The University in Chains

The University in Chains
by Henry A. Giroux


Henry Giroux’s The University in Chains is a crisp, powerful book about the crisis in American higher education.  Basically, the university has been buffeted by the three forces that have defined the US under the Bush administration (and, for that matter, for some time before): militarization, corporatization, and right-wing mobilization fueled by nationalism and religious fundamentalism.  Although these three forces have eroded academic freedom, undermined education for citizenship (as opposed to glorified job training), and disparaged critical inquiry (as opposed to governmental intelligence gathering), so far the response from the academic left has been muted.  As a result, the continued existence of American universities as spaces for critical, at times even radical, thinking is uncertain.

Giroux distinguishes between militarism and militarization, which he regards as a more far-reaching concept: “Militarism is often viewed as a retrograde concept because it characterizes a society in which military values and beliefs reside exclusively in a ruling group or class. . . .  Militarization, on the other hand, suggests . . . an intensification and expansion of its underlying values, practices, ideologies, social relations, and cultural representations.”  In other words, militarization makes pervasive the values of the military throughout numerous sites in society, such as schools and popular culture.  Indeed, military recruiters militarize popular culture, such as hip-hop, to better endear themselves to populations targeted for recruitment in schools.  At the level of higher education, militarization takes several forms.  Many students’ education is financed by the military in exchange for time commitments.  Additionally, initiatives like the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program provide grants to students in exchange for commitments to work for the intelligence services when their degree work is complete.  The program is cloaked in secrecy, so no one knows who these students are besides their intelligence paymasters.  “Homeland security,” flush with money, promotes its research agendas across campuses.  Military dollars are used to research everything from space-based weapons to anthropology geared to controlling unruly populations.  In a sign of what direction the US may be heading in, Giroux notes that Israeli researchers have even adopted the theories of Delueze and Guatarri to the needs of the IDF, advocating the creation of “smooth spaces” (in practice by ramming into Palestinian homes) to better police the occupied.  The CIA, once banned from numerous universities, has reappeared.  Professors who once kept a low profile about their ties to the CIA are now more open, embracing the “patriotic” mood since September 11.  It should be noted that Giroux’s book was published before controversy exploded at the American Psychological Association conference over whether to pass a resolution barring members from participating in interrogations of detainees at Guantanamo and other sites.  The resolution failed.

The second chapter, “Marketing the University: Corporate Power and the Academic Factory,” details the many ways that universities are being made to conform to the neoliberal agenda of prioritizing profit-making above all else.  The status of the university as a haven from the commercial world has deteriorated (although I think there is still a big difference between a campus and a shopping mall).  Student unions become more like mall food courts, with numerous fast food outlets.  Credit card hucksters hawk their wares on campus.  “Administrators at York University in Toronto solicited a number of corporations to place their logos on university-sponsored online courses ‘for ten thousand dollars per course’.”  Students graduate with considerable debts both in student loans and credit cards (as of 2002, totaling about 22,000 and rising), impelling them towards jobs in the private sector, rather than considering public service-oriented work which doesn’t pay enough to cover their debts.  Professors are directly rewarded for the size of grants they pull into the college.  College presidents, increasingly drawn from the private sector, adapt models drawn from corporations to the university.  Long-standing traditions of faculty governance are trashed.  Students are conceptualized as consumers to be satisfied.  Faculty are workers whose productivity is to be maximized and measured through productivity statistics like how many students are taught, articles are published, grants are attained.  Sometimes, departments are set directly into competition with one another.  Part-time, miserably underpaid “adjuncting” replaces full-time professorships.  Online, “distance learning” is encouraged because of its potential to reduce costs, regardless of its evisceration of the learning experience.  As more faculty turn to corporations for funding opportunities (as government money, apart from the aforementioned military/homeland security trough, disappears), they enter into pernicious disclosure agreements where their research becomes the property of the corporation, eroding academic debate.  Furthermore corporations set research agendas and pressure journals to conform to their desires.

