On the power of academic protest (take academia back!)

If you work in the Canadian university system you have probably heard about what’s recently been happening at my school, Western University. Our president, chemical engineer Amit Chakma, is at the centre of a scandal about administrative pay: his contract permitted him to take home double his pay packet at the end of his first term in office, in lieu of the administrative leave he was due. (What is administrative leave? It is a sabbatical given to scholars after several years in major administrative jobs in order that they may catch up on their research work. Since university administrators are traditionally drawn from the faculty, the assumption is they will return to active teaching and research once their admin gig is done.) Admin leave is not a holiday with pay: it’s a chance to get back up to speed in the job for which you are normally paid, and from which you had been seconded in order to do administrative labour for the university. Dr Chakma’s poor choice, to take a huge bonus instead of leave, sent the opposite message: that research leaves are a kind of “free money” opportunity, paid for by the suckers who hold the public purse.

As a result of Chakma-gate, as this event and its aftermath have become known, my colleagues and I find ourselves exhausted and frustrated, as we constantly defend the nature of our work to friends, family, and beyond. The other week, to offer just one example, I found myself explaining to the farmer who produces my weekly veg box what sabbaticals are (essential, concentrated research time, during which the books and papers needed for tenure and promotion get written) and how difficult they can be to afford for many ordinary faculty members (at Western, you take a pay cut when you’re on sabbatical). I just wanted to buy my veg on my one free day that week! But when you’re confronted by (a totally kind, generally ethical) somebody who is pretty sure, based on his reading of recent events in the papers, that you are an overprivileged fat cat, well… it’s hard just to plunk down your $20 and walk away.

Professors – elitist ivory-tower dwellers blah blah blah – are easy targets at the best of times; now, Chakma-gate has got us mixed up in many minds with the bankers and politicians who cravenly screw the public over for money and power. The really sad bit, though, is that President Chakma’s contract provisions are only one very visible symptom of a much larger, systemic problem: university governance models, including at Western, rely increasingly on excessively paid career bureaucrats who dictate neoliberal policy from above to diffuse and vulnerable students and faculty below. As Terry Eagleton recently argued in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the impact of the problem is wide-reaching and most devastating for the liberal arts disciplines whose daily work is hardest to link directly to the profit motive. In other words: under Dr Chakma’s presidency, many of us in the ordinary faculty have felt left out and screwed over, too. And many, many of us have not reaped anything like the benefits he has – quite the opposite.

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That’s the depressing bit. The GOOD news is that Chakma-gate has also proven to be a truly galvanising force for faculty and students at Western who are fed up with a budget model that plays favourites among faculties and presses the arts and humanities to accept increasing austerity measures while lavishing money, support, and bling on STEM and the school of business. Protests, votes of non-confidence, and lots of discussion in the media have prompted Dr Chakma first to pledge to give back his “bonus” pay, and then to engage in what he calls “100 Days of Listening” as he speaks with different constituencies about our ongoing concerns. Looking out across our university’s rapidly decaying forest from the top of this particular tree, a number of my colleagues have chosen to take Chakma-gate as a real opportunity to try to arrest what sometimes feels like our intractable slide into a “new normal” – in which higher education is reframed as “job training”, with no room for the arts, social sciences, or any discipline in which the debating of ideas takes precedence over skill and content delivery in the service of increasing corporate profits.

This fight is a long time coming, and I can’t tell you how proud I am to be part of an academic community that is so geared up for it. For the two years I was in the UK, I lived and worked in the shadow of the dystopian endgame toward which schools like Western are marching. (I’ve written about this on the blog before; see here and here for two representative posts.) While I was part of the truly incredible Department of Drama at Queen Mary, University of London, one filled with brilliant community activists and scholar-artists, too regularly we felt like protest against the neoliberal hierarchy in which we were trapped was pointless and the system more or less immovable. The best we could do was keep calm, keep writing and talking about the problem, and then find a way to manage the workload amidst the gloom.

At Western, right now, I feel like we still have the chance to fight this fight and win – but the window is closing. As part of the ongoing protests in the wake of Chakma-gate, a handful of my colleagues have created an “alternative” 100-days-of-listening tour, in which faculty and students share their perspectives on the larger issues at stake via blog posts on social media, primarily through a dedicated tumblr account and the superb Facebook group, Take Academia Back. I recently contributed a blog post to the “alt” tour; it will be up shortly, and I’ll reblog it here at that time. For now, I want to urge all of you to click on the metadata links I’ve built into this post, read a bit about Chakma-gate and the protests in its wake, and follow similar stories on your home campuses and in your communities.

I also want to urge you, if you have not already, to join Take Academia Back on Facebook, to follow “Noah Confidenze”, our online protest alias, on tumblr – and to share in the comments below (or anywhere you think most productive) your own stories of fighting back against higher ed’s reductive and damaging new normal(s). Keep talking, and if you can, start mobilising! I know it’s extra work, and we’re all tired – but that’s the point, I suspect. The new normal wants us to be too tired to mobilise against it. That’s what makes it so dangerous.

'I love to come here because it reminds me of how I became a capitalist.'

This fight is too important to give up on. Our futures hang in the balance – and I know from my time abroad that it is not a future any of us would choose to live or work in.

In solidarity!

Kim

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One thought on “On the power of academic protest (take academia back!)

  1. Thanks for an important post, Kim. Early last year, the UNB faculty union staged the first labour action in the university’s (long) history, due to the very trends you describe here, of devaluing faculty as administration swells and the corporation model becomes more entrenched. The faculty enjoyed at least a muted victory in this battle, but there are daily reminders that the war continues and the guard cannot be dropped. One of the disheartening things was the shamelessly biased media coverage that only served to fuel the public’s general ignorance of what professors actually do. (Perhaps not surprising in a province where the media is owned by a single powerful company / family.) So, it is exciting that you are mobilising social media in this creative way. Good work! -Clarissa

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