Exploitation Of Workers Jeopardizing Academia, Authors Claim

March 04, 1999

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- If it's true that the devil's in the details, then there's plenty of Beelzebub in a new book about the destructive forces permeating U.S. academia.

In the book, Cary Nelson, an English professor at the University of Illinois who in some circles already is regarded as a cloven-hoofed messenger for his steady and outspoken critiques of academia, and Stephen Watt, a professor of English at Indiana University, paint a "detailed portrait of a strong but imperiled institution." It is not a pretty picture.

Based on first-hand experiences, interviews and analysis of current national practices and trends, the authors argue in "Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary for Higher Education" (Routledge) that two pervasive forces -- the exploitation of workers and the corporatization of academia -- are pushing higher education to the brink of meltdown.

According to Nelson, the underfunded expansion of the university in the '50s and '60s is "without a doubt the source of the current crisis. Those chickens have come home to roost."

In the authors' scenario, the exploited are the growing ranks of campus part-timers -- food-service workers, graduate students and faculty members. For them, the bottom line is scandalous: "no security, no benefits, no time for research or reflection, no academic freedom, no prestige, and no institutional power." In this economic paradigm, everyone and everything eventually feel the heat.

"Universities are becoming more like athletic shoe companies and less like institutions with transcendent and idealistic values," Nelson said. "They must recover their place in the culture as institutions that are moral and honorable, and that have a commitment to a higher system of values." One of those values, the authors argue again and again, is a commitment to pay workers a fair wage.

Among the book's 47 dictionary items are the usual suspects -- academic freedom and tenure and doctoral dissertations, as well as new ones that speak to the theme of the book: cafeterias, outsourcing, distance learning, administrative perks and robber baron universities.

"There are some pretty savage critiques," Nelson conceded, such as the entry on sexual harassment or the portrait of a moonlighting professor. One broad critique attacks what the authors describe as the new "ersatz post-secondary commodified education," the University of Phoenix being one of the most notorious examples of the so-called Drive-Thru U model.

The authors also try to show what is remarkable about higher education in the United States.

"We believe that this is the best higher education system in the world, and because of that, we think it would be a good idea not to [fritter] it away."

While sometimes irreverent and sardonic, the book is less about trashing an institution than it is about sending "a wakeup call to people inside and outside academia. Without a major collective effort, higher education as we know it will be over within a decade or two," Nelson said.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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