We use shorthand for evaluating faculty: “She is productive.” We don’t necessarily have in mind a steel worker toiling in Andrew Carnegie’s factories but, given one’s orientation, perhaps a Hero of Socialist Labor. Factory work may be too grubby a metaphor for genteel academics. The antonym is worse: Loser, slacker, non-publisher. Generational politics are in play as young faculty who publish have seized power from an older generation born before the baby boom. We boomers decamped the New Left after the sixties, entering academic life in order to make a difference, which we did in part by publishing.
Russell Jacoby’s lament for the demise of independent intellectuals such as Susan Sontag and Lewis Mumford always resonated. We ex-New Leftists imagine ourselves to be public intellectuals who also held down university jobs, defying his observation that academia amounts to vita padding. C. Wright Mills, Todd Gitlin, Howard Zinn and Hannah Arendt are among those who pay the bills via tenure but write large books that treat of important societal issues. It took time to become untangled from the obscurantist examples of Frankfurt School role models in order to find a pitch at which we could be heard by undergraduate students and even by Barnes & Noble trade readers. Although borrowing from Habermas the ideal of the public sphere as a talkative democracy, I worry that a digital public sphere blurs the boundary between public and private. Self-revelation goes public via social media as people overshare.
Since the sixties and Sputnik, the public research university has been profoundly transformed as states have massively disinvested in public higher education. Universities are barely state assisted and not state supported, transforming the job of college president into fund raiser. Simply making the academic payroll preoccupies senior academic administrators who patch together paltry state budgets with grant dollars and gifts from football-loving donors. Universities must hire rain makers, especially in STEM disciplines, in order to keep the lights on in the offices of faculty like me who purvey critical theory and cultural studies. Without “productive” electrical engineers and biologists, with large start-up packages used to leverage funded research, the 21st public research university couldn’t stay open. Paul Campos, in a controversial April 4, 2015 New York Times essay, contests the notion that universities receive less funding from the state, arguing that higher tuition can be blamed on the hiring and handsome compensation of additional administrators.