Professor William Ayers, banned last year from speaking at the University of Nebraska, argues that the current trend towards “academic capitalism” gives faculty the moment to speak up – and act up.

A delightful video emerged from the recent student-led struggles at the University of California organized to resist the grinding and relentless undoing of public higher education: a student attends to her daily routine, writing, reading, sitting in a lecture hall, while the camera focuses here and there, and a voice-over intones: “Pen: $1.69; textbook: $38; backpack: $69; dinner (a tiny packet of dry noodles!): $.50…” And at the end of the list: “Education [pause]…priceless.” The tag-line is perfect: “There are some things that money can’t buy. Don’t let education be one of them.”

The crisis in public higher education in the United States is not a joke at all. Tuition and fees are sky-rocketing across the country and are already out of reach for millions. Staff cut-backs, lay-offs, and reductions in student services have become common-place. Massive student loans have replaced grants and scholarships.  Class-size is increasing while course offerings are decreasing.  Hiring freezes and pay-cuts and unpaid mandatory furloughs are on the rise as tenure-track positions are eliminated. These and other “short-term” strategies for dealing with the financial crisis are consistent with the overall direction that has characterized public higher education for decades: “restructuring” (biz-speak for a single-minded focus on the bottom line), privatization, and the triumph of “academic capitalism.” And all of this is part of a larger crisis of the state and larger choices about who pays, and who suffers.

A few snapshots: state support for the University of Illinois system stands at about 16 per cent today, down from 48 per cent two decades ago. In California, state colleges will turn away 40,000 qualified students this year, while the community colleges, in a cascading effect, will turn away 100,000. And this year, a 32 per cent fee hike is proposed at the University of California at Berkeley (a proposal that triggered the current student movement), while the school pays its football coach $2.8 million a year and is just completing a $400-million renovation of the football stadium. The sports reporter Dave Zirin sums this mess up nicely: “This is what students see: boosters and alumni come first, while they’ve been instructed to cheer their teams, pay their loans, and mind their business.”

These and similar trends are national in scope and impact. The average college graduate is between $20,000 and $30,000 in debt for student loans (not including credit card or other debt), compared to $9,000 in 1994. Pell grants cover less than 32 per cent of annual college costs. Less than 20 per cent of graduate students are unionized, and student labor at below market wages keeps the whole enterprise afloat. Tenured and tenure-track faculty are disappearing, today holding barely 30 per cent of all faculty lines. Out-of-state students are increasing in most public schools because they pay significantly higher tuitions, and that pattern is turning public colleges and universities into “engines of inequality,” places with less access and less equity, less social justice, and fewer highly qualified students, private schools in fact, while remaining public in name only.

But even this grim picture can be brought into sharper focus and, it turns out, more painful focus. California spends more on prisons than on higher education. Across the country, spending on corrections is six times higher than spending on higher education. From 1985 to 2000 Illinois increased spending on higher education by 30 per cent, while corrections shot up 100 per cent. Here we get a clearer insight into the budget crises that are being rationalized and balanced on our heads: a permanent war economy is married to a prison society, with their abused and neglected offspring paying for their parental sins.

One might look at all  this and conclude that the experiment with privatization is a failure—quality is down, inequity is up—and is, therefore, open to new directions. But, of course, as in other areas (the catastrophic financial crisis; the murderous invasion of Iraq; “No Child Left Behind” …), the “geniuses” and “deciders” who created the problem will be the same self-described “experts” who are, perennially, tapped to craft a way out. So look for more of the same, while those challenging authority will be marginalized, ignored, and kicked to the curb by those who wield power from the top.

This is what will happen unless the marginalized decide to become subjects in (rather than objects of) everything that swirls around them, to take themselves (namely, ourselves) seriously as actors in this fraught and fleeting moment, and insist on elbowing our way in and taking a seat at the table. I, happily, took part in actions at the University of Illinois at Chicago in March this year in defense of public education. The March 4 event was one link in the National Day of Action that saw protests against the destruction of public education in more than 32 states across the country. The event was experienced in Chicago, in Berkeley and New York, in Seattle and Washington D.C. as the stirrings of a movement-in-the-making.

