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Academic Repression — Book Excerpt

Posted on February 17th, 2010 in AK Book Excerpts

Oh, and did we mention there’s yet another AK Press title on its way from the printer to our warehouse? And I mean that literally: It should be in a truck and nearing Oakland as I type.

The book is Academic Repression: Reflections from the Academic-Industrial Complex. According to Cornel West, “This courageous and chilling book reminds us that the Academy is always a context for intellectual exchange and political struggle. Don’t miss it!”

Sure, a lot of books have addressed attacks on academic freedom over the years, but this collection asks whether the concept of academic freedom itself still exists at all in the American university system. It addresses not only overt attacks on critical thinking, but also—following trends unfolding for decades—engages the broad socioeconomic determinants of academic culture. It’s full of hard-hitting essays on free speech, culture wars, and academic “freedom” in a post-9/11 era. It’s a powerful response to attacks on critical thinking in our universities by scholars on the front lines of this ongoing battle, many of whom have experienced academic repression first-hand, including Michael Bérubé, Joy James, Henry Giroux, Michael Parenti, Howard Zinn, Robert Jensen, Cary Nelson, Ward Churchill, and many more.

And, for the next month, you can get it for 25% off!

To whet your appetite, here’s an excerpt: two, actually. One lifted from the beginning of and the other from near the end of the editors’ Introduction.


Introduction: The Rise of the Academic-Industrial Complex and the Crisis in Free Speech
by Steven Best, Anthony J. Nocella, II, and Peter McLaren

[People] fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth—more than ruin—more even than death…. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of [humanity]” —Bertrand Russell
“There follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: Do not block the path of inquiry.” —Charles S. Peirce

Given that the academy is a microcosm of social life in the US, and this nation—as a hierarchical, exploitative capitalist society—has never been free or democratic in any meaningful way, we should not be surprised to find higher education to be a place of hierarchical domination, bureaucratic control, hostility to radical research and teaching, and anathema to free thinking. Since Socrates and the earliest inceptions of the university system in the teachings of Plato and Aristotle, Western states and universities have attacked critical minds and kicked controversial and subversive figures out of the hallowed halls of learning, betraying the very mission of education and critical thinking that demands freedom of inquiry and speech.

Perhaps the largest myths to expose in our culture today still are freedom and democracy—institutional and personal conditions that are not only in steep decline in the current post-9/11 era, but in fact never existed in any significant form. The revolutionary experiment in democracy and equality launched in 1776 never had a chance, taking place as it did amidst the backdrop of the slavery of African people, the repression and impending genocide of the Native American peoples, the disenfranchisement of women, the institutionalization of people with disabilities, and the exploitation of working classes. The Founding Fathers never intended “democracy,” “freedom,” and “equality” to benefit anything but their own elite propertied interests, and history stayed faithful to their design. Despite the subversion of monarchy and aristocracy with the brash and impertinent notion of equality, the concept mainly functioned as an ideological smokescreen to mask a new form of hierarchy based on class domination, coupled with patriarchy, racism, and every other repulsive form of discrimination, subjugation, and violence. Notions such as “freedom” and “equality” hid the fact that the inherently hierarchical and exploitative corporate-state complex of capitalism was a system run by and for capitalists, corporations, and wealthy property owners. Big business and monopoly corporations commandeered the state—the oxymoronic institution of “representative democracy”—to advance and protect their own minority interests, to suppress majority opposition, and to quell dissent by any means necessary….


Neoliberalism and Academia

It was not paranoia that led John Dewey in the 1940s to warn that a corporatization process had begun whereby universities learned to shape and pattern themselves on a business model driven by the need to compete and turn education into a profit-making enterprise. Nor was it delusional when, in 1961, President Eisenhower warned that the “military industrial complex” posed a threat to the balance of powers and to civil liberties. The fusion of warfare, capitalism, science, and technology cannot take place without knowledge, advanced technologies, and a low-cost labor base, such as one finds ready-made in universities and their graduate student labor pools. Where science, engineering, and technology are crucial to capitalist militarism and militarist capitalism, universities form the third leg in a triadic system of postmodern power. It is a telling fact that the US spends more in the military sector than the rest of the world combined.

