Study of labor history imperiled by rightwing attacks on academic freedom

(An Analysis)

Will the study of labor history soon be missing from our universities and colleges?  It’s a possibility if the rightwing assaults on academic freedom continue to dominate.

Following on recent Republican election successes – and fueled by the rhetoric of fear from Donald Trump – there’s a growing trend to make rightwing teaching the norm for our campuses.  This will imperil the ability to teach labor history, and perhaps push the dramatic stories of the eight-hour-day crusades and the sitdown strikes into the forgotten ashcan of history.

In Wisconsin, the stifling of progressive study is becoming even more obvious and ominous.   The 2010 election of Governor Scott Walker brought the passing of Act 10 that has taken away union collective bargaining rights and with it protections for professors and teaching assistants. Along with the weakening of tenure protections, these university educators face discrimination, discipline and even outright discharge of their teaching doesn’t fit the designs of the university administration.

The Wisconsin legislature and regents’ crusade to promote free market ideology and chill the speech of professors and other instructors has been demonstrated by the leadership of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos[i]and the creation of the new rightwing Tommy Thompson Center in Madison.[ii]

In the meantime, Walker and his Republican cohorts are starving the university, cutting back its funds and making it more dependent upon grants and other funding from businesses.  The University’s governing body, the Board of Regents, is now controlled by Walker appointees, all dedicated to the view that the University must create graduates that can best serve the interests of business, all part of Walker’s grand plan to make Wisconsin “open for business.”

In spring this year, the United Faculty and Academic Staff Union (AFT Local 223) campaigned successfully for wage increases and the reclassification of faculty assistants.  In retaliation, the university terminated the services of two of the leading activists who had years of service, according to the local that ran a petition campaign the called for their reinstatement.  [iii]

(Note: The impact of these cutbacks on a teaching assistant’s ability to earn enough to continue in quest of her doctorate and continue to teach is recorded by WLHS Board Member Jillian Jacklin in a 2015 essay written for the Labor and Working  Class History Association website.  In addition, her essay notes that the study of the humanities is endangered by the university’s new emphasis on training graduates for business.)[iv]

And this stufling of thought is not contained to Wisconsin.  Notable are recent happenings at Florida State University where the Charles Koch Foundation contributed $539,000 in a secret deal with the administration of FSU to “support Ph.D students and research “in the area of markets and institutions.”  (That’s a euphemism for unregulated, greed-based capitalism, well in tune with the Kochs’ campaign of spending their billions to spread rightwing propaganda throughout our nation).  An exhaustive study[v] conducted by two groups (UnKoch My Campus and FSU Progress Coalition) reports that the funding mandates an advisory board that has control over the selection of candidates for the program and their dissertation topics.  Since the funding arrived, faculty in the FSU Department of Economics have described “an atmosphere of intimidation and administrative dictate,” among other examples of thought-police actions.

Then, there’s the case of George Mason University located in the suburbs of Washington D.C., that has announced it would rename its law school in honor of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, longtime leader of the Supreme Court’s conservative wing.  That name change was tied to a $30 million combined gift from the same Charles Koch Foundation and another anonymous conservative donor.  Like FSU, George Mason University is a public university.[vi]

While GMU denies that the gifts from conservative donors will have any influence on academic freedom, many professors are not so accepting.  A New York Times article published April 28, 2016 quotes several who are worried about the “Kochs’ influence in higher education and the decreasing influence of the faculty over decision-making.”  Another was quoted as saying, “Public universities are just desperate for money. And if it’s not coming from the state, it has to come from some place.  What’s left is people like the Koch brothers and others, and quite often they provide money that goes toward things that support their interests.”

Nancy MacLean, professor of history and public policy at Duke University, traces a growing concern that American democracy may be threatened by this current trend in her recent book, Democracy in Chains(published by Viking), which was generally well-reviewed, except by conservative and libertarian circles.  She found herself subject to attacks (many of a personal nature) from rightwing sources.  Though she had no proof, she feared the attacks came in such quantity and with similar messages that they reflected the “talking points” of various conservative groups.[vii]

In an interview, she commented, “In short order one afternoon, after a string of very positive reviews and interviews, a number of things happened. Misleading critiques from the right had shot up so far on Google that if you searched my name, you saw these critiques before any of my usual personal or professional information (department webpage and such) . . . Someone, unbeknownst to me, had set up a Wiki page on me that featured the attacks.”

Interestingly, even conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg in the National Review acknowledged that MacLean had “the libertarian super-posse on her ass.”  Of course, he criticized the book as well; yet, his column acknowledges she faces a strong rightwing backlash.[viii]

When academic freedom is curtailed, honest education and research will be gone.  Who will teach of the struggles of workers to better their lot through unions?  Walker has destroyed the state’s progressive traditions and is headed to tear down the marvelous governing principles of the University of Wisconsin and weaken if not end its “sifting and winnowing” traditions.

By Ken Germanson, president emeritus, Wisconsin Labor History Society, with thanks to Harvey Kaye, Jillian Jacklin, Sergio Gonzalez and Jon Shelton









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