The university in the populist age

Right-wing populism threatens the future of higher education, but remaining passive and retreating to a disinterested vision of the university will actually strengthen the attacks. Faculty have a responsibility to work in solidarity to fight back against these threats.

Right-wing populism has been on the rise in recent years, intensifying following the 2008 global financial crisis. 2016 marked a key moment in the right populist turn, with both Brexit and the US Presidential election constituting formal political legitimacy for right-wing populist leaders and movements. Despite widespread opposition following the election of Donald Trump—itself often taking populist forms—a range of right-wing populist forces continue to push forward. In both Europe and North America, anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic rhetoric and violence has escalated. Populist figures are giving voice to and emboldening longstanding racist and xenophobic currents in western societies. Other variants of authoritarian right-wing populism are also growing. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government in Turkey has now dismissed over 7,000 academics and in some cases jailed scholars.

Not surprisingly, many academics fear populism. Distrust of elites, perhaps the primary defining feature of populism, is a threat to universities as they currently operate. The threat extends to those who make a living in postsecondary education, be they tenured professors, precarious contract faculty, or staff. Of course, populist attacks on the university are nothing new. Beginning as Plato’s training ground for elites, disagreements about the role of universities as sites of advanced education for the masses versus institutions for the aristocracy have long existed. Most recently in Ontario, the Mike Harris years were harsh for universities. As Paul Martin cut transfer payments to the provinces in the mid-1990s, Harris followed suit with a 25 per cent cut to postsecondary funding at a time when enrolment was growing. Budget cuts were facilitated by popular skepticism towards traditional academic research and an emphasis on the need for job relevancy in university programs. There were protests, but it was relatively easy for Harris to gut education spending (as opposed to healthcare) as he operationalized his populist Common Sense Revolution.

We noted the fluidity of the term populism in a 2014 article in Labor Studies Journal, in which we identified core elements of the term (e.g. anti-elitism, productivism, etc.). Despite the democratization of postsecondary education in Canada in the post-war period, universities remain vulnerable to right-wing populist agendas. Consider the everyday productivist attacks on public sector workers who allegedly produce nothing of value. These attacks extend to well-paid university faculty, often perceived as privileged elites with secure jobs and pensions, who are constantly scapegoated by both politicians and right-wing media. Academic research is written off as obscure, inaccessible, and simply not up to the task of addressing society’s real problems or of providing students with the skills they need for the labour market. Critics claim the only thing university education offers is mounting student debt and a degree that no longer leads to a middle-class job.

Populist attacks extend into the realm of conspiracy as universities are cast as breeding grounds for political correctness, the feminization of society, and Marxist thought police. Protests organized against campus visits by extreme right-wing public figures such as Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, or Gavin McInnes are cited as threats to freedom of speech. Students fighting racism, colonialism, and xenophobia on and off campus spawn nativist backlash. Authoritarians craft the above narrative to strengthen their own cult of leadership and pave the way for funding cuts when they are in power, creating a nexus between right-wing populism and austerity. Indeed, these recent populist attacks are inevitably coupled with the longstanding and ongoing neoliberal transformation of the university.

…recent populist attacks are inevitably coupled with the longstanding and ongoing neoliberal transformation of the university…

This transformation, supported by right-wing populism includes the casualization of academic labour and the shift away from tenure-stream appointments; increases in performance measurement; work intensification for all employees; and a top-down managerialism that undermines processes of collegial governance. All of this occurs in the midst of manufactured fiscal crises and escalating tuition fees.

Populist attacks on universities are not, however, merely external: they also come from within. As Steven Zhou has reported in articles for the CBC and Now Magazine, there has been an upsurge in racism on campuses in Canada, masquerading as right-wing populism. Our own campus at York University has recently seen both racist graffiti and alt-right recruitment materials. The University of Toronto’s Jordan Peterson has parlayed his refusal to recognize genderless pronouns into a freedom of expression crusade adored by the right. If we further consider that Kellie Leitch, one of the Trumpian contenders for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, had an academic administrative career before entering federal politics, we see that right-wing populists do emerge from our own university ranks.