A time of crisis is typically characterized by dislocation and fear and uncertainty. But because we are shaken from our certainties, our dogmas, and our orthodoxies, we are also potentially shocked into new awareness. A crisis can become then a time for new thinking, re-imagining, and transformation. I’m on the executive committee of the faculty senate and on the organizing committee of United Faculty, an incipient union effort. In each of these positions, I’ve seen faculty shake themselves awake—unsure at first just what it is that’s about to run them over—and then pull themselves together to act up.

I’ve been reminded again of  Don DeLillo’s grimly funny and super-smart novel White Noise, whose narrator is Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at a small mid-western college, who is sleep-walking through his life to the dull background sounds of TV and endless radio, the Muzak of consumerism and electronics, unrestrained advertising and constant technological innovation, appliances and microwaves. When an industrial accident creates what is at first described officially as a “feathery plume,” but later becomes a “black billowing cloud,” and finally an “airborne toxic event,” everything becomes a bit unhinged. Jack’s response to an order to evacuate is disbelief: “I’m not just a college professor,” he complains, “I’m the head of a department. I don’t see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event. That’s for people who live in mobile homes out in the scrubby parts of the county, where the fish hatcheries are.”

Well, not anymore. Our own feathery cloud has turned toxic at breath-taking speed, and those folks in the mobile homes might be our natural allies after all. When the administration at Cal closed the libraries and restricted hours of operation to save money, students implemented a 24-hour “study-in,” where they were joined by faculty as well as by community members who had never before had access. Folks joined hands and chanted, “Whose university?  Our  university!” As one grad student said, “When we started, we wanted to save the university. Today, we want to transform it, to decolonize it, to open it up.”

Higher education  is being radically redefined as a product to be bought and sold in the marketplace as  a commodity like a car, a box of bolts, or a toilet, rather than either as a right (something fought for by generations) or as an intellectual, ethical, and spiritual journey (education as enlightenment and liberation). The meteoric rise of for-profit universities (and the mindlessly trailing along by eager university administrators grasping their freshly-minted MBAs) is one part of that trend. Another piece is private universities’ competing to secure their advantages at the expense of their “competitors” as well as the public, such as Harvard with its $36-billion endowment or Northwestern, with it $7 billion. Professor Erica Meiners, at a recent teach-in, pointed to Northwestern’s new president’s silly statement that he was hoping to make his university “elite without being elitist” and then raised the question: Exactly what “public” or “common” good do these tax-exempt institutions serve?

Meiners argued that this moment of rolling crises is a time to seize; it’s a moment to study up and act up, to speak out and reach out. It’s a time for art and humor and creative interventions. And it’s a time to envision the world we want to inhabit, and then to begin to live it, here and now, on campus and off. She suggested a few possible campaigns as starting points to get our creative and activist juices flowing: cancel all outstanding student debt (good enough for the banks, why not us?); equal pay for equal work; truth in language (a furlough is not a camping trip, it’s a pay-cut; “selective admissions” is more honestly restrictive admissions); and universal, free, open-access, high-quality, public, post-secondary schools (whew!).

The current frontal attack on  public higher education is an attack on democracy itself. Education is a perennial battleground, for it is where we ask ourselves who we are as people, what it means to be human here and now, and what world we hope to inhabit. School is where we assess our chances and access our choices. Education rests on the twin pillars of enlightenment and liberation –knowledge and human freedom — so it always engages us with dynamic question about morality and ethics, identity and location, agency and action. We come to want to know more, to see more, to experience more, in order to do more—to be more competent and powerful and capable in our projects and our pursuits, to be more astute and aware and wide-awake, more fully engaged in the world that we inherit, a world we are simultaneously destined to change.

So we wrangle over what to pass on to the future generation, and we struggle over what to value and how. In that wrangling, students must find vehicles and pathways to question the circumstances of their lives, and wonder about how their lives might be otherwise. Free inquiry, free questioning, dialogue and struggle must take their rightful place—at the heart of things.

Much of what we call schooling  shuts down or walls off meaningful questioning and free inquiry. Much schooling is based on obedience and conformity, the hallmarks of every authoritarian regime throughout history. Much of it banishes the unpopular, squirms in the presence of the unorthodox, hides the unpleasant. There’s no space for skepticism, irreverence, or even doubt. While many of us long for teaching as something transcendent and powerful, we find ourselves too often locked in situations that reduce teaching to a kind of glorified clerking, passing along a curriculum of received wisdom and pre-digested and often false bits of information. This is a recipe for disaster in the long run.

