The Rant

The Learned Pate Ducks to the Golden Fool

Few things are more ridiculous than some of those occasions when a collective faculty indignation arises at some perceived threat to so-called academic freedom.  So I've been getting a good chuckle out of our nervous worrying about the increasing encroachment of market sponsorship on university-college activities, a reaction that seems to believe that the post-secondary educational institution has some sort of integrity to guard in the face of the nasty capitalist types eager to promote their wares.  That response strikes me as rather like a bunch of hookers and pimps outraged that their employer, the management of the Maison d'Amour, has decided to change the name of the establishment to the Pussy Paws Motel and advertise the fact with a large neon sign.

The modern post-secondary institution in North America was founded by an odd Blue-Angel style liaison between the newly emerging elite research institution on the German model and the famous Wisconsin Experiment in which the educational institutions promised industry, in exchange for generous tax dollars, a steady supply of competent and obedient professionals to staff its managerial ranks.  Through this odd coupling, the universities have, in the past hundred years, become the sole gateway to virtually all the professions, and we have foisted on ourselves the enormously expensive and inefficient business of insisting that the training of almost all professionals (lawyers, teachers, nurses, technologists, and so on) must be undertaken by research specialists (or, rather, those who are paid to be research specialists)..

The capture of the professions by the universities was a take over of gigantic proportions, the largest and quietest capitalist seizure in history, which went on for the most part with the approval of the public (remember that we still believed in the idea that academic experts were the best and most disinterested citizens we had) and with only occasional murmurs of discontent from the more intelligent of the research elite who recognized what was at stake.  The modern university may like to think of itself in terms of the old Germanic research ideals (where the idea of academic freedom was born), but it is, in fact, the willing servant of the capitalist market place and is as eager as anyone to capture customers and force them to consume an excess of its products in an orgy of over-production (hence, the inordinate lengths of time it takes to qualify for many professions, including, most notoriously, the job of teaching at a university).

In the pursuit of this capitalist agenda the universities have never collectively posed any sort of political threat to those who hold the purse strings.  However lofty the intellectual rhetoric plastered over a very comfortable bourgeois status, faculty groups never feel sufficiently indignant to protest effectively as a professional class against persecution of their colleagues (like Jews in Germany) or insanely expensive hair-brained schemes like Reagan's Star Wars or genocidal experiments in Vietnam (indeed, some of these policies were born in the university research centres).  The continuing importance of people like Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky reminds us as eloquently as anything else of the foolishness of the idea that the university--under the umbrella protection of academic freedom--might somehow act as society's intellectual guide and moral conscience in the face of imperialistic governments and an always hungry marketplace..

Academic freedom may originally have been intended to protect faculty, so that they could follow the Kantian imperative to criticize as scholars and thus perform a valuable public service, but the concept is now most frequently invoked to shield faculty from any embarrassing enquiries into their sources of funding, patent arrangements, travel plans, harassment, and what not.  Laws passed (in some states) expressly to require faculty to divulge sources of funding are as often as not honoured in the breach (as, of course, an outrageous attack on academic freedom).

So the notion that we have some sort of purity we need to preserve is absurd.  John D. Rockefeller understood the situation perfectly.  Once he offered a gift of $10,000 to an education institution, only to have his gift turned down as "dirty money."  Rather than pouting at the insult, he increased the offer to ten million dollars--a gift that was at once accepted.  As the New York Times editorial observed, "Gifts of ten million deodorize themselves."

Now, faced with corporate types eager to plaster their names over all our campus real estate, there may well be some point to energetic haggling with the would-be sponsors (after all ten million dollars purchases a lot more release time than ten thousand dollars), and we might want to have some aesthetic standards in place, so that we don't have to live with a new Health Sciences building the shape and colour of a Pepto-Besmol bottle or deliver lectures dressed up as Ronald McDonald (although in some cases that might be a sartorial improvement), but, beyond that, what's there to worry about?

So let's follow the lead of the elite institutions in this matter with the same salivating zeal we try to follow them in everything else, and put the place and ourselves up for auction.  The University of Toronto, for example, has just finished a program of getting sponsorship for just about everything, including the door knobs, so why should we hold back?  It's not as if we haven't already taken major steps along this road already.  Every harlot may have been a virgin once, but once she's a veteran in the trade, protecting her lost innocence seems increasingly problematic.

Besides, I'm retiring soon, and I have important plans to purchase sponsorship of the small toilet in Building 355 where I have so often prepared my lectures for delivery in the next room (now named after a generous donor).  Once I get my name officially on the wall, then I can laminate the bowl with some old lecture notes, interdepartmental memos, and student essays, and ride off into the sunset of a glowing old age, confident of my enduring legacy.  So let's just do it.


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