A selection of recent articles, arguing that contemporary universities and academics are largely beholden to the status quo, that the university system and academic career turn professors into careerist conformists, not radicals. Universities want to avoid bad press, lest it harm donations and enrollment. Tenure and it attendant job security have become rarer, replaced by a growing number of adjunct teachers. In order to have a shot at tenure, graduate students and early-career academics are encouraged by the job market to be as safe as possible in their research and teaching. Academics become accustomed to serving the university.


[P]rofessors rarely exercise the freedoms tenure grants them. I taught for more than forty years, and I knew teachers who espoused radical principles when they were hired. They decided to keep these under the radar but promised to let loose once they earned that coveted job security. I can say from experience that not one of these erstwhile militants did so. Those of us who were troublemakers from the day we began working continued to “stir the pot,” as my Division Chairman accused some of us of doing, after we were granted tenure. For those who kept quiet, the hierarchy they accepted as the price they had to pay to someday be free became internalized. They got used to, habituated if you will, playing it safe. The years of willingly submitting to authority slowly but surely warped whatever radical instincts they once had, so that by the time they got tenure, they were already ruined.

The professor who says, wait until I get tenure and then I will activate my radical heart and soul, is lying. The great day may come, but by then he or she has already seen that fighting the power is bad business. Better to work inside the system, be polite, write an occasional letter of protest, and avoid troublemakers like the plague you have come to see they are. Be a good worker and help train students to follow in your footsteps.


[U]niversity faculty are less and less likely to threaten any aspect of the existing social or political system. Their jobs are constantly on the line, so there’s a professional risk in upsetting the status quo. But even if their jobs were safe, the corporatized university would still produce mostly banal ideas, thanks to the sycophancy-generating structure of the academic meritocracy. But even if truly novel and consequential ideas were being produced, they would be locked away behind extortionate paywalls.

The corporatized university also ends up producing the corporatized student. Students worry about doing anything that may threaten their job prospects. Consequently, acts of dissent have become steadily de-radicalized. On campuses these days, outrage and anger is reserved for questions like, “Is this sushi an act of cultural appropriation?” When student activists do propose ways to “radically” reform the university, it tends to involve adding new administrative offices and bureaucratic procedures, i.e. strengthening the existing structure of the university rather than democratizing it. Instead of demanding an increase in the power of students, campus workers, and the untenured, activists tend to push for symbolic measures that universities happily embrace, since they do not compromise the existing arrangement of administrative and faculty power.

The “professor-as-revolutionary” caricature serves both the caricaturist and the professor. Conservatives can remain convinced that students abandon conservative ideas because they are being manipulated, rather than because reading books and learning things makes it more difficult to maintain right-wing prejudices. And liberal professors get to delude themselves into believing they are affecting something.


[T]he conditions ravaging our profession are also ravaging our work. The privilege of tenure used to confer academic freedom through job security. By now, decades of adjunctification have made the professoriate fearful, insular, and conformist. According to the AAUP, adjunct faculty are about half as likely to undertake risky research projects, and the timidity moves up the ladder. “Professionalization” means retrofitting your research so that it accommodates the critical fads that will make you marginally more employable. It means cutting and adding chapters so that feathers remain unruffled. Junior faculty play it safe — conceptually, politically, and formally — because they write for job and tenure committees rather than for readers. Publications serve careers before they serve culture.

If my book deserves recognition, then we must also recognize that no young scholar with any sense would be foolish enough to write it. Graduate students must tailor their research projects to a fickle job market, and a book like mine simply doesn’t fit.

The message is clear: Stick to the old dissertation formula — six chapters about six authors. The most foolish mistake is addressing an audience beyond the academy. Publishing with Penguin or Random House should be a wonderful opportunity for a young scholar. Yet for most hiring committees, a trade book is merely one that did not undergo peer review. It’s extracurricular. My book exists because I was willing to give up a tenure-track job to write it.

We cannot blame this professional anemia on scarce funding. The largest adjunct-faculty increases have taken place during periods of economic growth, and high university endowments do not diminish adjunctification. Harvard has steadily increased its adjunct faculty over the past four decades, and its endowment is $35.7 billion. This is larger than the GDP of a majority of the world’s countries.

The truth is that teaching is a diminishing priority in universities. Years of AAUP reports indicate that budgets for instruction are proportionally shrinking. Universities now devote less than one-third of their expenditures to instruction. Meanwhile, administrative positions have increased at more than 10 times the rate of tenured faculty positions. Sports and amenities are much more fun.


The search for truth, critical thinking, intellectual creativity, academic standards, scientific invention, and the ideals of citizenship have been discounted in favor of maximizing profits, vocational training, career success, applied research, and bottom-line considerations.

The overuse and abuse of contingent faculty members is a threat to academic freedom and intellectual innovation. The contingent faculty finds its teaching constrained by fear of the administrators’ uncontested right not to renew their contracts.

In an address to the American Council of Learned Societies, Clifford Geertz, one of our most influential scholars, once recounted his own career, calling it “a charmed life, in a charmed time. An errant career, mercurial, various, free, instructive, and not all that badly paid.”

Geertz continued: “The question is: Is such a life and such a career available now? In the Age of Adjuncts? When graduate students refer to themselves as ‘the pre-unemployed’? … Has the bubble burst? … It is difficult to be certain. … But there does seem to be a fair amount of malaise about, a sense that things are tight and growing tighter … and it is probably not altogether wise just now to take unnecessary chances, strike new directions, or offend the powers. Tenure is harder to get (I understand it takes two books now, and God knows how many letters. … ), and the process has become so extended as to exhaust the energies and dampen the ambitions of those caught up in it. … All I know is that, up until just a few years ago, I used … to tell students and younger colleagues … that they should stay loose, take risks, resist the cleared path, avoid careerism, go their own way, and that if they did so, if they kept at it and remained alert, optimistic, and loyal to the truth, my experience was that they could … have a valuable life, and nonetheless prosper. I don’t do that anymore.”


Though conservatives frequently attack higher education as a radical enclave, the institutional culture of the contemporary university is really far more aligned with institutional liberalism than radical leftism. The concept of the “deep state” has been debased lately, but in its original form – the idea that there is a bureaucratic class that persists within elected governments regardless of the outcomes of elections and which has its own interests that it asserts through subtle administrative power – is true of colleges, perhaps even more than of governments themselves. And the deep state of most universities is not radical but rather progressive. It’s not comprised of Sanders-style insurgents but of Clinton-style establishmentarians. It’s this class of people that college students have been petitioning, and so the presumptions held by that class of people represent the boundaries of what much contemporary college activism can achieve.

[W]e need to recognize that higher education has developed an entire set of administrators whose fundamental purpose is to prevent controversy from happening before it starts. I’ve come to call them the “Liability and Controversy Avoidance Class.” They are the diversity officers, the Title IX coordinators, the fixers of Greek life controversies, the public relations and marketing people who know just how much intersectionality language to pepper into their press releases.

I don’t think that none of these jobs are worthwhile; in fact some of them are essential. But anyone who cares about genuinely radical action on campus has to understand the way that universities have adapted to protests by treating them as a marketing issue to be managed.