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National AAUP president discussed corporatization of higher education at conference

Michael Palm is a professor in the Department of Communication and the president of the UNC chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Photo taken in Bingham Hall on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019.

On Friday, Oct. 4,  Rudy Fichtenbaum, national president of the American Association of University Professors and Wright State University professor emeritus, gave the keynote address on the corporatization of higher education at the North Carolina AAUP Conference, hosted by UNC's chapter in Chapel Hill. 

The AAUP is a national organization that works to define fundamental professional values and standards for higher education and help organize the higher education community, among other goals. 

Fichtenbaum talked about how higher education has transformed into a business, and how universities and colleges have embraced the corporate model — often to the detriment of university faculty. 

This transformation has attacked academic freedom, shared governance and economic security of faculty, Fichtenbaum said. All these elements have earned a place on what he calls "the endangered species list."

In addition to being overstaffed, college and university administrators have become managers with too much authority over faculty, Fichtenbaum said.

“Faculty’s working conditions are students' learning conditions,” Fichtenbaum said. 

Michael Palm, professor and president of UNC's AAUP chapter, said that it was important for conference attendees to hear from Fichtenbaum to put professors' struggles in North Carolina in national context. 

“It’s easy for us to get isolated by the challenges that we’re all engaged in our own campuses,” Palm said. “It’s helpful to come together to compare notes and trade information to see how the various struggles that we're engaged in our individual campuses fit together.”

In his speech, Fichtenbaum said that a university's adherence to corporate model can change the way decisions are made on various important issues, including program development, changes to admissions standards, increases in tuition and changes in tenure standards for faculty.

Fichtenbaum said the purpose of tenure is to protect academic freedom and guarantee faculty the ability to explore controversial ideas in classrooms, research and scholarship.

All faculty members need academic freedom, whether or not they are tenured, Fichtenbaum said. 

“When faculty lack protection — tenure — to teach about controversial ideas, students are less likely to become critical thinkers of which a truly democratic society depends,” he said. 

Academic freedom and tenure are not about protecting faculty as individuals, but ensuring colleges and universities continue to serve the public interest, Fichtenbaum said. 

Fichtenbaum's speech also touched on how shared governance, which allows faculty to have a say in curriculum, academic programs and polices shares this same goal. 

Shared governance is the collective voice of the faculty at large, he said, and it’s their responsibility to see that colleges and universities serve the public interest. 

If no action is made, Fichtenbaum said real wages for all faculty will continue to decline, making it difficult to attract people to the profession. 

“The good news is that we do not have to stand by and watch our profession and higher education as a public good be destroyed by super rich corporate interests and extreme right-wing forces,” he said. “We can fight back.” 

Altha Cravey, a UNC geography professor and president of the AAUP's North Carolina Conference, said the speech spurred her to action.

“It is troubling to hear all those things at once,” Cravey said. “Ultimately, it really galvanizes me to work harder in the AAUP and work harder for collective action. Otherwise, higher ed really is in trouble.”


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