Constricting critical inquiry in universities

By Robert Jensen

Published in ZNet · October, 2001

[This article appeared as a ZNet Commentary , October 21, 2001.]

Each fall on our annual reports, University of Texas faculty members are asked to list grants we have received, one of the many ways we demonstrate to the bosses that we have been “productive.”

I couldn’t resist letting my sarcastic side take over: “I am proud to report that for the ninth consecutive year I did not accept any external funding and remain a fully independent scholar.”

Of course, that’s not the answer the University of Texas — or most any university these days — wants from its faculty. Such independence is of little concern; bringing cash to campus is what counts, in part because grants secured by individual faculty members help cover some of the university’s basic costs.

In my time as a professor, the pressure on faculty to become grant-writing machines has increased considerably, which has the entirely predictable effect of discouraging scholarly work that challenges the society’s most powerful institutions and ideologies. And that is an impediment to moving the United States toward real democracy.

In some fields, especially the sciences, professors at research institutions have long been expected to secure funding from outside sources (governmental and private) to run their labs and support graduate students. That expectation no doubt has shaped scientific research over the years (especially in areas where military funding has been important), and the increasing role of corporate funding in setting research agendas should especially trouble us today. Still, the basic activity of most scientists is not subject to the same kind of direct ideological pressure as is work in the humanities and social sciences.

In recent years, professors outside the sciences — including folks in disciplines where fundraising has never been an issue — are under more pressure to raise money, which has implications that are dangerous for independent, critical social inquiry. Take my field of journalism and mass communication as an example.

When I was hired by the UT journalism department in 1992, I made no secret of my interest in ideas that challenged mainstream media institutions. Although I had been a journalist before returning to graduate school, I was openly critical of industry practices, and the colleagues who recommended hiring me certainly understood that I would continue to pursue that critique. Six years later I successfully squeezed through the tenure process with a research record that reflected a variety of critical interests.

But things have changed around here.

In a faculty meeting last year, our dean informed us that the big bosses have decreed that tenure and promotion files lacking evidence of efforts — and successful efforts — to find external funding would be scrutinized. In other words: Start hustling money if you want to stay around and get promoted.

In my field the most fruitful targets for begging money are media corporations and the foundations they endow. This means that the seemingly neutral directive to make fundraising a larger part of faculty members’ job description will, in practice, further discourage critical and radical scholarship, which is already marginalized.

For example, my work has led me to the conclusion that corporate journalism tends to produce news that supports the corporate system (how’s that for a brilliant insight). I also believe the evidence demonstrates that the contemporary corporation is a fundamentally illegitimate concentration of power and resources. Therefore, as someone who believes that the central role for journalists in a free society is to challenge illegitimate authority, it’s not surprising that I think one of the key research questions for scholars concerned with journalism and democracy should be how to wrestle control of mass media away from the corporations and into the hands of working journalists and citizens.

In other words, my research and analysis leads me to want to pursue work aimed at ending the system of corporate capitalist ownership of mass media and radically remaking journalistic institutions. It should come as no surprise that the media corporations and their foundations are not terribly interested in funding work that aims to derail their gravy train.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not whining about this situation, nor am I upset that no one is giving me grants. I make a reasonable salary at the university (more than I ever made as a working journalist) and am quite happy to be left alone to pursue my teaching and research interests. But when the ability to attract external funding becomes a requirement for obtaining and retaining a job, then folks like me face a clear choice: Either (1) adapt your research programs to lines of inquiry that are likely to be funded, (2) accept marginal status, or (3) start looking for other work.

I’ve been lucky in my career. I entered the field when these pressures were not quite as strong, and I have received support over the years from several senior faculty members who believe in the ideal of the university as a place for independent inquiry. I’m not concerned about myself; I will continue to do my work and will simply ignore the pressure to hustle money. If it means I am never promoted from associate to full professor, well, I somehow I think I will find a way to cope.

Instead, I worry about the fate of younger scholars who have not yet found permanent jobs or been tenured. And that concern is not so much for the individuals as it is for the intellectual health of the university and larger culture. In a society so thoroughly dominated by business interests — where “market fundamentalism” rules so completely — there are precious few spaces that give people the time, space, and resources to think critically.

Like most other universities, the University of Texas has been largely colonized by those dominant interests and exists primarily to serve them. But even in that environment, there still is space for thinking against the grain. My fear is that small space will shrink even more as younger scholars face these very stark choices and feel the pressure to hide whatever critical leanings they might have in order to survive professionally. That constricts not only the research conducted by professors but the range of ideas offered in the classroom (a range already heavily skewed toward centrist and right-wing views), and by extension, in society.

I realize that many folks outside the university may find it hard to care. To most working people the life of a professor looks pretty cushy, and indeed it is. I have one of the few jobs that pays relatively well and allows me to pursue activities that I enjoy with minimal supervision and maximal freedom, and I’m extremely grateful for the privilege.

But I believe that I repay society in part by pursuing teaching, research, and public speaking that helps to keep alive critical thinking. Certainly the university is not the only place where such thinking happens, and it may not be the most important place for it. But as the “triumph” of capitalism continues to consolidate power in fewer and fewer hands — to the detriment of more and more people, here and around the world — it is crucial that we work to retain any space that can be used to defend a different vision of what it means to be a human being living in solidarity with others.

I am not naïve; I do not think universities ever have been pristine places insulated from powerful forces in society. But if we continue to squeeze public institutions and make them beg for private money, private concerns will only dominate more. In a society in which there is precious little democratic public space, this should trouble us all.