The Historical Shift Against Supporting Academic Research

In January of 2015, seeking to position himself before announcing his candidacy for president, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said that university professors should be “teaching more classes and doing more work.” Walker also attempted to rewrite the University of Wisconsin mission statement, inserting “meet the state’s workforce needs” while cutting  “search for truth” and “improve the human condition.” By June of that year, Walker had cut the University of Wisconsin system budget by 250 million dollars. At the same time he signed into law provisions that remove tenure protections from state statute. And Walker’s attitude is finding fertile ground among significant parts of the political class.

The research university has become politicized in ways foreign to past generations. Professors are now viewed as simply another (liberal) interest group that, like labor unions, feather their beds at public expense. The days are gone when the pursuit of truth served as sufficient justification for supporting academic research. Like climate science, the university is seen today as a bastion of democratic politics, fair game for Republican legislatures seeking to shrink the public sphere.

This is a historical shift. Through the bulk of the 20th century conservatives had as much reason to support the “search for truth” as liberals. Capitalism had faltered in the Great Depression, and across World War II and the Cold War great ideologies contended with one another. Today, however, a generation past the fall of the Berlin Wall, the philosophical debate seems settled. Capitalism stands triumphant. And neoliberal ideologues vie to trump one another in bringing market mechanisms and attitudes to campus while stripping away the privileges and protections professors have enjoyed.