At Forum Fueled by 'Occupy' Energy, Liberal Scholars and Activists Take On the Corporatization of Academe

March 18, 2012

In the shadow of marches and small pockets of Occupy Wall Street activities that have continued despite the protestors' eviction from Zuccotti Park months ago, thousands of progressive scholars and students gathered here over the weekend with communists, socialists, anarchists, and other types of unabashed revolutionaries.

They came together at the Left Forum, an annual conference that has grown this year to an estimated 5,000 attendees. The theme of this year's conference, held at Pace University, was "Occupy the System: Confronting Global Capitalism." Fighting back was an underlying thread in many of the conference events, which included panels focused on issues of student debt, student activism, and adjunct labor in higher education.

"This is an action-oriented conference," said Seth Adler, the conference coordinator. "We're hoping that people will share their ideas and strategies and continue to network beyond the meeting."

Unlike other types of academic conferences, including those focused on convening people in the same discipline or with the same job title, the Left Forum provides an opportunity for academics with similar political views to exchange ideas with like-minded people beyond academic circles and to think about how certain challenges can be faced by forming "new chains of solidarity."

Organizers say that the reputation and level of trust the forum provides allows academics to talk more openly about controversial issues and air their critiques of higher education in ways they may not be able to on their campuses or at scholarly association meetings. The diversity and breadth of ideas is what draws them back each year to the conference, which is now more than 30 years old.

In the days leading up to this year's gathering, the forum's organizers said they expected the event to draw its biggest crowd ever, with a strong scholarly showing. Nearly 3,000 people had registered by early March, and the organizers expected 2,000 more to register on-site. There were more than 1,400 scheduled speakers, 400 panels, and wall-to-wall exhibit booths showcasing materials like socialist-themed books, newspapers, pamphlets, buttons, and T-shirts. Some of the forum's organizers and speakers credit the Occupy Wall Street movement for bringing more energy and more attendees this year.

Helping the swell of numbers was a diverse group of heavy-hitting speakers, including Nnimmo Bassey, executive director of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria; Dead Prez, a hip-hop artist and activist; and Michael Moore, the controversial filmmaker.

Among the activist scholars scheduled to speak were William Tabb, professor emeritus of economics, political science, and sociology at Queens College and the City University of New York Graduate Center; Stanley Aronowitz, a sociology professor at the CUNY Graduate School; Cornel West, a philosopher and former Princeton University professor; and Frances Fox Piven, a professor of science and sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center.

A Boost From 'Occupy'

Though the event was not focused on higher education, a large number of scholars attended and brought their research and ideas to discuss issues they see afflicting academe. The issues, many panelists said, are symptoms of "the corporate colonization of academic culture." They said that problems like student debt have been percolating across the country well before the economic downturn and the birth of the Occupy Wall Street movement six months ago. But the movement, they said, has placed student debt under a magnifying glass and enabled people to be more outspoken.

Amid the conference's 145-page program are a large number of panels with "occupy" this or that in their titles. The panels on higher education were no different. Among the 27 education-oriented panels were "Occupy Colleges: Rescuing Higher Education From the Corporatized University," "Occupy Universities: Building a Student Movement in the Era of Occupy," and "Occupy University—A New Educational Institution."

Sarah Leonard, an associate editor at Dissent magazine, was part of a Saturday morning panel called "Student Debt Serfdom." Speaking before the meeting, she said that she and her co-presenters resisted using "occupy" in their session's title because they felt the term was being overused. But she says it might have some cachet.

"Some of the panels will be trying to engage directly with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Others are using "occupy" as a brand, and it may skew the age range younger for those who are attending and speaking," Ms. Leonard said. "We can't ignore that a new generation of activists are coming of age due to the Occupy movement."

The gathering was first established in 1981 as the Socialist Scholars Conference by a number of well-known leftist personalities, including Ms. Piven, Mr. Aronowitz, and Bogdan Denitch, a sociologist and emeritus professor at the City University of New York. That year, 600 people showed up.

By 2005, when the conference was renamed the Left Forum, the number of attendees held steady at around 1,500 per year, with some 400 speakers and about 50 exhibitors. Since then the growing presence of labor activists, political groups, eccentric radicals, and college students have given the forum a slightly less scholarly character.

"Years ago we wanted to hold a conference that would allow a wide spectrum of views. We did not want to exclude people because of their politics," Mr. Aronowitz said before the conference. "The Occupy movement has given the left some hope. We've felt we've been isolated. This weekend will be a reunion of old friends, everything from liberals, people of color, anarchists, and revolutionaries that we hope will continue to work together."

