the politics of accountability: between the right and a hard place

At some point, I’d like to take on some more 18th-centuryish topics, but I noticed this week that the issues Laura and I have been discussing about accountability have been turning up in the presidential race.  [Warning: very little eighteenth-century content in what follows]

I would say that these discussions are occurring because accountability is the language both parties adopt when they want to politicize higher ed for their own partisan ends.  However, their uses of this language are not symmetrical.  The Right uses accountability to advance its culture war strategy against its ideological enemies and against reality itself, while what’s his name, our current post-post-Partisan Democratic President, uses it as part of his usual triangulation strategy against the constituencies that helped vote him into office (cf. Rahm Emanuel on the GM rescue: “F@ck the UAW”).

It’s not a surprise when we see Rick Santorum saying

The indoctrination that occurs in American universities is one of the keys to the left holding and maintaining power in America. And it is indoctrination. If it was the other way around, the ACLU would be out there making sure that there wasn’t one penny of government dollars going to colleges and universities, right?”

And, of course, for Santorum, Obama’s calling for all children to receive college education is a form of “snobbery,” and a veiled attempt to destroy the religious beliefs of students.  Anti-intellectualism is just one of the ways that the right wing traditionally does its version of class politics, even as we see teachers (both K-12 and higher ed, along with other public workers) getting downsized, pauperized and demonized across the country. But to some extent, this kind of attack seems very familiar to us, even when we see massive amounts of Koch money bankrolling it.

This brings me to the soggy birthday cake of ravished hopes that Obama brought with him to the University of Michigan this week, where relatively unimpoverished, undespairing students were delighted to hear that help was on the way, in the form of more work-study hours (yay, xeroxing!), more student loans, and lots and lots of accountability measures to punish universities that teach poor and working-class students.  And I’m glad that there was no mention of for-profit institutions or declining state contributions to universities, because those would just make people angrier and more partisan than they already are.

As someone who shares Laura’s hope that discussions of higher education policy become more reflective, and more effectively engaged with reality, on both sides, I’m sympathetic to her suggestion that academics think more analytically about accountability.  We do need to recognize that accountability is not an isolated aspect of our work, but something that permeates our multiple roles as scholars, teachers, and (sometime) public intellectuals.  But I do believe that part of the anger we display every time this issue comes up comes from our sense of accountability’s duplicity and hidden agendas in the wider political context.

It’s not that different than this example of Matt Damon getting irritated at being asked leading questions by an interviewer who just loves the idea of job insecurity for other people:

So how to respond to the whole context of accountability?  And what kinds of accountability can we call upon to alert the public to the dismantling of public higher education?


3 responses to “the politics of accountability: between the right and a hard place

  1. Laura Rosenthal

    As your last question suggests, the answer is not to reject accountability (which would allow the anti-intellectual forces mentioned above to divide the world into the accountability people and the anti-accountability), but to bring alternative forms of accountability to the table.

  2. Laura Rosenthal

    Here, I think, is a good start toward new ways of thinking about accountability:
    As Brian Croxall reports, the New Faculty Majority “has wisely chosen to focus not on how NTT faculty are treated but on how the treatment of NTT faculty affects student learning. ”
    So what they are doing, we might say, is holding institutions accountable to their own stated goals of educating students. This was one of the points I was trying to my in my contribution to the Teagle collection: an investment in student learning is really in the interest of faculty as well and the best argument against the dismal condition of some adjunct instructors and the erosion of tenure.

  3. I think we’re in agreement about this, Laura. The Croxall piece and the NTT summit look very promising. I do agree that paying attention to instruction is one of the best way for faculty and departments to head off certain kinds of accountability crusades. The worry that I have is that ultimately stakeholders like the state legislatures will settle for a two-track system that reserves liberal arts-style humanities instruction for the private or flagship institutions, and vocational “training” for everyone else. In other words, “accountability” and “productivity” trump “quality” and “reputation.” But yes, this is I think a powerful line of argumentation to adopt for that audience.