Category: Academic Repression


Author’s Preface: What follows are notes I prepared to address the media in a press conference in South Africa, as I began the first of 3 three week-long speaking tours, talking about veganism, animal rights, and total liberation across that beautiful but deeply troubled nation in 2006. This essay was originally commissioned by, and published for, my friend Adam Powell, in his blog OccupyEassys. This is the first of two unusually personal posts I will make to my blog, the second one being a postscript to follow soon. This post is dedicated to all those who think they know me.

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Prologue

Ladies and Gentlemen, you are looking at one of the very last people who should be standing on this stage in front of you, in the capacity of being a scholar, writer, activist, and world citizen.

In my youth, I was seemingly headed toward blue-collar work at a factory, to prison, or to an early grave, but profound changes in my life set me in different directions. A major theme of my talk tonight is change, growth, development, and evolution. Indeed, as a species, if we are to avert total disaster, we need to take a quantum leap in our moral and social evolution, as the global crises in capitalism and ecology portend catastrophic change and a dystopian future.

The Lost Years

My life got off to a rocky start. As a young child, asthma almost killed me. My father died when I was five years old. My oldest brother, a father figure to me, died at age 24 in a plane crash that I also was involved in. Only 11 years old, I was not expected to survive, but I did, broken into pieces, but alive. Despite two remaining older brothers and one sister, I had no positive inspirations or mentorship whatsoever in my life. I was a latchkey kid; I grew up solely on my own devices, making mistake after mistake, barreling down the wrong road at the speed of light.

To quote Malcolm X, “I was born in trouble.” Beginning in kindergarten, I was kicked out of school more than I was allowed in. In high school, after playing on the basketball team my freshman year, I had gravitated to the habit of consuming copious amounts of mind-altering substances and the next three years of high school were passed in a perpetual fog. In my senior year, quite deservedly, I was expelled from school, and from there I graduated to stints in and out of local county jails. My biggest fuck up occurred at age 17, and almost earned me 2-4 years in the notorious Cook County Jail in Chicago, but with a good lawyer and a handsome fee, I got off on 5 years probation.

Looking back on it, that was the best thing that happened to me and it provided the wake-up call I needed to turn my life around. I was a train wreck waiting to happen. I will say I had some life experiences in these troubled times that added piss, fire, and depth to my character. I drove trucks, delivered newspapers, worked in factories, shot pool, drank beer and whiskey, fought in bars, and chased women. I was one step away from 4 divorces, 5 kids, 7 bad tattoos, and living in a two-bit trailer.

I found my first love – jazz and classical guitar – and practiced relentlessly and played open mike nights throughout the Chicago area. This lasted until I blew out the tendons in my right hand at age 21. In deep despair and confusion, the only identity and purpose I ever had stripped away from me with a frozen wrist, I decided to get my high school equivalency degree and begin anew by enrolling in a Chicago area community college. Almost 22, I told the student counselor I had no idea what to do and was not interested in anything but what I just lost. The man suggested I begin with humanities and liberal arts courses, and so I signed up for a plate full. After the first class, a switch turned on; I went to the library and checked out a 4 foot-high stack of books and began to read seriously for the first time in my life.

Quite unexpectedly, I fell in love with reading and learning. Working full-time as a bartender at night, during the day I took courses in film, television production, radio, theater, literature, history, art, and philosophy. I graduated with a degree in television production and film directing, and at age 24 I travelled south to the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana) to pursue a Masters of Arts degree in theater direction. The indifferent or hostile faculty I encountered there, however, led me to switch majors to philosophy, in which I subsequently earned my Bachelors of Arts (UICU, 1984), Master’s (University of Chicago, 1987) and Doctorate (University of Texas-Austin, 1993) degrees. Despite a standard paternalistic warning by faculty to reconsider pursuing advanced study in philosophy due to dismal job prospects, I lunged forward because by then I knew nothing but to pursue what I loved and the path of creative thinking. Ultimately, this also led me to study message therapy, meditation, and herbal medicine; to pursue a teaching certificate in yoga; and to earn a black belt in Tae-Kwon-Do while studying numerous other martial arts (including Judo, Tai-Chi, Aikido, and Filipino stick-fighting).

Epiphany #1

Little did I realize that only the first few layers of change were peeling off my encrusted psyche and soul. At the University of Illinois, I studied radical thinkers like Nietzsche, as well as the revolutionary political traditions of Marxism, anarchism, and critical theory. I became intensely interested in politics, and I joined some left-wing campus groups. I was learning about capitalism and the injustices of imperialism and racism, about the lies I was spoon-fed regarding my “great” country and its mission of spreading “democracy and freedom” throughout the world. I wanted to smash the capitalist system and I became intimate with my hidden affinities for the oppressed and those who suffer injustice or pain in any way.

