This article analyzes the case of Avital Ronell, Amy Hungerford's response to striking Yale graduate students, and higher education funding to argue that such instances illustrate the precise features of rampant professionalization—its pressures, demands, and imperatives—in the midst of the radical transformation of the material conditions that first produced its practices. Despite the increasingly limited ability for faculty to determine how their fields intersect with and are conditioned by forces beyond the confines of their carefully delimited communities, particularly those of the capitalist market economy, collectively the professoriate acts otherwise. As a whole, faculty continue to churn out academic progeny through a long period of apprentissage for positions that, taken in aggregate, no longer exist. Intensified discourses and anxieties around professionalization emerge to fill this gap, both registering the latent crisis and suggesting a means for its overcoming. Building on these examples, the authors suggest that professionalization remains a tactic through which academic laborers self-discipline but that today such self-disciplining tends to operate through the contradictory entwinement of (worker) reproduction and (institutional) reputation. The article closes with a new figure: that of the “unprofessional,” suggesting that our task is to shift the expectations set by professionalization that our own reproduction can only be ensured through its congealment in the commodity of reputation.
In the recent scandal involving German professor Avital Ronell and the object of her obsession, her graduate student Nimrod Reitman, most lay news outlets focused on the feminist implications of a woman accused of sexual harassment by a man. “What Happens to #MeToo When a Feminist Is the Accused?,” an August 2018 New York Times article asked.1
For observers within the academy, however, the real scandal seemed to be that Ronell's behavior had been, well, unprofessional. The philosopher Brian Leiter, whose publication of the letter in Ronell's defense on his popular blog Leiter Reports had helped to spark the initial firestorm, wrote that, “if even half the allegations in the complaint filed against Ronell are true, then she engaged in abusive and unprofessional behavior.”2 Even some of Ronell's staunchest defenders concurred with this verdict of unseemly unprofessionalism. Jonathan Culler, for instance—one of the signatories of the letter in Ronell's defense, who continues to deny the veracity of allegations of sexual misconduct—nevertheless conceded to a student journalist that “Professor Ronell's e-mails are clearly unprofessional.”3
We disagree. In fact, we argue, the Ronell case illustrates the precise features of rampant professionalization—its pressures, demands, and imperatives—in the midst of the radical transformation of the material conditions that first produced its practices. Despite the increasingly limited ability for faculty to determine how their fields intersect with and are conditioned by forces beyond the confines of their carefully delimited communities, particularly those of the capitalist market economy, collectively the professoriate acts otherwise. As a whole, faculty continue to churn out academic progeny through a long period of apprentissage for positions that, taken in aggregate, no longer exist. Intensified discourses and anxieties around professionalization, we suggest, emerge to fill this gap, both registering the latent crisis and suggesting a means for its overcoming.
In their attempt to break from a more obscure mode of class reproduction that conferred its benefits only on those fortunate already to be born into the professional classes, however, such discourses pin the blame for the crisis of the professoriate on subjective failings rather than structural conditions. The Modern Language Association (MLA) Ad Hoc Committee on the Professionalization of PhDs, for instance, contends that the ostensibly stubborn resistance of the professoriate to a necessary process of professionalization “may be the heritage of Romantic ideology,” with its cult of the individual genius.4 In this telling, professionalization stands in for the Weberian rationalization and bureaucratization of a previously enchanted premodernity, dispelling the old cobwebs of quasi-feudal patronage with a clear and impersonal path toward professional advancement. Rather than liberating initiates from the cult of the sage on the stage, however, the culture of professionalization merely supplements and reinforces it. The renewed emphasis on quantifiable metrics—in the absence of any collective effort to increase the actual quantity of tenure-track jobs—only inflates the influence of the cult of genius.