To take one example, emblematic in some ways.  In  October 2008, officials at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln canceled three talks I was scheduled to give at its College of Education. The College was celebrating its centennial that year, and a faculty committee invited me to give a keynote address, which I had tentatively called, “We Are Each Other’s Keepers: Research and Teaching to Change the World.”

The day before the cancellation, and at the height of the U.S. presidential campaign, an administrator called me to say that my pending visit was causing a “firestorm.” She said that the governor, a U.S. senator, and the chair of the board of regents had all issued statements condemning the decision to invite me to campus.

The president of the university said, “While I believe that the open exchange of ideas and the principles of academic freedom are fundamental to a university, I also believe the decision to have Ayers on a program to celebrate the College’s centennial represents remarkably poor judgment.” The regents chair added that while he welcomed controversial viewpoints, “The authority we grant to the faculty to decide what to teach and who to invite comes with a responsibility to use that authority and that freedom with sound judgment. In this case, I think, that was violated.” That last statement struck me as worthy of the disciplinarian of a middle school commenting on a decision about homecoming made by the student council.

The administrator told me further that the university was receiving vicious e-mails and threatening letters, as well as promises of physical disruption and physical harm to me from anonymous sources were I to show up. She said that the university’s “Threat Assessment Group” had identified “serious safety concerns.”

I sympathized and told her how terribly sorry I was that all of this was happening to them. I also said that I thought it was a bit of a tempest in a tea pot, and that it would surely pass. Certainly no matter what some tiny group claimed they might do, I said, I thought that the Nebraska state police could get me to the podium, and I would handle myself from there.

She wasn’t so sure, and, who knows? I’m not from Nebraska.

Still, I said, I thought we should stand together and refuse to accede to these kinds of pressures. Is a public university the personal fiefdom or the political clubhouse of the governor? Are there things we dare not say if they offend a donor? Do we institute a political litmus test or a background check on every guest? Do we collapse in fear if a small mob gathers with torches at the gates? I wouldn’t force myself on the college, of course, but I felt that canceling would send a terrible message to students, bring shame to the university, and be another step down the slippery slope of giving up on the precious ideal of a free university in a free society.

It’s hard to think what consistently rational argument could have been advanced in the halls of power for canceling my scheduled time in Lincoln. That I’m not a patriot? Loving the country mindlessly and thoughtlessly, closing our eyes to those dreadful things that the U.S. government has done and continues to do, cannot be a criterion for entering a conversation. In fact, speaking up, engaging in the public square, resisting injustice is every citizen’s responsibility; it is the essence of democracy.

That I advocate violence? But I don’t. Indeed, I believe that nonviolent direct action is a powerful tool for social change. But I do note that the U.S. government has been the greatest purveyor of violence on earth, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1967, and that Americans live in fact in a sewer of violence, often exported, always rationalized and hidden through mystification and the frenzied use of bread and circuses.

I was made unwittingly and unwillingly an issue in the presidential campaign, and that unwanted celebrity is absolutely the only reason I was banned at the University of Nebraska. But the fallout affects me only marginally. The university will surely suffer. After all, the primary job of intellectuals and scholars is to challenge orthodoxy. The growth of knowledge, insight, and understanding depends on that kind of effort, and the inevitable clash of ideas that follows must be nourished and not crushed. In this case, Nebraska shunned its responsibility.

We want our students to be able to participate and engage, to think for themselves, to make judgments based on evidence and argument, and to develop minds of their own. We want them to ask fundamental questions: Who in the world am I?  How did I get here and where am I going? What in the world are my choices? How in the world shall I proceed?  We want them  to  pursue answers wherever those answers  might take them. We focus our efforts, not on the production of things so much as on the production of fully developed human beings who are capable of controlling and transforming their own lives, citizens who can participate fully in civic life.

We might declare that in this corner of this place—in this open space we are constructing together—people will begin to experience themselves as powerful authors of their own narratives, actors in their own dramas, the essential architects and creators  of their own lives, participants in a dynamic and inter-connected community-in-the-making. Here they will discover a zillion ways to articulate their own desires and demands and questions. Here everyone will live in search of rather than in accordance with or in accommodation to. Here we will join one another, and our democratic futures can be born. In the always-contested space of education at all levels, we are, each and all of us, works-in-progress, participating, intentionally or unwittingly, in history-in-the-making.

William Ayers is Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).