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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2000

Essays Explore Evolution of U.S. Academic Workplace

Chalk Lines: The Politics of Work in the Managed University

Randy Martin, ed. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999; 310 pp; paper $17.95; cloth $49.95 US.
The 1996 strike of teaching assistants and service employees at prestigious Yale University served as a flash point for the growing anxiety among progressive academics about troubling changes taking place in universities in the United States. In many respects, Chalk Lines is a spark off this flash point. Edited by Randy Martin, a self-defined militant labour activist and peripatetic academic until he became chair of the department of social science and management at Pratt Institute, Chalk Lines is designed to fire up a new era of political activism on U.S. campuses over control over academic work and the purposes that it should serve.

The book consists of 12 individually authored essays, eight of which have appeared previously in a special issue of the journal, Social Text. The majority of the essays analyse the reorganisation of academic work and academic workers within U.S. universities and colleges in the1990s.

Gary Rhoades and Sheila Slaughter examine relationships between "academic capitalism" and the transformation of academics into managed professionals; Christopher Newfield puts a new twist on the evolving relations between the academy and the world of business; Zelda Gamson and Vincent Tirelli separately critique emerging features of a stratified academic work force; Jan Currie and Leslie Vidovich compare the rise of corporate managerialism in U.S. and Australian universities (the only essay focusing on universities outside the U.S.); Emily Hacker and Ira Yankwitt track the narrowing of adult literacy education into skills training for low-paying jobs; and Stanley Aronowitz contemplates the disappearance of "the last good job in America."

A smaller number of essays focus on possibilities for resisting these changes. Stefan Harney and Frederick Moten examine both subjective (in the sense of self-definitions) and objective (conditions of work) obstacles to collective action among academic workers, while also identifying "openings" for their political intervention.

In separate essays, David Montgomery and Bart Meyers link the struggle to preserve working conditions and workers' rights in the academy to the struggle to preserve the public sphere and civil society in general.

Jeremy Smith insists that progressive faculty members, who have been remarkably acquiescent toward many of the changes described elsewhere in the book, have a special responsibility for encouraging and enabling students and other interested parties to reclaim the university for the public good.

And William Vaughn calls upon his fellow graduate students to organise themselves into unions to protest their dismal lives as graduate students and their bleak possibilities for employment and fulfilling lives.

Chalk Lines contributes to a genre of books that became well established in the1970s. Focusing on the university as a workplace, scholars and policy analysts alike tried to come to terms with the shift in higher education funding policy from expansion to contraction, and with institutional responses to this shift such as budgetary rationalisation and the emergence of collective bargaining.

In the subsequent decades, the university's continued quest to respond -- some would say "adapt" -- to its changing times has been written over, as well as incorporated into, the organisational changes that took place in the 1970s in response to fiscal retrenchment. Now however, "globalisation" and "corporatisation" have become both the policy orientation as well as the analytical framework for understanding changes in the internal practices and policies of universities and colleges, and in the lives of those who work there.

Globalisation and corporatisation are significant backdrops if not central foci of the book's essays. Not surprisingly, the analyses of these and related processes do not follow the currently dominant policy studies tradition of embracing neo-liberal and neo-conservative orientations toward higher education. In fact, the book lays down a challenge to this very orientation.

Editor Randy Martin's well-written and informative introductory essay makes this challenge central at the outset. Martin's narration of the past 25 years of U.S. higher education policy and of labour activism within institutions of higher education strongly reflects the influences of the moral regulation school of political economy, as do the essays by Harney and Moten, and Tirelli. Other essays fit more or less within this perspective and at least share its critique of neo-liberal and neo-conservative influences in higher education.

But, like too many essay collections, Chalk Lines contains no editorial commentary that relates the essays to each other or to the overall project of the book, leaving readers on their own to sort through conflicts and contradictions in both the interpretations offered and the strategic implications drawn from them. The book is thus somewhat limited as a text to use in courses.

A second criticism concerns its value for developing strategic interventions into the processes reshaping universities and colleges, not only in the U.S. but elsewhere. Although its subtitle highlights a concern with politics, with the notable exception of Newfield's essay, "Recapturing Academic Business," little attention is given to the complex and multiple intramural politics in which academics engage within their own institutions, not as com-pliant victims but
as strategic actors. This is somewhat surprising given the editor's labour studies interests which should have alerted him to the importance of "shop floor" politics.

Instead, the singular politic that tends to underlie answers to the question of how universities and colleges as workplaces are being transformed, is that forces of change are exerted on the academy from outside to which the "inside" mechanically capitulates. Yet, there can be no meaningful political intervention without understanding that, as privileged and influential professional workers, academics themselves have played a significant role in the reshaping of their workplaces described in this book.

Moreover, processes interior to the university recruit faculty and students alike into adopting practices that help to implement objectives and values for their work that they may not consciously intend but which nevertheless advance neo-liberal and neo-conservative visions.

In spite of these criticisms, that this book was written at all contributes to the political project that it advocates. Its critical orientation, intellectual insights and interventionist objectives are important and valuable, and not so much because they cover new ground. Apart from important empirical differences, similar critiques of the effects of managerialism, corporatism, privatisation, globalisation and the like have appeared in literature on universities and colleges in Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. Rather, its importance and value lay largely in giving testimony that these same patterns and concerns are emerging within U.S. campus communities.

Transnational institutions like the World Bank and the OECD that promote increased privatisation, university-industry linkages, tuition deregulation and the like often point to U.S. institutions as models for other nations to emulate. But Chalk Lines unites us with our U.S. colleagues in a different way: that is, in calling us to question, challenge and resist the pursuit of these very policies and directions in our own work practices and work places.

Review prepared by Janice A. Newson, professor of sociology at York University.