I immersed myself in organizing support for Central American nations then under relentless attack by Ronald Reagan and US-sponsored and trained juntas and death squads. I led action groups, helped provide shelter for illegal refugees from El Salvador, and organized film festivals to send medical funds to Nicaragua. I was also involved in the anti-apartheid struggle and with local environmental groups. With an appetite for creative writing and theatre still burning inside me, I was regularly writing and performing political-conceptual art, street theatre, experimenting with the political–artistic possibilities of Surrealism and Dadaism, and generally trying to foment subversive thinking and practices of multiple kinds.

Epiphany #2

My second epiphany happened at age 25, now more than 30 years ago, and it led me down the path of veganism and animal rights. I experienced something sacred within the bowels of the profane. I was in Chicago, driving about 2 am, half-drunk and goddamn hungry. I pulled into a White Castle fast food restaurant and ordered a double cheeseburger. As I always was content with a mere single cheeseburger, I found the double cheese and meat patties to be so excessive, so over the top, so gross, so saturated with blood and gore, that I was completely nauseated. For the first time in my carnivorous life, in a total vacuum of information, I made a concrete connection between the processed slop in my hands and the bones, tissues, muscles, tendons, blood, and life of an animal. I suddenly saw something that came from a slaughterhouse, not a supermarket.

With no prior knowledge of vegetarian issues – no contact with any book, video, speaker, or person of this persuasion – I spit the vile flesh out of my mouth in utter revulsion. I stumbled around in a dietary no-man’s-land for two months, not knowing what to eat, not wanting this consciousness but unable to shake it. I felt perhaps I had been abducted by aliens who rewired my thinking in mischievous ways. Fortuitously, I met some vegetarians who assured me of the value of my new consciousness, mentored me, and pointed me in the right direction.

From a Marxist-humanist-carnivore to a health-oriented vegetarian, I evolved to veganism, and doubled back to mediate these concerns with radical politics and social revolution “by any means necessary” as Malcolm so perfectly put it.

Although alert to the health impact of meat and dairy products, I had no clue about the innumerable barbaric ways human beings exploit animals. Even while researching the evils of juntas, death squads, genocide, fascism, and imperialism, my picture of humanity and the world was still too rosy.

Epiphany #3

That changed in the midst of a third stunning epiphany in 1987 when I read Peter Singer’s book, Animal Liberation. Like so many people, that book changed my life in an instant. I became ill from the emotional stress of what I was learning about the unconscionable exploitation of animals in factory farms, slaughterhouses, vivisection labs, and other human-manufactured hellholes.

Once I recovered from the shock, I morphed into a very different person. Realizing that animals suffered far more than human beings in the quantity and quality of their pain, suffering, and death, I shifted from human rights to animal rights activism. Whereas most human beings have at least some rights, no animals have the most basic right to life and bodily integrity and they needed representation and alliance more than any oppressed human group. When I studied the impact of meat production on world hunger and the environment, I realized that by promoting veganism and animal rights I would also be helping humans in the most productive way possible. I saw veganism and animal rights as the most radical, complete, and holistic forms of activism, having a powerful and positive impact on the crises in human health, world hunger, food shortages, environmental devastation, ubiquitous violence, and the deep and troubling alienation of humanity from the natural world and other life forms.

Many think, for instance, that people should help humans as our first priority and relegate animals to an afterthought at best. They think humans suffer more than animals, which is not true. They think that activism is a zero-sum game, such that one group (humans) gains only if another (all other animal species) loses, which is a capitalist ideology belied by the deep interconnectedness of all life and the natural world. One of the most profound truths I have learned in my life is that the fate of all species stands or falls together, that what we do to the animals we do to ourselves and to the earth, and that promoting animal rights and respect for all life has direct benefits to human society and the environment

Yet I also found my political commitments ridiculed far more than ever before, as animal rights provokes hostility from the arrogant people who enjoy power over animals, from the insecure who boost themselves by demeaning and exploiting animals, and from the guilty who do not want to confront their ignorance and implication in violence against animals. I took heart in the words of Emile Zola: “The fate of animals is of greater importance to me than the fear of appearing ridiculous; it is indissolubly connected with the fate of men.”

