flexible and respond to the market has led institution managers to say 'we can't afford democracy, it's too slow and cumbersome'," he said.

Professor Rhoades fears that, unless it is challenged, faculty will continue to be pushed from centre stage.

He said "academic capitalism" had led to a new model of producing research and teaching, which involve not only faculty but other professional groups both on and off campus.

"These people are working to establish their own realm and want to make themselves front and centre, and managers trying to change institutions often see faculty more as an obstacle than as an ally, so they side with these rising professions," he said.

"Although it sounds crazy to talk about education without talking about faculty, faculty are now the minority of professionals on campus," said Professor Rhoades.

The strategy for the AAUP will be to boost membership, which at its height in the 1970s was near 100,000, particularly among those starting out in their careers.

But Professor Rhoades insisted that the UK and rest of the world would do well to keep an eye on developments that would have ramifications beyond the US borders.

"What happens in US higher education matters to Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa - it matters worldwide," he said.

"I want to recalibrate and shift the direction of the academy to bring it more in line with the promise and potential of what it should be about; the goal is to really have an impact."

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