AW.05 Writing Democracy: Austerity, Labor Conditions, and Academic Freedom in Higher Education: Leveraging Writing for Democratic Work in Public Spheres

Reviewed by: Sheri Rysdam, Utah Valley University, srysdam at uvu.edu

Chairs: Shannon Carter, Jennifer Clifton, Deborah Mutnick, and Elenore Long

SpeakersNancy Welch reading John Trimbur’s keynote: “CCCC, NCTE, and the Steven Salaita Case: Public Life and the Failure of Composition’s Professional Associations”


In the previous year, the “Writing Democracy” Wednesday Workshop at CCCC was, in many ways, a response to the 2008 economic crisis. Speaker, Tony Scott, addressed the institutional economic practices that create exploitive environments for workers, especially as they exist in academia. That was pre-election. This year’s “Writing Democracy” workshop was post-election, and it had a decidedly different tone. This year, our conversation about “writing democracy” was much more centered on the idea of “academic freedom,” civic engagement, and even “a critical resistance to the Trump agenda.” Nancy Welch read John Trimbur’s keynote address entitled “CCCC, NCTE, and the Steven Salaita Case: Public Life and the Failure of Composition’s Professional Associations” in his absence. (Like many of our colleagues on the East Coast, Trimbur was sidelined by a snowstorm.)

Keynote and Workshop Conversations 

Trimbur’s keynote focused on the Salaita case and a deep critique of the handling of that case, both by the hiring institution and by related professional organizations, including those in our own field. To recap, Steven Salaita was offered a faculty position at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, a hiring that was rescinded because of Salaita’s tweets regarding the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict.  As a result, the University of Illinois was censured by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and Salaita was awarded an $800,000 settlement. In response to the handling of Salaita’s case, Chancellor Phyllis Wise at the University of Illinois called for a kind of “civility” doctrine to make students more comfortable and to create an environment “framed in respect and courtesy.”

During the AAUP’s investigation, in response to the “civility” question, they maintained that “adequate cause for a dismissal will be related, directly and substantially, to the fitness of faculty members in their professional capacities as teachers or researchers” and, further, that “consideration of the manner of expression is rarely appropriate to an assessment of academic fitness” (AAUP, 2015).  

In his keynote, Trimbur argued that the Salaita incident could set a precedent threatening to academic freedom, and professional academic organizations should respond with statements condemning the University of Illinois’s handling of Steven Salaita.

However, only 65 people signed a Writing Program Administrators-listserv (WPA-L) call to support Salaita—a low number compared to other academic fields. Instead of responding directly, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) created a Position Statement on Academic Freedom, which was, according to Trimbur, mostly concerned with K-12 issues. It’s also geared toward “upholding the ethics of respect” (NCTE, 2014).

Like many “religious freedom” mandates that sometimes geared toward protecting a religious right to discriminate, I was reminded that some “academic freedom” statements can actually function to limit how many scholars define academic freedom.

The Rhetoric Society of America (RSA), NCTE, and other organizations have commented on misconduct as a result of the Trump administration, but in his keynote, Trimbur was critical of rhetoric and composition’s major organizations in their silence over the Salaita case. This silence caused many scholars in the field to refrain from renewing their memberships to these various organizations.

In the discussion that followed Trimbur’s talk, colleagues noted a new conservativism and a “managerial unconscious” that seemed to be prevailing in the field. Fearful of taking sides, the field seems more concerned than ever by market forces that result from the corporatization of higher education. 

Reorganizations of institutions are set up to value generating revenue over service. Entrepreneurism is valorized. Deprofessionalizing workers (including processes whereby faculty lose control of curriculum) makes them more expendable. Attacks on tenure and attacks on due process create systems that enable violations of academic freedom. When 90% of the academic workforce is now without tenure, the vast majority of the workers do not feel that they have academic freedom protection in their institutions. Many feel they are not in a position to speak out.

A major factor in the loss of academic freedom is the privatization of public concerns. In addition to emphasizing profit over all else, changes are sudden, following the “shock doctrine” method of fast capitalism (Klein, 2007). The implementation of new austerity measures (Welch & Scott, 2016) means that colleges get renamed, relationships to tenure are redefined, and a general privatization of public concerns further threats academic freedom.

Near the end of the workshop, the conversations turned toward answers: shared governance and unionization is crucial. Those from “right to work” states were reminded that all strikes were illegal until the 1930s. The WPA-L Listserv and Facebook groups can be powerful tools for communication and organization. Academics were encouraged to understand themselves as workers, to think structurally and not individually.


American Association of University Professors (2015, April). Academic freedom and tenure: the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved from https://www.aaup.org/report/UIUC

Klein, Naomi (2007). The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada. 

National Council of Teachers of English (2014, November). NCTE Position statement on academic freedom. Retrieved from http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/academic-freedom

Welch, Nancy, & Scott, Tony (Eds.). (2016). Composition in the age of austerity. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Created by cheryl. Last Modification: Wednesday 10 of January, 2018 20:35:52 UTC by LucyAnne.