Both sides of this dynamic were on display in the Reitman-Ronell case. In Ronell's increasing demands on Reitman (“I am having a hard time letting you go and want, if possible, to retrieve the idea of a ‘date.’ . . . Please be kind to me as only you know how”) and her fervent, impossible promises (first and foremost, that of a tenure-track job),5 we witness both the desperation undergirding the pressures toward professionalization and how this only reinforces the irrational power of academic celebrity, even as the latter reveals itself to be increasingly impotent. Likewise, the unconscionable letter demanding that Ronell “be accorded the dignity rightly deserved by someone of her international standing and reputation” speaks to both aspects of this dynamic.6 On the one hand, the letter signatories’ belief that Ronell's “international standing” should somehow exempt her from sexual harassment allegations illustrates the hubris of those who have truly, tragically bought into the cult of their own genius. On the other hand, its appeals to the increasingly scarce protections of tenure and academic freedom suggest that professional privilege is no longer quite the panacea it once was.
Attending to the structural forces through which such privilege first emerged, Christopher Newfield has argued that the professionalization of academic labor is a historical product of a new mode of labor disciplining that emerged in the mid-twentieth century, one in which faculty came to be distinguished from other sectors of academic labor through their right to a limited form of horizontal self-management and intellectual autonomy.7 He noted that the ranks of professionalized faculty emerged in the post-WWII research university in response to a crisis in productivity that could not be met by the more traditionally hierarchical and standardized forms of labor attached to the Fordist era. This compromise was set in the context of the limits of a Taylorized model of production—best applied to a division of labor in early industrializing economies—for an economy that was shifting toward new divisions of mental and manual labor. This new economy required massive state-based investments in the centralization of science and technology for the purposes of enhanced labor productivity and US militarization. While many refer to this as the shift toward a knowledge economy, it might be best to historicize the autonomy granted to the professional faculty as a by-product of the demands for massive infrastructural investment that could come only through resource consolidation at the state and federal level, combined with the intensification of extractive economies that supported new information-based commodities.
It was under this new division of labor that the professionalization of faculty labor was granted a mixed form of top-down and self-managed labor, in a compromise between corporately minded boards of trustees and advocates for faculty governance. Such governance and its limited forms of autonomy were cobbled together through a tenuous hegemony between universities and the more bureaucratic corporate entities with whom they had shifting, but dependent, financial relations. As Newfield argues, humanities disciplines in particular proffered the ideological basis for such a new model of labor, due to a longstanding attachment to aesthetic and cultural autonomy.8 Humanities departments had a preexisting ideological tendency toward more flexible and self-controlled activities, which were allocated to individuals but which did not, according to Newfield, change the regimented, hierarchical control at the collective or administrative level. In contrast to entirely top-down management, “a hybrid situation in which sovereignty has been complicated rather than eliminated” emerged in academic labor. Significant to such a situation was that “power ha[d] been decentralized and dispersed in managerial systems . . . [in] a mixed situation of decentralized structures combined with authority that does circulate horizontally and indirectly but predominantly from the top down.”9
Two recent cases perhaps best exemplify the ironic residue of the hybridity Newfield describes and the skeletal remains of individual autonomy and horizontal relations that cling to the figure of the academic professional. On the one hand, the ever-unfolding scandal over the Title IX case involving Ronell and Reitman suggests that the individual capacity for resource allocation has been retained as a primary privilege of the professional. This reflects Newfield's description of professionalization as a sphere in which “disproportionate personal power [is] fully compatible with managerial procedure [and] the senior giver retain[s] sufficient sovereignty to be the source of the gift.”10 Indeed, the Ronell scandal is a reminder of the deflated but persistent effects of Cold War infrastructure on the university in which, as George Yúdice has argued, the “star professors” of the humanities emerged in tandem with the entrepreneurial science researcher who “no longer worked for universities, but in universities.”11
