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Naomi Schaefer Riley

We Visit the Zoo

Reports on and from academe.

At the end of her treatise The Lost Soul of Higher Education, Ellen Schrecker, professor of history at Yeshiva University, writes that "without an aware and energized academic community that can fight for all its members, higher education as a bastion of freedom and opportunity will, like the polar bears' glacial habitat, slowly melt away." Colleges and universities are not melting away, as any casual observer will recognize. In fact, they seem to be proliferating, expanding, and upgrading despite the economic downturn. But Schrecker's concern is not really with the institutions as a whole. Rather it is with the place of the faculty in them.

Having recently visited the zoo, I must say it is tempting to run with Schrecker's analogy of college faculty as polar bears—occasionally ferocious, but mostly just lazing around in their own world, scratching themselves, yawning, oblivious to the stares of onlookers. As she tells it, though, university faculty are hardworking—sometimes 55 hours a week!—and so solicitous of those outside of the academy that they have tied the university in knots trying to gain public approval.

At one point, Schrecker explains, that meant caving to the demands of Joseph McCarthy, but today, she says, university faculty are submitting to the will of corporations, the military industrial complex, right-wing foundations and Republican legislators, to name just a few. The courts, she says, are not helping either. With recent decisions like Garcetti vs. Ceballos, the American legal system has significantly scaled back the definition of "academic freedom" and limited the extent to which university faculty can claim that mantle as a justification for their actions.

Though Schrecker says that there was no "golden age" of higher education in America, she still suggests it's gone precipitously downhill. Of the firings of professors in the 1950s, she writes, "in none of the academic freedom cases of the McCarthy era was anybody's teaching or ...

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