Academic Values and Innovation


Yesterday a public official, dropping the name of the Lumina Foundation, asked Louisiana faculty for ideas on how to innovate. Did we need help learning to use technology? Would mini-grants help us find new books to replace the outdated ones we might be using? Perhaps we do not need books, but teaching platforms. What about deepening our cooperation with industry? Could we teach college-level material to children? Some of my colleagues were so relieved not to be discussing budget cuts that they missed the allusion to Lumina, whose objective is the privatization of education.

innovation_Bary_blogThe innovation I want to see is a moratorium on administrative collusion with commercial concerns. Every disciplinary organization has resources on up-to-date teaching and extensive work on policy, as does the AAUP for the profession generally—including on teaching load and student/teacher ratio, the central elements in student success. Innovations do not need to be “brainstormed.” That work has been done. We should take the research done in our own disciplines, and the standards set by our own profession seriously. This is fundamental not least for morale, in a university culture whose integrity has been undermined now for decades in ways individual faculty are not in a position to see clearly when strategizing to survive immediate budget crises consumes our days.

The presentation I attended and that many colleagues enjoyed, offered balm for old wounds because it recognized that universities do support and build communities. What concerns me in this line of discussion is the intimation that community is now to be forged by corporate initiatives alone. I was reminded of Naomi Klein’s discussion of disaster capitalism in The Shock Doctrine, and the privatization of city services in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Katrina was in 2005, Klein’s book came out in 2007, and in 2008 came the financial crisis. “We are going on the entrepreneurial model,” my university announced, and it was almost as though they had been waiting for an opportune moment. After eight years of cuts to university funding under the governorship of Bobby Jindal our institutions are vastly changed. One change is the opacity that surrounds funding sources.

Rather than attend “brainstorming” sessions on teaching led by emanations of foundations like Lumina, I would like to see presentations from working groups on the agenda and influence of these entities, and strategies to counter them. With tuition high enough to bind alumni in debt peonage for life we need discussions of “affordability” going far beyond self-serving moves to commercial platforms and pious moaning over the outrageous cost of books and journals. We need broader criticism of the high tuition/high aid model, which even when affording “accessibility” still frames a college education and to some extent the university itself as private, and not public goods.

And there are additional, pressing issues in higher education. One that arises in the light of discussion around the Avital Ronell scandal is Title IX implementation. I would welcome serious discussion on this, beyond the scope of HR-based training on my own university’s rules and procedures, and particularly in view of the fact that one framer of the AAUP’s own position on Title IX matters was a signatory to the controversial letter written in support of Ronell. How do I think through this, as chair of my Faculty Senate’s Committee on the Status of Women? This is just one of the areas in which my knowledge is inadequate.

These discussions, I submit, are the kinds of educational and professional activities AAUP chapters and state conferences can undertake beyond the important work of Committee A. We can both use and contribute to the resources that already exist at the national level. There is so much to do, and the work has so much value. Few faculty are ready to act, and the university of free inquiry and critique may no longer be where we are. Yet if I talk to the students I see that the values I hold are still current, and they are still mine to keep. One AAUP member I met at yesterday’s presentation had been encouraged to join by her dissertation advisor. He said the PhD program was training her to do research in her field, but the AAUP would train her more broadly as an academic. That professor did a service to his student, and to the profession. Let even those of us who have lost heart do this much.

Guest blogger Leslie Bary teaches Latin American and Comparative Literature at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She is District V Representative on the National Council, President of the Louisiana Conference, and Vice-President of the UL Lafayette Chapter, AAUP. A more extensive piece on organizing in difficult circumstances, “What is to Be Done? Or, Optimism of the Will,” is in the September–October, 2018 issue of Academe.

Articles from the current and past issues of Academe are available online. AAUP members receive a subscription to the magazine, available both by mail and as a downloadable PDF, as a benefit of membership.