On the other side of the political spectrum are gatherings, like those held by the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Conservative Political Action Conference, but they don't tend to match the Left Forum's magnitude and scope nor attract as large a contingent of scholars.

And unlike many academic conferences, which tend to be fairly polite, sedate, and cliquish affairs where scholars focus on debates and new directions in their disciplines, the Left Forum provides the kind of space where, say, a Greek rioter, a Chinese unionist, an environmentalist from the Niger Delta, an English professor from New York City, and somebody who's been sleeping in an occupied city park can all share the same stage.

The gathering has been described as a kind of call to action for the left side of the political spectrum.

Jeffrey Williams, a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University who has written numerous articles on student debt, contrasted his experiences at the Left Forum to those at the Modern Language Association's annual meetings, where he has also presented.

"The key thing is that the forum brings together people from a swath of disciplines and activists," Mr. Williams said. "At the MLA, there's not always a lot of passion involved or people pitted against each other in a strong political way."

The forum, he added, "is a kind of social reality check for academics" who might not always be aware of on-the-ground issues. "It provides an opportunity for academics to find out what people on the activist side are saying and doing. And activists can learn new ideas from scholars."

Students' and Adjuncts' Issues

Other participants included college students and adjuncts who came to raise public consciousness about the nation's student-debt crisis and the deteriorating working conditions on campus.

"Neoliberalism is taking a big hit, but it is proving remarkably resilient in certain places, and one them is higher education," said Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University.

Mr. Ross was among the panelists at the "Student Debt Serfdom" session, which discussed how today's student debtors will be haunted by the financial burdens of their college education until they are old. The session looked at how the student-debt crisis came about and who's profiting from it, and it explored potential relief strategies, such as online petitions for loan forgiveness, the restoration of bankruptcy protections for student loans, and "debt strike threats" that ask debtors to intentionally withhold payments on their student loans.

Defaulting on debt "happens on Wall Street all the time," said Mr. Ross. "It's the little people who are expected to repay their debts."

"Student debt is the greatest immoral injustice of our time," he said. "Student debt is a hot topic everywhere now: in the public mind, over dinner tables, among families of every income bracket, among students, graduates, and on Capitol Hill."

But student debt is not a common topic of discussion among faculty, he said. "Faculty, in general, feel besieged. Why invite one more reason to undermine our profession? But the fact remains that our salaries rely on students going into debt bondage. I find it an immoral situation."

Mr. Ross and others say that this year's forum is important because the Occupy movement has prompted debtors to come out publicly to talk about their financial burdens.

Mr. Williams, of Carnegie Mellon, said, "When I first started to speak about debt in the 90s, people were embarrassed and ashamed to talk about it. Now, people are more willing to talk about it because it's no longer considered a mistake you made."

Other higher-education panels on Saturday and Sunday showcased ways in which some people are pushing back against the corporatization of higher education through documentaries and online campaigns. Some panelists proposed alternative models of higher education, such as the "free university movement," which has roots stretching back to the 1960s and is gaining national momentum.

A sobering mid-afternoon panel on Saturday, called "Occupy Colleges: Rescuing Higher Education From the Corporatized University," highlighted the ways in which students and contingent faculty are joining arms to raise the level of activism on campuses. There was a sharp focus on the student-loan experience, which panelists said seduces teenage students who have little or no conception of what debt is into high-interest loans that saddle them with personal guilt and little prospects once they leave campus.

Panelists also discussed the massive shift from full-time faculty to adjunct labor. Debra Lee Scott, a roving adjunct from Philadelphia, spoke about and showed short clips from a new documentary that she is helping to produce called 'Junct: The Trashing of Higher Ed. in America. The testimonies, she said, reveal how the university has moved toward an "edufactory model that has reduced most faculty to a status of meatpacking workers with students on a factory conveyer belt."

"Adjuncts are the people under the stairs" who have lost control over their career possibilities and their lives, said Ms. Scott. "We have been deprofessionalized. And by de-professionalizing us, the administration has gained control and silenced the faculty. Now our influence is more managed, and they can keep us impoverished."

Ms. Scott ended the session by talking about the activities of the New Faculty Majority, a three-year old group that has been raising public awareness about the conditions under which non-tenure-track faculty work.

"We are pressuring scholarly organizations to speak up about the treatment of adjuncts," she said. "They have to realize that adjuncts pay dues. And given that we make up the bulk of labor, they won't be relevant without us."

She noted that while many adjuncts are too ashamed to talk about their poverty, others have used blogs and film, and are pushing for unions and other measures to professionalize adjuncts.

"The public has this stereotype of the high-paid lazy tenured professor who teaches two classes and then plays golf," said Ms. Scott. "That's not the reality. We have to reclaim our narrative."