At the same time, there has been resistance from within universities by those who contest neoliberal and right-wing populist visions. Workers on university campuses have pushed back against casualization through union organizing, collective bargaining, and striking. Faculty associations have challenged the power of central administrations, questioning elitist and anti-democratic practices. Coalitions involving students and university workers have supported broader movements of resistance against economic injustice and racism, such as the recent successful strike of York food service workers against Aramark. There are signs that such movements will continue to grow, offering hope that alternatives to right populism and the neoliberal university remain possible.

Yet the struggle against current forms of authoritarian right-wing populism is only beginning. Our instincts may be to resist all populist attacks on universities, internal and external, but what if university workers and students embraced populism? Here, we are not suggesting any accommodation to right-wing populism, but rather a serious engagement with the underlying structures that make universities its fundamental targets. A counter populism must acknowledge the real disconnect between universities as sites of knowledge production and the broader public good. Imagining a progressive populist university as a means of resistance is possible.

First and foremost, a progressive populist university will have to seriously address the persistent elitism of the academy. While there has been ample work on democratizing the classroom and knowledge mobilization, this is far from a complete project. In the US case, it is argued that commodified universities are increasingly Platonized institutions where accessibility is limited, liberal education remains elitist, and academics have retreated into obscure, idealist research divorced from the issues facing communities. There will always be a place for theory for theory’s sake in academia, but research and teaching that engages communities is necessary and should be promoted. We are not speaking about communities as sites or objects of research, but rather about a research process that is deeply rooted in community-based concerns. Genuine academic-community partnerships are oriented towards addressing the interests of all those involved, not solely on producing measurable research outputs.

As to questions of tenured job security and academic freedom, these are interpreted as elitist privileges. There are countless opinion pieces and blog posts arguing that professors should abandon tenure as a Cold War relic and face accountability and job performance measures similar to other workers in precarious labour markets. However, there is another possibility not often considered: the expansion of employment security as a more universalized practice. Such an extension is realistic if one considers the popular support society has demonstrated for protecting whistleblowers and dissenters who witness wrongdoing. Viewing tenure only as a necessary protection for full-time academic workers simply fuels anti-elitism. Defending the tenure system requires the promotion of secure employment across labour markets as a more general social and economic goal.Here, faculty unions must go on the offensive and start building coalitions with teachers and other public sector worker to extend job security and academic freedom protections beyond the university walls.

…faculty unions must go on the offensive and start building coalitions with teachers and other public sector workers…

A progressive populist university could channel anti-elitist politics towards the highly paid administrators who have ushered in neoliberal managerialism. In this case, a healthy distrust of administrative elites is warranted. Populist campaigns against exorbitant presidential and senior administrative salaries, the dramatic expansion of administrative ranks, the undermining of collegial governance, and investment in vanity capital projects may provide the means to reconnect universities with the broader public good.

Most academics rightly condemn conspiratorial thinking. Warnings about the supposedly evil machinations of elites cannot substitute for analyses of the systems of colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy that right-wing populism seeks to reproduce. Yet, naming the institutions and actors that reproduce oppressive structures is a necessary part of any analysis. Universities can play a role in exposing those behind the right-wing think tanks who attack liberal education. In Ontario, proposals promoted by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario to differentiate the university system into flagship, research, and teaching institutions can be addressed as a conspiracy to cut costs, devalue research, and tier the university system. This must be countered by revealing how this vision will produce a future system with grossly unequal universities incapable of confronting authoritarian power.

As white supremacy and nativism are entrenched in right-wing populism, so must a progressive populism construct a cosmopolitan ethos that recognizes universities as institutions with the power to build social justice. A clear stand must be taken to reject accusations that campus-based actions to counter the spread of hatred limit free speech. A progressive populist university creates space for campus coalitions that appreciate both the context of specific campus struggles and the importance of broader solidarity in achieving social justice across society.