Consequently, deconstructing fictitious humanist ideals, describing the real goals and imperatives of “higher learning,” and delegitimizing the power systems that actually run universities, many theorists during the last two decades understood that the boundary lines between universities, corporations, and military/warfare/social policing systems were dissolving. They no longer saw three separate, unrelated entities, but rather one gigantic industrial complex. The term “academic-military-industrial complex” is shorthand for the intersection, overlapping, and implosion of universities, the corporate private sector, the Department of Defense and various armed forces services, and the security and regulatory apparatuses of the State—all knotted together in a vast, predatory bureaucratic system developed for social and geopolitical domination.1/2 By the 1990s, certainly, the questioning of scientific epistemology took on a far broader and more consequential term with critical scrutiny of the university institution itself, by charting the transformations of the mission and function of universities in the post-war era. Building on attacks on the politics of knowledge driving university research, a number of radical theorists, such as Stanley Aronowitz, Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, Sandra Harding, and numerous contributors to this book analyzed how the nobler purposes and missions of universities and institutions of “higher learning” became corrupted and degraded. Hence, a spate of important new critical works emerged deconstructing the mythology of higher education and the academy as an institution.

As capitalism changes, so must education, and the rise of science and technology to dominant “productive forces” in the postindustrial phase of capital transforms education increasingly from a focus on humanities to narrow functional knowledge. The noble functions of higher education such as inculcating critical thinking skills, identities as citizens and members of interdependent communities, and the ability to meaningfully participate in and shape a democratic form of government gave way to reconfiguring the university as a corporation, ideological state apparatus, and technical school for training laborers.

Universities had become part of the “one dimensional society” (Marcuse), they had the potential to devastatingly criticize and overturn in favor of richly educated, highly cultured, autonomous citizens. Increasingly, the humanities and liberal arts were eclipsed by science, chemistry, mathematics, agriculture, geology, engineering, marketing, business, accounting, advertising, and other fields including sports. The economic rationale to increase university profits and functional purpose of producing individuals trained for science, technology, and business had the ideological bonus of homogenizing thought and stifling critical thinking. And under conditions of economic recession such as began to devastate global markets in 2008, universities have to tighten budgets and reduce or eliminate “superfluous” knowledges. Simultaneously, students increasingly turn toward practical realities of careers and economic survival and forego the “luxury” of studying literature, philosophy, or art, fields that regardless are grossly underfunded as they occupy the bottom rung of budgetary priorities. As the 2008–2009 crisis worsened, plunging much of the globe into recession and depression, worried students fall in line with corporate academic policies that reduce or eliminate “superfluous” humanities requirements in order to peddle degrees in marketable careers.

Partly due to economic constraints and partly because of the growing hegemony of technoscience, it is hard to miss the implosion between universities and vocational schools that eliminate liberal arts requirements and do little more than job training and indoctrinating students with capitalist values of competition, individualism, materialism, greed, and so on. Vocational schools such as Phoenix University are themselves corporate behemoths with branches spread throughout the US like fast-food chains. Indeed, on the neoliberal-consumerist model of education, knowledge is nothing but information to be consumed as quickly as possible, a sugary pabulum as injurious to the health of the mind as Whoppers and Big Macs are to the life of the body. In a society organized around work, productivity, and maximal exploitation of labor, no one has time for a satisfying meal let alone a genuine education, and the “slow food” movement ought to be linked to a drive toward a “slow education” that allows students the time and leisure to think and mature as human beings in pursuit of autonomy rather than in the service of capital.

As corporations, universities were interested in buying materials, investing in research and projects, inventing and patenting new technologies or advances in science and medicine, and competing on the marketplace. In fact, by the 1980s and 1990s, universities and society as a whole were becoming increasingly corporatized, marketized, and globalized. Acting like capitalists committed to the tyranny of the bottom line, universities began the cut-and-slash tactics that Reagan took to social programs in the 1980s, for a profitable enterprise cannot have excess costs, and labor expenses must be minimized. The dynamic that led to the restructuring of universities along corporate lines stemmed from aggressive neoliberal policies. The laissez-faire spirit of early capitalism was revived as neoliberalism, in order to dismantle welfare states, trade barriers, environmental regulations, and anything that stood in the way of trade. Universities moved in consort with the social, political, economic, and military systems that were changing the nature of the world through an aggressive neo-imperialism policy that was part and parcel of neoliberal attempts to subjugate the entire world to corporate power and market logic, while hopefully reviving a moribund American Empire.

