chapter  1
17 Pages

The Personal Professor and the Excellent University

Nearly a decade ago (1995), a widely discussed collection of essays edited by Michael Bérubé and Cary Nelson, Higher Education Under Fire, painted a portrait of a legitimation crisis for the academy in the popular imagination. The text took up the topic of the culture wars of the 1980s, during which conservatives portrayed an academic environment in which political correctness silences faculty and students, multiculturalism and Marxism pervade classrooms, and American tradition and heritage are less and less frequently taught, if not outright undermined. On the heels of this assault, the volume pointed out, came less partisan critiques of universities-media reports that faculty were not teaching but seeking personal advancement through frivolous research, classes were overcrowded and taught by graduate students, undergraduates were graduating without basic skills and knowledge, and tuitions were skyrocketing-that further undermined the university’s status in the public mind. Nelson and Bérubé (1995) described collective public perceptions of the academy as a “landscape so drastically flattened out by media depictions of the humanities, which render intellectual upheaval as nothing more than a succession of passing fads.” (p. 17) Their text sought to diagnose the problem of the academy’s popular delegitimation in order to suggest ways for progressive faculty to use the media to talk back and counter such critiques. Though theirs was a necessary intervention, the volume’s analyses recognized but did not fully account for the shift to consumerism in the United States that increasingly frames the academy in the popular imagination and in practice (see Bok, 2003; Giroux, 2002; Kirp, 2003).