Some reflections on the Ivory Tower

I just watched the documentary “Ivory Tower” yesterday. The issues covered in the film – runaway student debt, the race for prestige, the erosion of the tenure track, and the loss of access for students from less advantaged economic backgrounds are all things that I’ve been following with great interest, and some of which I’ve been actively fighting.

For me, it boils down simply to community. I greatly value the academy as community, and these issues all in one way or another weaken or even destroy it. This assault occurs in many forms: reducing or denying access, restricting academic freedom and free speech, eliminating job security, and shutting faculty out of university governance.

Ivory Tower did a fantastic job of blowing the lid off of the skyrocketing tuition and disabling debt that we are saddling young people with, all in the name of the “American dream” and supposedly for a brighter economic future. I was glad to see so many students from so many different backgrounds being interviewed about their situations as they saw them. And the documentary was effective in identifying two of the major issues responsible for the >1000% rise in tuition since the 1980s: the race for prestige and subsequent construction arms race, and the disturbing loan practices by Sallie Mae and her kin, including arguably abusive interest fees which, as Elizabeth Warren succinctly puts it, turn students into profit centers.

But at the end of the film, I was unsatisfied. Yes, the federal government is profiting off of students. Yes, states have cut support for public colleges and universities. And absolutely, there is a race for rankings that’s driven many schools into debt as they attempt to out-construct one another. But the documentary did not delve into the question of why this is permitted to happen. Sallie Mae can’t profit as much if students aren’t going into six-figure debt in the first place. And those state cutbacks look like chump change compared to the ballooning debt resulting from wasteful and decadent construction trends, like country-club style health centers. If the academy is a group of individuals who work together to foster an intellectual community, why weren’t these community members recognizing and pushing back on reckless spending?

I think I know why, and I’ll illustrate this with Emory as an example.

In 2012, a group of students and faculty, including myself, managed to secure a negotiation (Emory’s communications department called it a “meeting”) with the President, Vice President, and Dean of the College at Emory following a half-day occupation of the administration building involving 300 members of the Emory community who were protesting devastating, undemocratic, poorly rationalized cuts to seven departments. These cuts meant job losses for non-tenured faculty and staff, job insecurity for tenured faculty, elimination of resources for graduate students in those programs, and the impoverishment of educational opportunities for the over 10,000 undergraduates at the institution.

As we presented our data on loss of faculty diversity, poor rationale for cut programs (their “assessments” were not fully disclosed, and from what we had heard, extremely flawed), and violations of faculty governance bylaws, the top administrators listened but did not engage with us in good faith. Towards the end, we invoked broader themes of governance and community – who does Emory belong to? And who makes decisions for whom? – and repeated our two major demands: accountability and transparency.

President Wagner dismissed these concerns, saying “Emory is a republic, not a democracy.”

I’m not a political scientist, but I still thought republics were accountable to their constituents. I’m also pretty sure republics stand in contrast to oligarchies. Merriam-Webster indicates that a republic is a form of government in which “power resides in the people” who are “governed by elected representatives and by an elected leader (such as a president) rather than by a king or queen”. I also should mention that President Wagner is not a political scientist or historian either, but an electrical engineer. I don’t think his qualifications outweigh mine when it comes to the ability to assess the political situation of Emory and of the academy more generally.

The truth is that we have an oligarchy which consists of a board of trustees who appoint top administrators who then appoint other top administrators. This became very clear to me after a scandal involving President Wagner describing his governance style using the metaphor of the 3/5ths compromise. This angered the Emory community, the Atlanta community, and the greater American higher education community. It made international news. In all the hubbub, I did not hear more than a troll or two trying to defend President Wagner’s statements. But when students and faculty started calling for his resignation, the Chair of the Board Ben Johnson, III came out with a full endorsement of President Wagner, saying he “He has my 100 percent, undivided support,” then comparing him to Abraham Lincoln. Less than a year later, Wagner was honored as a “Social Justice Champion” by the Anti-Defamation League.

Yes, this actually happened.

This tells us something profound about the structure of the modern academy. It has absolutely no accountability. If possible, it has the opposite of accountability – top administrators can win national honors after disgracing the communities they supposedly serve.

We have a new academy where an economic super-class of highly paid administrators make decisions unilaterally for the rest of the academic community. The reason they are able to do this – even when faculty, students, and staff speak out, even when they violate faculty bylaws and guidelines set out by the American Association of University Professors or even their accrediting agencies, and even when members of the academic community protest and occupy – is that they are not in any way held accountable to the community they supposedly serve. American universities and colleges have moved towards a corporate, undemocratic model of governance in a way that mirrors what we are seeing happen in all the other sectors of our society.

As long as there is no accountability, there is no democracy, and there is no republic. And that means the community, in this case the academic community, has no control over its future. So it’s therefore no surprise to see students hurting, staff in unresolved labor disputes, adjunct faculty on food stamps, tenure-track faculty white-knuckling their tenuous grasp of possible future job security, and tenured faculty behaving more and more timidly. It also helps explain the photo below, where students waiting in support for us during our meeting with the President are being monitored by local police.


Photo credit: The Emory Wheel


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