By Miranda Joseph
Mark Taylor’s End the University as We Know It makes a broad argument from a very specific professional, disciplinary and institutional location—he is a tenured faculty member in a traditional humanities department at a prestigious private university. From where I sit–-a tenured faculty member in an interdisciplinary department (Gender and Women’s Studies) at a large public research university–the problems and solutions look quite different. Like many public universities, mine is struggling with both a decades-long decline in state support and catastrophic budget cuts. And like many others, my university officially values interdisciplinary centers and institutes, and has made enormous investments in them, primarily in the sciences. These sites aim to produce applicable (read commodifiable) knowledge that will attract external funding from industry as well as federal agencies, and that will ultimately be saleable to the private sector. Equally important, since such research rarely actually produces a positive financial return on investment for the university, prioritization of interdisciplinary science is shaped by rankings and accountability systems that likewise value precisely this kind of funded research.
Taylor advocates increasing the pressure to produce marketable problem-solving knowledge. But, in my context, it is an ongoing struggle to preserve institutional space for so-called basic research (even in the sciences) and for all of those fields where accomplishment can’t be measured by research expenditures. Our College of Humanities is one of our smallest in terms of funding, numbers of tenure-track faculty members, majors, and graduate students. Meanwhile, our interdisciplinary Institute for LGBT Studies is relatively well supported by our university. But it will be evaluated in large part on its ability to generate grant-funding and thus has, in part, shifted its focus from humanities-based queer studies to applied social science research on LGBT people. For better or worse, the kind of knowledge production Taylor criticizes is in fact disappearing at warp speed.
At the same time, our university is held accountable by various political actors—our board of regents, legislature, governor—who value only producing the largest number of bachelors degrees for the lowest possible cost. Such evaluative criteria contradicts the high value placed by our own administrators on funded research (which inevitably requires substantial internal investment and drives up the cost of education), but they also reinforce the pressure to shrink the space of knowledge production. For these political actors, the point of producing cheap degrees is not to democratize access to education, but rather to provide trained workers for private corporations at low cost to the state. The humanities continue to exist at all by virtue of the huge numbers of student credit hours they generate in required composition, foreign language and general education courses. This is to say that neo-liberal privatization and management by measurement have already gone a long way toward shifting power and resources from traditional departments to interdisciplinary problem-solving institutional structures (to the extent that they can shape by funding who is hired by departments) and from peer-review to administrators and governing boards. (With the exception of research expenditures, there are no performance measures with any link to peer review in either our regents’ state-wide strategic plan or our own university strategic plan.) Peer-review, problematic as it can sometimes be, is absolutely crucial to preserving academic freedom and the institutional space for critical knowledge production.
As Halberstam suggests, faculty, especially those of us with the extraordinary privilege tenure provides to speak our minds, must take the lead in shaping a response to this situation. Doing so requires using the interdisciplinary problem-solving approaches that are already well-developed in gender, ethnic, queer, environmental, and anti-incarceration scholarship (to name just a few). We must analyze the political conjuncture in which we find ourselves and, as Chris Newfield has argued in his important book, Unmaking the Public University, intervene to create “markets” for our knowledge production. Such intervention will include finding creative ways (probably at least in part quantitative) to make the case for the value and impact of what we do. The dominant values of our administrators and governing boards, prioritizing interdisciplinary problem-solving research and accessible education, seem ripe for appropriation on our behalf. We already shoulder relatively heavier teaching loads than many of our sci-tech colleagues, and we take up pressing social problems and issues through interdisciplinary approaches (if through relatively abstract analysis of systems of power and meaning rather than policy-ready social science). Simply giving up and giving in to either the “market” as it exists or the values of “trustees and administrators,” which is really what Taylor is suggesting, is neither necessary nor wise.