The ridicule I received for defending veganism and animal rights was particularly harsh from the radical and Left communities. For leftists have completely assimilated the anthropocentric and speciesist ideologies of agricultural society, Greco-Roman culture, Christianity, modern science, the Enlightenment, and Marxist and anarchist humanism. I grew tired of the inconsistencies and hypocrisies. Over and over again, I listened to humanists, “progressives,” “radicals,” and “peace and justice” activists rail against capitalism, exploitation, and injustice, while devouring the tortured and dismembered bodies of cows, chickens, pigs, and other sentient beings and fellow animals who were brutally exploited and killed in the industrial capitalist institutions of factory farms and slaughterhouses. Champions of holistic theorizing and systemic analysis, one-dimensional leftists completely miss the origins of hierarchy, slavery, war, racism, environmental ruination, and other profound crises requiring urgent attention, all related to speciesism and interconnected by the hideous chains linking animal exploitation to human exploitation and environmental devastation.

Epiphany #4

I realized that the “radical” traditions in no way are a liberating philosophy or politics from the standpoint of animals and the environment. I saw Leftism as merely another form of Stalinism toward animals. The Left doesn’t grasp the deep roots of human power pathologies and would only replace capitalist anthropocentrism with socialist anthropocentrism, and could never resolve key social and ecological problems. They operate with pre-scientific, mechanistic models of understanding animal behavior, still cling to dualist oppositions separating humans and animals with an ontological chasm rather than evolutionary continuity, and to this day they are mired in the Dark Ages, the philosophical (animal rights) and scientific (cognitive ethology) revolutions having completely passed them by as new paradigms emerge vital for salvaging the wreckage of psychologically stunted humanity and the metastasizing cancer of “civilization.”

I came to the conclusion that a truly revolutionary social theory and movement will not just emancipate members of one species, but rather all species and the Earth itself. I rejected the humanist cliché — “We Are All One Race, the Human Race” – for a broader vision: “We Are One Community, the Biocommunity.” I saw that all forms of oppression were interrelated, that they were all facets of one odious system of hierarchy with deep roots in speciesism and the domestication of animals that commenced with agricultural society ten thousand years ago. From animal liberation, I evolved to a politics of total liberation, abandoning single-issue approaches in favor of linking human, animal, and earth liberation struggles. Total liberation involves a dialectical theory of interrelated oppression and an alliance politics deeper and more inclusive than anything yet imagines. Its ultimate goal is to revolutionize global capitalism, reconstruct society along anarchist lines, and harmonize the social world with the natural world and respect the autonomy and equal interests nonhuman animals share with us in freedom from exploitation and suffering and freedom to self-determination in their natural habitat and with their own families and communities.

Thus, I evolved from vegetarianism to veganism, and from animal welfarism to animal rights then to animal liberation to total liberation and to defense of militant direct action as a legitimate and necessary tactic in the larger struggle for revolutionary change. At this stop in my journey, I abandoned the baggage of pacifism and lent philosophical and political support to the most dynamic and threatening resistance movements of the last few decades, the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front. Parallel groups that emerged in the 1970s and 1990s respectively, both are organized in decentralized cells, operate underground and anonymous to the public and to one another, and carry out the mission of inflicting maximal harm on exploitative industries through destroying property and liberating animal slaves. Their actions were bold, constant, and effective enough to cost industries hundreds of millions of dollars, to liberate hundreds of animals at a time, and to shut down many operations altogether. After 9/11, the FBI elevated them to the nation’s top two “domestic terrorist” groups in the US.

The UTEP Years

I landed a tenure-track position in the philosophy department at the University of Texas, El Paso in 1993, and found myself stranded in a geographical and cultural desert. But I immediately set to work waking up the huge but sleepy and benighted town. I taught radical topics in my classes, involved my students in protests, and engaged in civil disobedience. For 15 intense years, I was Vice President of the Vegetarian Society of El Paso; I led a dynamic animal rights group that was the political epicenter of the area; and I was debating, speaking, and intervening on local radio, TV, and print media on a daily basis. I started my own animal rights radio show, managed it for 4 years, and it continues to this day. I spearheaded a successful drive to free a badly beaten elephant from the El Paso Zoo to a sanctuary in Tennessee. I fought for a new animal shelter, free spay and neutering for low-income families, and aggressive adoption practices. I lobbied the city council and successfully won a vote which made EL Paso the 300th city in the US to declare the USA PATRIOT Act unconstitutional — all the while fending off attacks from colleagues, cops, right-wing media, and politicians.

Unlike the vast majority of academics, I believe that teaching and research should be linked to activism and the urgent issues of the day. It is appalling to me that in the midst of global social and environmental crisis, most academics pursue abstract, arcane, and opportunist lines of research, typically behind the facade of “neutrality” and with sublime detachment from a world spiraling out of control. Just as I believe scientists should commit positively to the politics of climate change (such as James Hansen admirably has), I think that academics and theorists ought to work as organic intellectuals in social movements and communities, using their skills to help understand and transform the dynamics and causes of domination, hierarchy, increasing concentrations of wealth and power among power elites, the ongoing animal holocaust, and planetary ecological meltdown.

