The Political Economy of Academia

Anthropology News, the newsletter of the American Anthropological Association, has issued a call for papers (the deadline has passed) for a special issue on the political economy of academia. The outline for this is very interesting:

Where are current economic and cultural trends in higher learning taking us? With a changing economy, the number of students attending post-secondary institutions has doubled in the US since the 1970s. Despite the stagnation of real wages, however, tuition rates at post-secondary institutions have steadily climbed, and US students are taking on ever-greater debt burdens to earn their degrees. In contrast, postsecondary education in many countries is much more affordable, or even free. And with the increasing emphasis upon institional ranking, which has accompanied enrollment growth, degrees from “non-elite” institutions are being marketed more as a ticket toward higher earnings, than as a pathway toward intellectual development. Emphasizing the marketability of degrees is a strategy that runs parallel to the steady decline in government funding, and also to an increase in administrative hires. Younger scholars feel the blunt force of these shifts, as visiting PhDs and underpaid adjuncts replace the tenured faculty who once did most of the teaching.

How successfully have we been responding to what is often referred to as the “corporatization” of higher education? And why have anthropologists-in a field known for its introspection-not paid more attention to the dramatic political-economic transformations taking place in the universities in which we work? How will these trends affect future scholarship, fieldwork, teaching and advocacy?

This looks like it will be an issue worthy of serious attention (how unfortunate that I can no longer afford the AAA membership costs, or I would have had immediate access to this issue, available to members only).

What appears to be missing from the outline above, or is at least silent within the stated intentions of the special issue, is the degree to which anthropologists can themselves reinforce and enable the kinds of unsettling political economic changes referred to above. For example, how do full-time faculty in departments with a large number of underpaid part-time faculty go about justifying, explaining, and more importantly, living with their consciences in such a situation? What accounts for those “radical” scholars, bristling with critique in one moment, oozing endorsements of the dominant system in the next? How does such obvious exploitation of fully qualified colleagues continue with so little discussion in some quarters? How do departments create internal hierarchies based on who gets what grant and how much money they are awarded? How do departments reinforce systems of prestige and authority? Why do departments continue to uphold publications in certain sources or formats as somehow inherently better or more valuable than others? Why do anthropology departments continue recruiting doctoral students, and graduating PhDs, when they know that the job prospects are so dismal? This is just a rambling selection of questions that come to mind immediately.

What I wish to suggest here is that the “political economy of academia” is not a situation where there is a pristine academia on the one hand, and an external and encroaching political economy on the other hand. Academics are fully implicated in whatever political economic transformations have been taking place, and I would venture to say that in most cases, or at least too many cases, academics have either been silent, unquestioning, or have failed to resist these changes.