On 4 December 2018, Brian Rosenberg’s “Actually, Academe Never Was All That Great” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. The article invokes New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s August 2018 misspeaking about the lapsed greatness of the United States as a way to frame a more nuanced position–that some people miss a time that was far from great for a great many people–that it then applies to academe. It then presents a number of examples of exclusionary practices that were prevalent and emergent in the putative golden age of the academy before noting that many of the same forces and tendencies that underlie academe now are those that undergirded it then. The same social forces remain at work, the article holds, so addressing the problems of colleges and universities without addressing those social forces as well is folly.
My experience aligns largely with Rosenberg’s assertions in the article. Academe is a (somewhat slowed) reflection of popular, public culture, moving lethargically as any organization does that is administered by those who have lifetime appointments or placement in systems that might as well be so. There is, despite the protestations of open minds and willingness to critically reflect, an ongoing privileging of those who are already in the system and a reticence at administrative levels to interrogate and, possibly, change things until and unless forced to do so. Some of that, of course, is the result of colleges and universities in the United States, generally, being beholden to the machinations of government; at public schools, particularly, legislative dicta overdetermine policies, and legislatures remain in large part bastions of cronyism and nepotism. The systems in place favor those who have experience with the systems already, so matters tend to perpetuate themselves.
And it is true, too, that matters have not always or often been good for large numbers of people in academe. I remember one year during my undergraduate days when the only professors on campus who were denied tenure–and not at the departmental or College level, either–were homosexual men, for example. I remember any number of other times when those who were connected somehow got better opportunities than their peers who produced more work and more favorably received. And while I know the adage that the plural of anecdote is not data, I know also that I am not alone in having such stories (but others’ are not necessarily mine to share). I believe those with whom I’ve spoken about such matters, who have consented to share their experiences with me. I know that there have been many who have been told that they do not belong, not because they did not belong in terms of academic ability (though there have been some who did not who were told so), but because they did not “belong” in the purported social structure being replicated by the university. (And there have been some who were accepted who did not have the academic heft even to ask. It is a fraught issue and an unpleasant one to think upon. But, unpleasant as such thoughts may be, the experience of that forcing-out and “normalizing” has to be worse.)