As an educator and activist in numerous movements for over thirty years, I can say with confidence that there are few, if any, topics as heated and controversial as animal liberation and veganism, both of which push primordial buttons. Although I have taught radical subjects such as Marxism, anarchism, feminism, postmodernism, queer theory, anti-globalization, post-colonialism, critical race theory, and deep ecology, it was only my discussions of animal liberation and veganism that aroused the ire of colleagues and administrators and provoked intense student interest and debate.

The police chief wrote letters to the university president against my protest and demonstration actions. I was mocked on local right-wing radio. Resentful professors phoned in anonymous complaints based on lies and third-hand rumors. Senior colleagues and administrators admonished me that teaching animal rights was not appropriate (!) for humanities or philosophy. I shot them all down and pumped up the volume.

In 2005, things heated up considerably. In June, a notorious right-wing US Senator, James Inhofe (R-Okl.) sent letters to me, my department, the university president, and the entire Texas Board of Regents, pressuring me to testify before Senate eco-terrorism hearings due to my open support for and writings on the Animal Liberation Front. Almost subpoenaed, I refused to legitimate this McCarthyesque witch-hunt. The hearings went on without me and were broadcast on C-Span Live before an international audience and an audience packed with top lawmakers and FBI Brass. David Martosko of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a corporate and agribusiness front group, delivered a twenty-minute harangue that denounced me as “the leader of the Animal Liberation Front” and a “truly dangerous individual.” He went on to accuse me of recruiting students into the ALF. These were most amusing charges. For there is no leader in a decentralized movement and it certainly was not me. Moreover, I found it challenging to persuade students to attend vegan potluck dinners, let alone to risk a ten-year prison term to join me in alleged criminal underground adventures!

In July, after a series of speeches in England on animal liberation, the British Home Office banned me from the entire UK for life, deeming me a “threat to the public order.” My status was elevated from domestic terrorist to international terrorist, and I can never thank them enough for raising my profile. I subsequently suffered political repression from my own university, however, which inspired me to introduce and edit a 600 page volume history and analysis of academic repression and the corporatization of the university in the post-9/11 era. In Academic Repression: Reflections From the Academic-Industrial Complex (AK Press, 2010), I exposed the myth of free speech in “higher education” and featured numerous cases studies of repression, persecution, and firing professors for their political beliefs and activism. Despite having written over a dozen books and some two hundred articles and essays, despite excellent teaching evaluations, and despite intensive work in the community, I was denied promotion to full professor for clearly political reasons.

The Specter of Animal Liberation

But long before this turbulent time, I began to wonder: Why are people who show compassion to animals mocked and derided? Why are we considered psychologically abnormal or morally flawed? Why are we called everything from bunny huggers to misanthropes to terrorists? Why are the topics of veganism and animal rights so controversial? Why does animal liberation touch a primal and raw nerve in the human psyche and provoke resistance from others and fierce repression from the state? Why is it so threatening?

I concluded that animal rights is subversive and revolutionary on many levels, but to understand this point, one has to appreciate the difference between animal welfare – which every exploiter and speciesist claims to respect – and animal rights, which prohibits any exploitative use of animals and which all parties reject as extremist. Whereas welfarism never challenges the assumption that animals are resources and property for human use, animal rights explodes the prejudices underpinning the hierarchical system of speciesism to insist on equal consideration for the interests of all sentient life. Animal welfare doesn’t change the vast system of animal exploitation that slaughters over one hundred billion innocents every year, it only regulates minor technical and administrative details to “reduce suffering” and kill the endless procession of animals “humanely.” Enlightened people did not ask for a more “humane” Auschwitz, nor did the 19th century abolitionist movement ask for better treatment of the slaves. One does not regulate evil, one abolishes it completely, and the only “humane” way to treat a slave is to free it!

Because animal rights is abolitionist rather than welfarist in logic, it poses two different threats to humans and their societies: first a material or economic threat, and second a psychological threat. Animal rights is a potentially serious economic threat in its goal to eliminate every form of animal exploitation it can bring down, and thereby to end the vast system of animal slavery which is crucial to the growth of the global capitalist machine. In the UK, for instance, where pharmaceutical corporations are the third most important contributor to the economy, activists have shut down numerous breeders, liberated thousands of research animals, attacked multiple laboratories, stopped production of a biomedical facility at Cambridge University, and seriously thwarted plans to build a research complex at Oxford University.

