Aviva Chomsky’s interesting analysis of recent trends in campus radicalism puts the story in the context of economic realities faced by the “neoliberal university”:
University administrators have been particularly amenable to student demands that fit with current trends in higher education. Today’s neoliberal university is increasingly facing market pressures like loss of state funding, privatization, rising tuition, and student debt, while promoting a business model that emphasizes the managerial control of faculty through constant “assessment,” emphasis on “accountability,” and rewards for “efficiency.” Meanwhile, in a society in which labor unions are constantly being weakened, the higher education labor force is similarly being — in the term of the moment — “flexibilized” through the weakening of tenure, that once ironclad guarantee of professorial lifetime employment, and the increased use of temporary adjunct faculty.
In this context, universities are scrambling to accommodate student activism for racial justice by incorporating the more individualized and personal side of it into increasingly depoliticized cultural studies programs and business-friendly, market-oriented academic ways of thinking. Not surprisingly, how today’s students frame their demands often reflects the environment in which they are being raised and educated. Postmodern theory, an approach which still reigns in so many liberal arts programs, encourages textual analysis that reveals hidden assumptions encoded in words; psychology has popularized the importance of individual trauma; and the neoliberal ideology that has come to permeate so many schools emphasizes individual behavior as the most important agent for social change. Add together these three strands of thought, now deeply embedded in a college education, and injustice becomes a matter of the wrongs individuals inflict on others at a deeply personal level. Deemphasized are the policies and structures that are built into how society (and the university) works.
Later in the piece, Chomsky connects the dots:
There are even deeper ways in which a diversity agenda aligns with neoliberal politics. Literary theorist Walter Benn Michaels argues, for example, that diversity can give a veneer of social justice to ideas about market competition and meritocracy that in reality promote inequality. “The rule in neoliberal economies is that the difference between the rich and the poor gets wider rather than shrinks — but that no culture should be treated invidiously,” he explains. “It’s basically OK if economic differences widen as long as the increasingly successful elites come to look like the increasingly unsuccessful non-elites. So the model of social justice is not that the rich don’t make as much and the poor make more, the model of social justice is that the rich make whatever they make, but an appropriate percentage of them are minorities or women.” Or as Forbes Magazineput it, “Businesses need to vastly increase their ability to sense new opportunities, develop creative solutions, and move on them with much greater speed. The only way to accomplish these changes is through a revamped workplace culture that embraces diversity so that sensing, creativity, and speed are all vastly improved.”
Clearly, university administrators prefer student demands that can be coopted or absorbed into their current business model. Allowing the prevailing culture to define the parameters of their protest has left the burgeoning Millennial Movement in a precarious position. The more that students — with the support of college and university administrations — accept the individualized cultural path to social change while forgoing the possibility of anything greater than cosmetic changes to prevailing hierarchies, on campus and beyond, the more they face ridicule from those on the right who present them as fragile, coddled, privileged whiners.
Food for thought.