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The Real Cancel Culture on Campus

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This article was published just as the North Carolina Board of Trustees rejected Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure for purely and nakedly political reasons. It’s really important.

Faculty once had meaningful power within higher educational institutions. In 1915, faculty at American universities organized themselves into the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which championed academic freedom and significant faculty participation in the administration of appointments, peer reviews, and curriculum — a principle that came to be known as “shared governance.” Though it was resisted by administrators and boards of trustees for much of the early 20th century, the shared governance model was cemented within the modern university in the post-World War II era. This was especially apparent in the 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, issued jointly by the American Council on Education, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the AAUP, which specified that faculty, administrators, and boards of trustees formed a “community of interest” that should share responsibilities to produce well-governed institutions.

But from the mid-1970s on, as the historian Larry Gerber writes, shared governance was supplanted as the dominant model of university administration as boards of trustees and their allies in the offices of provosts and deans took advantage of public funding cuts to higher education and asserted increasing control over the hiring of the professoriate. They imported business models from the for-profit corporate world that shifted the labor model for teaching and research from tenured and tenure-track faculty to part-time faculty on short-term contracts, who were paid less and excluded from the benefits of the tenure system, particularly the academic freedom that tenure secured by mandating that professors could only be fired for extraordinary circumstances. 

At the same time, Gerber details, the makeup of university boards of trustees became stacked with members from corporate backgrounds who made opposition to academic labor organizing part of the contemporary university’s governance model. These boards exercise enormous power: controlling senior administrative appointments, approving faculty hiring, dictating labor policies, and, most importantly, controlling the university’s annual budget and setting tuition and fees. (Case in point: The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees recently declined to appoint Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones to a tenure-track position following conservative outcry over her work on the 1619 project, documenting the history of slavery in the U.S. As one board member told NC Policy Watch, “This is a very political thing. …There have been people writing letters and making calls, for and against. But I will leave it to you which is carrying more weight.”)

The corporate capitalist regime that controls American university boards today has manufactured the current crisis of higher education by inflating tuition to compensate for state funding cuts while passing on the debt to students; hiring contingent rather than tenure-line staff to pay teachers less while withholding the security of academic freedom; and appointing administrators who are ultimately accountable to the regime. 

At Harvard, the “corporation” that exercises significant sway over administrative appointments and policy includes six MBAs and only four Ph.Ds. Harvard’s “Board of Overseers,” which is charged with safeguarding “Harvard’s overarching academic mission and long-term institutional interests,” includes, among artists and doctors, senior leaders from Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, McKinsey & Company, Google, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. It’s likely that boards with a substantial number of corporate managers regard “long-term institutional interests” as including vehement opposition to unionization by graduate workers and a sluggish response to students and alumni calling for divestment of Harvard’s assets from fossil fuels. (Teen Vogue has reached out to Harvard for comment.)

Many people long said they wanted universities run like a business. That’s what this means–hiring political greedy right-wing political hacks to oversee the institution, strip whatever assets they can for themselves, and discipline any employee who doesn’t toe the right-wing line. The thing about “cancel culture” is that it’s sheer projection by conservatives who very much desire to cancel all liberals and leftists, especially on campuses, which is the only largely liberal institution left in American life.

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