This is very serious indeed, but the psychological threat is deeper. People throughout society are threatened by animal liberation, whether or not they have a direct economic interest in exploiting animals, because it means profound changes in their identities, values, interpersonal relations, and everyday lives. Animal liberation transgresses an inviolable boundary, as deeply rooted and universal as the prohibition against incest. It is considered taboo to challenge the distinction between human and non-human nature. Throughout the entire history of Western civilization, thinkers have built an elaborate lie that reduces animals to machines or things, falsely separates us from the animal kingdom, and arrogantly establishes us as the end to which all other beings are mere means. Animal rights forces us to confront the lies we have told about animals and ourselves.

Whereas prior liberation movements addressed sectors of humanity who were specific oppressors dominating distinct oppressed groups, animal liberation sees all humanity as oppressors; it attacks not just white supremacy or male supremacy, but the larger phenomenon of human supremacy, a universal ideology and everyday practice that cuts across class, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, nation, and other boundaries. Nobel Prize winning author, Isaac Bashevis Singer, stated that, in relation to animals, “all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.”

Animal liberation is revolutionary in that it demands a complete reorganization of our social and psychological realities. It demands a fundamentally different economy, mode of science, worldview, culture, rituals, social practices, and identities. It rejects the conceptual map humanity (Western society in particular) has developed over the last ten thousand years throughout the reign of “civilization.” Indeed, the identities and traditions animal liberation challenges go back over two million years, with the emergence of the Homo genus and the coeval rise in meat consumption and development of the tools and fire used to hunt, kill, and consume animals.

Animal liberation is the next necessary and logical development in moral evolution and political struggle, whereby humans learn that animals deserve fundamental rights, grant them these rights, and change their social institutions, practices, and mentalities accordingly. Animal liberation builds on the most progressive ethical and political advances human beings have made in the last 200 years and carries them to their logical conclusions. It takes the struggle for rights, equality, and nonviolence to the next level, beyond the artificial moral and legal boundaries of humanism, in order to challenge all prejudices and hierarchies including speciesism. Martin Luther King’s paradigmatic humanist vision of a “worldhouse” devoid of violence and divisions, however laudable, remains a blood-soaked slaughterhouse until the values of peace and equality are extended to all animal species.

Thus, the revolutionary implications of animal liberation explain the intense resistance to it on all fronts.

Animal liberation is not a sufficient condition for avoiding the impending nightmare of ecological catastrophe, for it needs to be articulated with social justice, peace, rights, autonomy, and ecological movements. But it is a necessary condition of revolutionary change, and our attitudes toward animals stand as a litmus test to whether or not we ourselves will survive in viable and desirable form.

Let’s be clear: we are fighting for a revolution, not for reforms, for the end of slavery, not for humane slavemasters. Animal liberation advances the most radical idea to ever land on human ears: animals are not our food, clothing, resources, or objects of entertainment; they exist for their own purposes, not ours.  Although humanists scorn and reject the concept of animal rights on grounds such as that they allegedly lack reason, language, and culture; that only beings who can enter into social contracts can have rights and the responsibilities that go alone with them — all these objections are completely beside the main point. Animals have rights not in relation to one another, but against human beings and their violent and predatory actions.

Every justice struggle up to now was has been relatively easy. Now it gets hard. Speciesism is primordial and universal; it is arguably the first of any form of domination or hierarchy and it has spread like a deadly virus throughout the entire planet and all of human history. The problem is not limited to Western culture or to the modern world, such that there is some significant utopian past or radical alternative to recover. The problem is the human species itself, which but for rare exceptions is violent, destructive, and imperialistic. Universally, humans have vested interests in exploiting animals and think they have a God-given right to do so. To change these attitudes is to change the very nerve center of human consciousness.

That is the task of the worldwide animal liberation movement – no more and no less.

The Aftermath

The net result of my unrestrained passions, relentless critiques, and highly controversial activism is that my academic career is over, frozen at the level of Associate Professor and blacklisted on the national hiring market. But there are no apologies and no regrets. I am one of those rare academics whose primary ambition was never to obey, conform, and promote careerist goals, but rather to make philosophy dangerous again, to be a controversial public intellectual, and to use critical theory and political engagement toward a revolutionary transformation of all psychological, social, and economic structures which have brought us to this critical crossroads in human evolution and the history of the earth itself.

In a world of environmental ruination, species extinction, human overpopulation, predatory global capitalism, resource scarcity, runaway climate change, and an ever-growing animal Holocaust, academics should not have the luxury to pursue abstract issues unrelated to the urgent need for systemic change at all levels. They ought, rather, to abandon petty ego obsessions and narcissistic careerism in order to help clarify and change the causes of social and ecological breakdown, which demands a break from the ten thousand-year reign of dominator cultures and the much longer tyranny of Homo rapiens.