The right wing has also waged an assault on academia, both through a nexus of think tanks/advocacy groups/websites/publications etc (supplemented by reports from student allies throughout colleges and universities) and through the Bush administration itself, which has denied visas to a number of prominent foreign intellectuals, on the vaguest imaginable “homeland security” grounds.  The right wing has offered the specious argument that students’ “academic freedom” is jeopardized by left-wing professors who need to be “balanced” by hires from the right side of the political spectrum.  Regarding the latter, Giroux points out that there are rarely calls to “balance” the political affiliations of those who staff the highest ranks of such institutions as business and the military, which are considerably more powerful than academia.  As for the former, should everything a professor says conform to students’ pre-existent world view?  What is most disturbing is not that such arguments are made, but that they are taken very seriously by state legislatures, the mainstream media, and institutions of higher education themselves.  For example, in 2002 the Columbia University administration caved in to pressure from outside groups to investigate the teaching of professor Joseph Massad, apparently guilty of criticizing Israel (i.e. “anti-antisemitism”).  Although the group found little concrete evidence that Massad had done anything wrong, the campaign against him continued, by other faculty members, through the media, and even in the halls of the US congress.  All of this was set in motion by Columbia University’s willingness to ignore its own procedures and allow its agenda to be set by outside groups.  Ward Churchill‘s case highlights another issue.  Churchill’s research was subject to investigation (he was eventually fired, after this book went to press) basically because of an opinion piece he wrote about 9-11.  Although his views on this topic were well outside of the mainstream, or even the left (he regarded many of those killed in the World Trade Center as “little Eichmanns”), right-wingers like Newt Gingrich were quite clear that the harassment of Churchill was meant to send a message to a much wider swath of left public intellectuals: adopt outspoken views, and your research, teaching record, etc will be subject to relentless public scrutiny in the hopes of finding some peg on which your dismissal can be hung.  Here we should note that the denial of tenure to Norman Finkelstein and Mehrene Larudee occurred after this book was published, again indicating that the trends documented in it have by no means abated.  An additional trend, which Giroux does not discuss, involves right-wing contributions to universities to set up curricula or research centers that epitomize conservative principles.  When controversy erupts, those opposing the ability of outsiders to dictate the content of the university are labeled opponents of academic freedom.

Giroux’s book is a bracing read, and the summary above has necessarily left out many examples he documents.  If there is a weakness to it, it is that Giroux tends to defend an idealized version of the university as a space for the production of critical citizens and probing research.  One can easily get the impression that the university has only become politicized during the recent wave of right-wing attacks.  But it has always been so.  Long before McCarthyism, universities saw it as their responsibility to inoculate students against such radical viruses as Bolshevism.  Indeed, much of what the right is attacking is the product of left-wing struggles of the sixties and beyond.  While there have long been critical voices in the US academy, the flood of multicultural, sometimes radical voices that attained an institutional foothold in the academia during the seventies was something new, one of the most enduring achievements of the movements.  Notwithstanding the preposterous exaggerations involved in right-wing descriptions of academia, it is easy enough to see what infuriates them about the present situation.  Despite all that is described above, a number of disciplines and programs of study–sociology, anthropology, Middle East Studies, Latin American Studies, Women’s Studies, etc. –remain well to the left of the political center of gravity of the US and retain space for radical voices (this is, of course, not at all the same as the right-wing claim that these disciplines, let alone the university complex, are completely controlled by the radical left, an absurd charge).  It is hard to see how this hard-won space can be preserved without a more generalized revival of the left in US society.  This will require that many left academics emerge from their comfortable disciplinary and institutional niches to link up with others in US society who seek broad, egalitarian change — immigrants, prison abolitionists, the more grassroots unionists, student activists, civil liberties activists, staff of universities (a site of recent unionization activity, but barely mentioned in The University in Chains), etc.  Since many academics aren’t even comfortable talking to other left academics who don’t share their methodological or disciplinary frameworks, let alone those outside academia from dramatically different class or cultural backgrounds, this is a daunting task, made all the more so by the general lack of a left (whether a party, coalition, network, etc) to which one can gravitate in US society.  But the alternative — to simply make arguments about the need for a free and critical academy — is likely to strike not only the right but also most of the general public as disingenuous.

Steven Sherman is a sociologist who lives in Carrboro, NC.  His website is at  He can be reached at

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