Last week, I had the privilege of making a guest appearance over Skype in two history classes at Elizabeth City State University. There, I spoke with introductory and capstone courses about my work in the postcolonial digital humanities and the relationship between history and literature in postcolonial studies. At the request of the professors, I also discussed the significance of undergraduate preparation in both history and digital humanities for jobs after the BA. My impression of my colleagues at ECSU was one of engaged scholar-teachers dedicated to educating their students.
Imagine my surprise, then, to learn that the very history program that had so graciously invited me into their classrooms is a target for elimination from a university administration engaged in cost-cutting measures that have come to represent corporate university business-as-usual. The program, the provost suggests, is one of seven that are “low productive.” The university is accounting, and the history program is struggling to count.
Administrative cuts to academic programs, particularly ones that emerge in underhanded ways or fail to account for faculty guidance and expertise, are of particular concern to me. In part, this concern emerges from the fact that during my last year at Emory University, a new dean unilaterally cut academic programs and divisions in dubiously ethical ways. Yet, this concern also intersects with my academic training in postcolonial studies, which has focused on questions of power, utility, and knowledge production – and, indeed, history.
The differences between Elizabeth City State University and Emory University could not be more clear. Elizabeth City State University is a historically black college in North Carolina, established with a mission of training black teachers. Emory is a historically white research university in Atlanta, an aspirational university in an aspirational city. The histories of Elizabeth City, North Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia have diverged in curious ways as well. Whereas Elizabeth City once rivaled Norfolk and Baltimore as a site of oceanic commerce through its bustling seaport, Atlanta bears the questionable distinction of having once been named “Terminus,” for its location at the end of the railroad line. Today, Elizabeth City is best known, if at all, for its U.S. Coast Guard outpost, while Atlanta has successfully parlayed the 1996 Olympics into a world city, par excellence.
Different cities, different universities – all shaped by the totalizing logic of capitalism.
Marc Bousquet has written at length about the nature of the corporate university and of dubious labor practices that subtend these institutions. Yet, what we are seeing now, in the threatened cuts at Elizabeth City State University and in the cuts at Emory, is the corporate mentality trickling down through the cogs of administration, past faculty governance, over departments, and into classrooms. This mentality implies that there is little difference between professors offering a history program and teaching history courses. It presupposes that courses are moveable parts that do not need departments or disciplinary formations to thrive. This mentality reflects the very same neoliberal logic that makes chewing up and spitting out a virtually endless supply of contingent faculty labor a good business practice.
Fordist logic is here to stay, and it’s not just coming for our jobs. It’s taking whole programs, whole disciplines, and academia itself with it.
The ironies of a historically black college eliminating a history program should be lost on no one. Scholars have long struggled to have African American history written into the places it belongs: central to dominant narratives of American history. Historians have encountered disciplinary battles over historical narratives from beyond the center, over what counts as history. Subaltern studies has sought to radically reorient the power balances within history, in the face of triumphalist logic that foregrounds history written by victors.
Yet, today, in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, history professors fight to retain their program, to count in the space of the corporate university. This is not just their struggle – it is a struggle for historians who are challenged to render the significance of their discipline legible, it is a struggle for scholars who recognize that interdisciplinarity cannot exist without disciplines, it is a struggle for everyone invested in what the humanities does for our students.
In the years to come, Elizabeth City State University and Emory University will be just two of a number of universities caught between cost-cutting measures and the instrumental logic of university administration. In the long view of the history of academe, they already are. We are, in a sense, at a crossroads within academia. Will we let fiscal wizardry take away what we, as scholars, create? What we, as teachers, do in our classrooms? Or will we – even the vulnerable and untenured among us – make this our struggle too?