My life is the story of principled commitment, endless self-overcoming, and ceaseless struggle: the struggle for truth, enlightenment, justice, and peace; a struggle to bring change to myself, to others, and to this world. The struggle goes on, it will never stop. It provides the continuity and coherence for my ever-changing life.

Indeed after 40 years of non-stop intensive work, a new crossroads and novel challenges lay before me, once again, right now.

To be continued……

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In 2005, after being misquoted by the Daily Telegraph during a public lecture in England, I was banned for life from the entire UK for the crime of defending animal rights in public lectures and rallies (see here and my response here).

Oxford University Anti-Vivisection Demo, 2003

Oxford University Anti-Vivisection Demo, 2003

As a university professor, writer, speaker, and activist, I have no criminal record beyond various civil disobedience actions in support of animal rights. 6 years and 3 governments later, I defied the ban and told the British Home office I would be flying into London via Gdansk, Poland in order to speak in London and Manchester. Upon trying to board my flight to London in September 2011, Polish security agents told me the Home Office prohibited my departure. I spoke to audiences via Skype, but could not physically enter the UK.

Once a society begins banning philosophers, one has to wonder how perilous is the slippery slope toward a police state, and recent state repression and surveillance in the UK, as well as in the US, demonstrates a rapid and dangerous erosion of civil liberties and privacy. By reinforcing their lifetime ban against me, the UK demonstrated they have chosen to be a police state rather than a democracy.

I am deeply indebted to UK activist, Darren Sunderland, for grasping the larger implications of this ban against me. and taking the initiative to create and maintain the following support sites:

BBB, Causes.Com

BBB, Facebook

BBB, UK

Please sign the petition on Causes.com and join the Facebook page if you would like to support free speech rights and ending the UK lifelong ban against me. Thank you, and thank you Darren.

Tragic story of a young internet pioneer who died of double-trouble: physical depression/illness and state repression. The ironies emphasized in this article are troubling as well.

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Huffington Post, January 13, 2012

Aaron Swartz is no longer among us though the contributions he made to promote free flow of information and knowledge sharing will continue to benefit our present and future generations. He was charged with 13 felony counts for downloading millions of academic articles from JSTOR and accused of intending to distribute these articles through file-sharing sites.

The manner in which Aaron had been prosecuted offers a sharp contrast to the manner in which our legal system dealt with corporate America after the 2008 financial crisis, where there were no prosecutions of top corporate figures. Sadly, the contrast highlights that trying to disseminate knowledge, quite literally by making academic journal articles available online, is a greater crime than bringing down the United States economy through “corporate mismanagement and heedless risk-taking.”

Driven by a desire to make knowledge accessible Aaron has been attributed to author the “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto.” Some key excerpts are as follow:

Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable … Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world … It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy … It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

Aaron’s untimely death has left us without a great mind and even more importantly a compassionate activist. While Aaron is irreplaceable, we must aspire to freely disseminate the moral imperative he advocated, in the very spirit that he himself would have done.

Featured below us a stimulating debate over the pros and cons of the university tenure system. Of course the conservatives and neoliberals promoting the corporatization of the tenure system want it gone — not because it favors research over teaching, but  because it gives some protection for academic free speech (a very faulty and tenuous thing, often flagrantly violated) over total conformism (which prevails regardless), and because those who think universities should be run like a business want to replace experienced tenured professors with highly exploited part-time and adjunct instructors who work for little pay and no benefits. For a comprehensive history of academic free speech and repression, over 30 case studies of academic repression, the rapid corporatization of the university, the economic and politically motivated move to destroy the tenure system, and the shocking decline in the values and quality of “higher education,” see my edited anthology, Academic Repression: Reflections on the Academic-Industrial Complex (AK Press, 2010, 590 pages).

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The Wall Street Journal, June 24, 2012

“Should Tenure for College Professors Be Abolished?”

At some point, discussions about the quality of higher education in the U.S. come around to the subject of tenure. And the disagreement could hardly be more stark.

Critics of tenure for college professors say it is ruining the education of millions of students. In pursuit of tenure, they say, professors have become experts at churning out research of questionable value while neglecting their teaching duties.

On top of that, critics say, tenure has become the tool of a stifling orthodoxy in academia, rewarding only those whose views on curriculums, administration and finances are in line with the status quo.

Proponents of tenure say it’s the only way to preserve the quality of higher education in this country. It sets the bar high for professors, supporters say, ensuring that only the very best are retained.