Following the dominant corporate model, universities initiated a “de-skilling” of labor, and replaced the skilled labor of faculty with technology.3 Compliant with the needs of businesses and an overworked labor force, and updating higher learning for the age of the Internet, universities began to offer “long-distance learning” such that students could earn a degree at home through correspondence, with “teachers” reduced to functionaries who grade quantitative exams, raising the specter of a future university system that dispenses with teachers altogether in favor of computerized grading machines.4 “Increasingly,” Ollman writes, “university life has been organized on the basis of a complex system of tests, grades, and degrees, so that people know exactly where they fit, what they deserve, what has to be done to rise another notch on the scale, and so on. Discounting—as most educators do—their negative effects on scholarship, critical thinking, and collegiality, these practices have succeeded in instilling a new discipline and respect for hierarchy.”5

As universities implemented the neoliberal model, and economic realities became more pressing, particularly in the global economic crisis of 2008, universities, like automobile industries and other businesses, continued a trend of downsizing that led to replacing tenured and full-time faculty with part-time, adjunct, and contingent instructors viewed contemptuously as an army of cheap surplus labor.6 Increasingly inadequate state funding due to fiscal crises led many to advocate for the privatization of public education institutions, a shift perfectly consistent with the neoliberal trend toward gutting social services and privatizing public institutions. Serving the political-economic-ideological conditions of capitalism in one fell swoop, universities began their attack on the system of tenure in an effort to hire less-expensive, wage- rather than salary-earning part-time instructors with few benefits and even less influence, dropping tenure positions after professors retired, and moving toward renewable three year contract systems, such as those at Florida International University.7 In fact, this is only one of over forty institutions around the country—including Florida Gulf Coast University, Evergreen State College, Bennington, Bradford, Hampshire, and the University of Texas of the Permian Basin—that hire teachers only on annual or multi-year contracts.

Downsizing and de-skilling not only saves universities salary costs and makes them more competitive (an economic benefit), it also creates a highly precarious faculty who, without job security, tend to be docile and afraid to speak out (an ideological benefit). Corporate apologists think that the tenure system is a relic from the industrial era that is outmoded in a postindustrial, neoliberal, post-Fordist, “flexible” labor economy. In this world of hyperflux, people typically have numerous careers; it is unreasonable, neoliberals argue, to expect security, stability, and permanence. By this thinking, academia ought to open itself up to this dynamic market and change its institutional patterns before the market changes it. Faculty, however, reject this argument as market fetishism and fatalism, and insist that while post-Fordism may be fine for the automobile industry, it is anathema for education, which demands the kind of system that can protect free speech, the heart of higher education. There is a direct connection between the quality of research, teaching, education, and the university system as a whole and the strength of academic freedom, tenure, and faculty governance. Academic freedom is a win-win for everyone but repressive corporations, controlling bureaucrats, and right-wing zealots.

Unfortunately, the fast capitalists are winning over academics who seek job security, and the statistics are alarming. For the last seventy years at least, there has been a clear pattern in the academic race to the bottom. As Roger Bowen notes in his mournful eulogy for the tenure institution, “Since 1940, and most particularly over the past 15 years or so, tenured positions have been on the decline, as more colleges have relied on less expensive part-time and non-tenure-track faculty members—even as those same institutions professed fidelity to the principles of academic freedom. The reason for the change is simple and brutal: To enhance their own economic security as institutions, colleges have enhanced the economic insecurity of professors by hiring more and more contingent faculty members—that is, cheap, part-time laborers who enjoy few prerogatives of the profession while suffering low pay, few (if any) benefits, and flimsy contractual rights.”8 By 2003, 43 percent of all faculty were part time teachers and a massive 65 percent of professors held non-tenure positions.9 Thus, “Today two of every three new faculty members hired across the nation are not on the tenure track, up from about 50 percent in the early 1990s.” The economic and ideological benefits are enormous to the capitalist system, and right-wing culture wars play a crucial part in drowning the embers of critical voices before they spread like a bonfire.


1.  David N. Gibbs, “Spying, Secrecy and the University: The CIA is Back on Campus,” April 7, 2003, CounterPunch,

2.  Henry Giroux, The University in Chains (op. cit.). Also see Nicholas Turse, “The Military-Academic Complex,”, April 29, 2004,

3.  On the impact of computer technologies and “deskilling” of the labor force, see Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998).

4.  See David F. Noble, Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001).


6.  On the decline of the tenure system, see Alan Finder, “Decline of the Tenure Track Raises Concerns,” The New York Times, November 20, 2007,

7.  On the increasing use and abuse of adjunct instructors, see “Breadth of Adjunct Use and Abuse,” Inside Higher Education, December 3, 2008, For statistics on the growth of the contingent workforce, see A critical response is given in Joe Berry’s book, Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2005). For recent alarming statistics, see Audrey Williams June, “Who’s Teaching at American Colleges? Increasingly, Instructors Off the Tenure Track,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 12, 2009,

8.  Roger Bowen, “A Faustian Bargain for Academic Freedom,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 3, 2008, Volume 55, Issue 6, A36,