Further, as counter to the current climate of xenophobia, universities can play a role in providing sanctuary for students and academics fleeing conflict zones. A progressive populist university would not only support these scholars, but also value their experiences as necessary to understanding and improving the global condition. At the same time, we should support racialized faculty who find themselves restricted from traveling to the US for research or large conferences—whether by the travel ban itself or due to conscientious objections and expressions of solidarity. This may involve a larger populist critique of US academic imperialism, especially as the global centre of intellectual exchange.

Building a progressive populism will require change, which must include a transformation of our faculty unions. First, faculty unions will have to stop acting like ancient guilds protecting the narrow interests of members. A start will be to reach out to contract faculty and start using the power we have to normalize employment relationships away from precarity. In the short term, this may involve unions shifting demands away from wages and working conditions and towards demands for more full-time hiring. Material sacrifices will have to made (especially by senior administrators). Failing to do so threatens the very existence of a full-time professoriate.

Second, community engagement must be taken seriously and must not be dismissed as a retreat to anti-intellectualism. Many researchers are already deeply engaged in community research and have been for decades. We must learn from others and work to accept different sources of knowledge as legitimate—whether they are from Indigenous groups, labour unions, environmentalist organizations, the business community, or community-based advocacy groups. These collaborative methodologies and relationships must be developed and heralded every time we are accused of disengaged, solitary, elitist research. Continuing in this direction will require replacing a narrow emphasis on academic publishing in specialized journals with a more expansive valuing of a range of research and dissemination activities.

Community engagement can extend into the university classroom. The intern economy has been critically challenged in recent years, as exploitative unpaid internships detached from real training have grown rapidly. Yet, students demand experiential learning opportunities outside the classroom. Such opportunities should be restructured in ways that contribute to meaningful training and skills development, and that expose students to other forms of learning.

Inevitably, this leads to the debate about whether a liberal education trains students for jobs or citizenship. A progressive populist university rejects this false binary. If we are educating students for their future lives, it should be for the many aspects of what that life might be—and of which work is just one consideration. Only emphasizing the Platonic intellectual life of students or their prospects for employment ignores their multiple material and social needs.

But who do we trust to usher in a progressive populist university? Here, we can turn to our unions; but we may require a more radical imagining of collegial governance than that which unions are trying to salvage in the face of growing managerialism. Efforts to contest the lack of transparency of administrative appointments and the centralization of decision-making are crucial. At the same time, we must not be overly nostalgic for past models of collegial governance that were flawed. Small groups (of mostly white men) determining policy and allocation of resources with (mostly white male) Deans was far from a democratic ideal.

If a progressive populism is to challenge the administrative elite of universities (and reduce the number of managers), we will have to rebuild our self-managerial capacities. Taking back our universities will involve educating faculty, students, and staff about university budgets and the strategic goals of the state. Fortunately, there are signs that this is happening, including in the efforts of campus coalitions working to develop alternative university budget models that expose the financial manipulations of university financial officers.

Remaining static and retreating to a Platonized university is not an option. Building a progressive populist university as a means of fighting back against right-wing populist attacks on our institutions may be a necessary strategy.

Remaining static and retreating to a Platonized university is not an option.

In the face of the rising tide of right-wing populism, the very real threats of ongoing and further violence against racialized and immigrant communities, and the potential for deeper tendencies of authoritarian austerity, reshaping the university in the age of populism is not just about the postsecondary system. Rather, the struggle constitutes an element of the most pressing political crisis of our time. Failure to push back against authoritarian right-wing populism now may very well lead us to the point of contemplating the university in an age of fascism. AM

Steven Tufts is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at York University; Mark Thomas is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Director of the Global Labour Research Centre at York University