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And, they say, it gives professors the freedom to pursue the groundbreaking research that advances knowledge in so many fields, and the security to challenge administrators and students to do their best.

Naomi Schaefer Riley, a writer and the author of “The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For,” argues that tenure for college professors should be abolished. Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois and president of the American Association of University Professors, counters that tenure should be retained.

I. Yes: It’s Bad for Students

By Naomi Schaefer Riley

There are a lot of problems with tenure for college professors, but they all lead to the biggest one: It isn’t good for students.

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NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY: “Tenure has created and enforced a system that rewards research over teaching.”

That’s because tenure, by giving professors permanent jobs largely on the basis of the work they have published, has created and enforced a system that rewards research over teaching.

There is clear evidence that research is more highly valued than teaching throughout the higher-education system. According to a 2005 study published in the Journal of Higher Education, the more time college professors spend in the classroom, the less they get paid. This was true not only at large research universities, but also at small liberal-arts colleges.

Professors have gotten the message, busily churning out research for a growing number of publications that in most cases are read by next to no one.

Meanwhile, much of the teaching is being done by the people at the bottom of the academic ladder, the adjuncts. They make up more than half of college faculty today, and their effect on student learning has been well documented: An increase in adjuncts on campus produces both lower graduation rates and more grade inflation.

Adjuncts are under more pressure than other professors to make a good impression on students, because they are judged by student evaluations and nothing else; thus the grade inflation. But they also have less time than professors to engage with students; thus the lower graduation rates. Adjuncts typically have no offices and often no office hours, and in many cases they are running from one campus to the next to make a living.

A New System

The best way to improve the quality of education for college students is to get professors to focus more on teaching. And to do that we need to ditch the tenure system and start evaluating professors on the basis of their teaching ability, without any guarantee that they will keep their jobs if they don’t continue to measure up over the years.

Some professors claim that universities must reward research rather than teaching because there is no objective measure for good teaching. So we need some objective stand-in, the argument goes, and published articles offer a good proxy.

This is plainly false. Good teaching involves preparation for lectures and discussions, extensive work in grading and a lot of contact with students. Those are all elements that students as well as faculty colleagues and school administrators could recognize and reward if they chose to.

For instance, to evaluate grading you might try looking at the substance of comments that students receive. Many professors simply write things like “great” or “unclear” on a paper or exam, rather than writing more-enlightening comments, much less correcting students’ prose.

Evaluations of professors’ teaching should be done by their colleagues as well as administrators and even young alumni in addition to students—and they should be conducted regularly. Teaching is a dynamic profession. Just because you taught a class well at 30 doesn’t mean you will do so at 60, and just because you are teaching well at 60 doesn’t mean you were born with the skills to teach.

We need to reward good teaching regularly, not give permanent job security for what professors have accomplished up to a given point, as tenure does.

Freedom Without Dissent

Professors often defend tenure because they say it protects academic freedom. But in practice, tenure has plainly failed on this count. Universities today are perhaps the most intellectually uniform institutions in the country, and tenure is the biggest reason for that.

In every department, from physics to music, faculty vote to give tenure to clones of themselves, and those clones stay in their cozy places for decades.

Tenured professors indeed have the freedom to research obscure niches in their fields that are of little interest or value to the vast majority of their students—as many do. But real dissent—in the form of ideas that challenge both academics and students to study issues in very different ways and perhaps arrive at conclusions that are uncomfortable for many—is rarely allowed to go very far, because dissenters don’t get tenure.

And the stifling influence of the tenured extends beyond the classroom. Every battle in higher education, whether it’s over the curriculum or how the money is spent or the politics of university administration, is a battle of attrition. The faculty, thanks to tenure, will always win. They will outlast any university president, any governor, any trustee, any regent, any parent and any student. They are why meaningful reform of any sort is virtually impossible. Once again, the people who suffer most in the end are the students.

Ms. Riley is a writer and the author of “The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.” She can be reached at reports@wsj.com.

II. No: It Offers Crucial Protection

By Cary Nelson

There was a time when the myth of deadwood in universities was no myth: Tenure sometimes protected faculty who should not have been hired in the first place.

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CARY NELSON: ‘Tenure compels hiring committees to take a close look at every case they consider.”

Those days are gone. With the excess teaching talent available today, tenure now is the ultimate quality check, ensuring that universities retain the very best of a highly qualified pool of teachers.

It also encourages those teachers to stay intellectually curious and take chances with unconventional work, something no system that doesn’t offer long-term security can accomplish.

