With Truce at the UT Factory, Time to Face Tough Choices

By Robert Jensen

Published in The Rag Blog · September, 2013

First published at Austin Post, September 4, 2013.

AUSTIN — A truce seems to have been negotiated in the long-running skirmish between the University of Texas and its conservative critics. The Board of Regents’ new chairman has toned down the rhetoric and signaled he wants to reduce tensions that have built over the past two years, which suggests that UT president Bill Powers may keep his job, at least for now.

The start of a new school year, along with this lull in the public squabbling (though Lord only knows what is going on behind the scenes), is a good time to step back and evaluate both sides of the debate.

On one side are Gov. Rick Perry and the regents he has appointed. Their basic complaint is that UT isn’t efficient enough in pursuing what they seem to believe is the primary purpose of the modern university: Churning out technologically competent and politically compliant graduates who will take their slots in the corporate capitalist hierarchy without complaining or questioning.

From that perspective, too many resources are being wasted on irrelevant research by a self-indulgent faculty, and the campus needs a president who can crack some professorial skulls.

On the other side are UT officials and supporters in the state Legislature who defend the quality of the instruction and research at the university, invoking the tradition of academic freedom and an intellectually diverse university, and/or Longhorn loyalty.

As a longtime UT faculty member (with tenure, and hence wide latitude to say what I really think), I don’t hesitate to condemn the anti-intellectual attacks coming from right-wing forces that want to undermine genuine critical thinking. But I also recognize that some of the conservative critique is on target — there is a lot of irrelevant research being done by a lot of self-indulgent professors, though conservatives misunderstand the problem that creates.

Not enough oxygen for critical thinking

Because of both forces — attacks pushing the university to the right, and faculty complacency — there’s not enough genuine critical thinking going on at UT, at a time in the world when multiple cascading crises — economic and ecological — demand a critical thinking that is tougher than ever.

Stated bluntly: In 21 years of teaching at UT, I have seen how the reactionary politics of the conservatives and self-serving reactions of the faculty have not served students or society very well. The solution isn’t to force the university to become more factory-like or to defend the existing system of evaluating professors. Instead, we should ask: What is real critical thinking, and on what should it be focused?

Let’s start with the roots of the public squabble: Right-wing forces run the United States, and most of the world, but are never satisfied. Corporate profits are healthy and democracy is ailing; the increasing concentration of wealth undermines the radicalizing potential of democratic processes.

But that level of domination is never enough for the masters, and the right-wing has long wanted to shut down spaces where even token resistance is still possible, especially in journalism and education.

Challenges to corporate values are possible in the university, but that doesn’t mean they are widespread. Take one look at the UT catalog — pay special attention to the economics and business courses — and you will see the university isn’t exactly on the front lines of the revolution. The University of Texas is a corporately-run institution largely supportive of corporate values.

Where do faculty members fit in all this? The vast majority coexist with that corporate structure and value system, either because they agree with it or because they have decided not to fight. For the past three decades — after the threat to an “orderly” society that broke out on college campuses in the 1960s was largely contained — most faculty have been willing to keep their heads down and let individual career interests be their guide.

In science and technology fields, the result has been increased capitulation of research agendas to corporate demands. University research increasingly is valued when it can be turned into profit, the sooner the better, regardless of the effects on society or ecosystems. Basic science that has no immediate profit-potential is allowed, in part because it provides a necessary foundation for more applied work.

In the humanities and social sciences, the result has been a trend not only toward research that serves the master, but toward research that just doesn’t much matter. The most glaring example is the faddishness of so-called “postmodern” approaches to society, in which marginally coherent “theorizing” that is detached from the real world is not only accepted but celebrated.

When I ask students how they react to this allegedly sophisticated material, they usually roll their eyes. To them, it’s just one more part of college that must be endured to get a degree, like standing in line to get forms signed.

In the social sciences, researchers can easily advance careers not by asking important questions about how systems of power work, but by constructing complex models and methodologies that are, again, so allegedly sophisticated that they have to be important. Students also find most of this kind of work annoying, especially when faculty members have a hard time explaining why the articles being assigned are worth plodding through.

Finding our focus

I’m painting with a broad brush, of course. The University of Texas has many outstanding faculty members who care — both about students and about the state of the world. I have colleagues I respect and from whom I learn. But the mediocrity and mendacity that I am describing is routine, and the system not only allows but rewards it.

If an individual professor breaks out of the system and spends too much time writing in plain language about subjects that potentially threaten the powerful, the career path gets rocky. As a result, most faculty members take the path of least resistance, accepting the conventional politics of the university and their academic disciplines.

I’ve been lucky in my own career, entering academic life more than two decades ago when it was easier to chart an alternative path; being white and male with the accompanying privileges; and getting some lucky breaks from sympathetic colleagues. As a result, I’ve been able to spend my career writing and teaching from a sharply critical perspective, and keep my job.

My focus has been on the human and ecological crises that existing systems of power — both corporate and governmental — have created and the problems those systems cannot honestly face, let alone solve.

That’s what I mean by critical thinking: Focusing first on power, and how concentrations of power undermine decent human communities. That focus is more important than ever, as the human species faces new and unique threats to a sustainable future. Climate change, soil erosion, fresh water shortages, chemical contamination, species extinction — pick a topic in ecology, and the news is bad and getting worse, and our economic system is compounding the problems.

More than ever we need a university that refuses to serve power and instead focuses its resources on the compelling questions of social justice and ecological sustainability. Instead, the University of Texas has been caught up in a struggle with right-wing forces that want to eliminate what little space for critical thinking still exists. Given the siege mentality that this attack produces, critical self-reflection by faculty members is more difficult than ever.

I believe in the power of people to collectively face these problems and turn away from the death cult of contemporary consumer capitalism shaped by corporate values, and I believe that education is an important part of that struggle. I do not believe the University of Texas, as it exists today, is likely to contribute much to that struggle unless it not only fights the right-wing forces but recognizes that it is failing students and society.

To my faculty colleagues who scoff at this analysis, I would say: You are smart people, probably smarter than I, but being smart isn’t everything. Instead of investing time in your building status in academic cliques — where you spend a lot of energy reminding each other how smart you are — wade out into the world and let your work be guided by a simple question: How are we humans going to save ourselves and save the planet from ruin? We live in an unsustainable system that was created by systems that concentrate wealth and power. Do we care?

America is burning, and professors have a choice to fiddle or fight.