For more than 40 years, the number of new Ph.D.s has outstripped the number of teaching jobs available, allowing ruthlessly selective hiring. Five hundred to a thousand candidates for a single faculty position is not uncommon. Yes, there remain dysfunctional faculty, but it’s no longer a systemic problem, despite the fact that most critics of tenure still make the outdated argument that it is.

Of course, hiring committees sometimes make mistakes, and when they do, the tenure system allows them to correct those mistakes. But tenure also compels the committees to take a close look at every case they consider, because they are probably going to have to live with the decision they make for a very long time. That level of commitment, and the weight it brings to the tenure decision, wouldn’t be there in a system that relied on contracts that came up for renewal every few years. I know that I have not been a terribly kind tenure decider. If a candidate is just good, not excellent, I vote “no.”

Protecting the Risk Takers

Critics of tenure argue that the system rewards research, not teaching. But pay comparisons indicating that research is more highly valued can be faulty: Professors in some fields are simply paid more than those in other disciplines, regardless of the amount of research they do, and different fields lend themselves to different proportions of classroom and research time. So direct lines between pay and classroom time are difficult to draw.

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My best estimate is that only 10% of American colleges and universities have serious research expectations for tenure. And every institution needs the research that 10% of American faculty do if everyone’s teaching is to stay up-to-date.

Tenure doesn’t guarantee that every faculty member is courageous, but it protects those who are. Not every faculty member will speak out against bad plans proposed by powerful administrators, but tenure protects those who do from retaliation. Not every faculty member takes risks in challenging students, but many do. Tenure protects faculty from the ideological wrath of students, parents and politicians.

The tenure system even offers some protection to those who don’t have tenure. It helps establish a campus climate in which free expression is both tolerated and valued. It establishes a system in which long-term, intellectually unconventional and innovative work can be rewarded. It guarantees colleges and universities a core of faculty members who have the kind of institutional commitment and memory that makes good decisions and successful collaboration possible. Multiyear contracts can’t do the same. They provide repeated opportunities to get rid of those who rock the boat. Multiyear contracts can keep people intellectually cautious.

The Best Stay Fresh

If you make good hiring decisions and then revisit them at tenure time, you will rarely find the faculty members who meet those tests going stale. You will be selecting colleagues who remain intellectually curious and passionate about their teaching and research throughout their careers. There is no evidence that tenure encourages conformity, and plenty of evidence to the contrary. Curriculums change regularly because faculty members embody their changing disciplines. What’s more, most good job candidates are doing cutting-edge work, not simply reproducing what their tenured colleagues already do.

Despite the benefits tenure provides, it is difficult to find supporters. Tenured or tenure-eligible faculty members have declined from two-thirds to less than one-third of the teaching force since 1975. At many elite institutions, tenure is secure, but elsewhere it is disappearing. Faculty consequently may lose control of the curriculum and the hiring of teachers. They are already losing the support for academic freedom and spirited teaching that tenure protects.

We will eventually see a resulting decline in the quality of what has been the best higher-education system in the world, as the people capable of designing a college curriculum and staffing it lose authority over the areas of their professional expertise. The history of American higher education demonstrates that the quality of teaching and research is greatest when faculty are secure in their freedom to inquire, speak, teach and publish. No one has shown that anything other than tenure can produce that result.

Mr. Nelson is a professor of English at the University of Illinois and president of the American Association of University Professors. He can be reached at reports@wsj.com.

Academic RepressionThe extreme repressive attacks on Churchill, Finklstein, Fontan, Best, Massad, the “Dirty Thirty,” and many others represented in this book demonstrate the repressive logic of “US democracy,” whereby political elites, the mass media, and the education system establish and police the parameters of acceptable discourse. Churchill became America’s own Salman Rushdie terrorized by the fatwa of the right. Unprecedented for the media coverage given to a professor (in a mass media culture that virtually ignores substantive ideas in favor of spectacle and sensationalism) the Churchill affair was, however, just one of many cases of attacks on academic freedom that eerily evoke the tyranny of the McCarthy era where actors were blacklisted and professors were fired for having even liberal views or showing dissent against state repression. While there has been much research on political repression carried out by the Bush administration, FBI, and various law enforcement agencies, there has been little discussion on political repression in academia and how the shockwaves of 9/11 have reverberated throughout academia. This anthology brings together prominent academics who contribute original essays commissioned for this volume. The writers are known and respected figures in their respective fields, and many have experienced academic repression first-hand. This volume aims to be a cogent intervention in debates over free speech, culture wars, and academic freedom. Given that the importance of free speech to academic life, and the crucial role universities play in the intellectual life of cultures as a whole, a volume addressing the political environment of universities in the current period promises to make a significant contribution. 

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