On the other hand, Amy Hungerford's retort to Yale graduate students who chose to launch a hunger strike during their union drive perpetuates the ideal of the horizontal power relations that differentiate faculty from other, more vertically managed labor. In a letter in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Hungerford chided the students, claiming they were (as she has been paraphrased) “too privileged” to hunger strike;12 doing so suggested a false equivalency between the demand to unionize and other, more famous labor and liberation movements, such as those led by Mohandas Gandhi and Irish Republicans. Instead, she encouraged them to “meet disagreement with debate” rather than to do violence to their own bodies. This tactic, she urged, would preserve “the very foundation of [the strikers'] intellectual commitments, rather than abrogating them.”13
Hungerford's demand that graduate students follow the protocol of collegial discussion is a remnant of the division between the professional and the worker that Newfield describes, one predicated on the neutralization of antagonism and “principles of collegiality and consent, [in which] research pursued in a ‘community of scholars’ act[ing] as supervisors to the lowest-status academic workers known as students.”14
In what follows, we briefly consider the new landscape of material conditions under which these more traditional characteristics of the professional are perpetuated, but with an eye toward the newly productive features of professionalization as opposed to the traces of rigor mortis visible in the cases of Ronell and Hungerford. In these instances, the defining feature of the profession—the relative autonomy of individual self-management—is most visible today as a bare and unrewarding edifice. Professionalization in its most savage mode appears as a feudal gift economy in which privileges are meted out individually and, oftentimes, with much risk to those who attempt to compete for them. Absent the resources of public infrastructure and its buffer of possible futurity, the power of the professional has shown itself most recently in reactionary defenses of individual sovereignty against institutions, as in the Ronell case, or in the demands that (pre)professionals preemptively perform civility to qualify for the competition over future material security, as in that of Hungerford.
Building on these examples, we suggest that professionalization remains a tactic through which academic laborers self-discipline but that today such self-disciplining tends to operate through the contradictory entwinement of (worker) reproduction and (institutional) reputation. As Annie McClanahan and others have argued, capital accumulation and valorization have in recent decades shifted aggressively toward the commodification of reproductive activities. Student debt is exemplary here inasmuch as it commodifies the development of capacities one needs to enter the job market in the first place, monetizing the capacity for future reproduction rather than any tangible product in the present. But, as we suggest below, this extended commodification of reproduction also helps account for the dependency of university revenue streams on academic workers’ maintenance of their labor and their working environments as professional—that is, risk-free, collegial, and safe. This shift, we argue, is vital for grasping the changing permutations of professionalization, as it fuses its former function of labor disciplining to a new political and economic landscape, rendering individual autonomy and horizontal power relations productive for the maintenance and protection of university reputations and thus the compositional conjuncture of their revenue streams.15
But we are not here to complain. Rather than end with a lament, we close with a new figure by which to orient ourselves: that of the “unprofessional.” We thus suggest that our task is to shift the expectations set by professionalization that our own reproduction can be ensured only through its congealment in the commodity of reputation. As recent organizing efforts around sexual violence and low-cost housing at and around Duke University and the University of Virginia (UVA) help make clear, there is a real need to separate the fates of university reputations from our own reproduction and to rearticulate the latter through the larger crises of social reproduction from which university reputation management vampirically emerged.
Reputation, Risk Management, and Reproduction
The assemblage of horizontal and hierarchical, autonomous and standardized management Newfield analyzes still characterizes the self-managed practice of professionalization, as evidenced by professional guides like that offered by the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on the Professionalization of PhDs. In its frank acknowledgment of the casualization of academic labor, the report wields professionalization to suggest graduate students and hiring committees can proactively manage the problem if we can study it, quantify it, and propose a measured, means-tested approach to formalized professional development. Internalizing and reproducing administrative metrics, the report enumerates the diminishment of tenure track opportunities in the humanities while also providing advice on ways to maximize those limited opportunities (“start early!”) and encouraging job candidates to simultaneously prepare for a career within and outside the academy.16
In seeking to quantify and standardize the metrics through which one secures career advancement, the report illuminates the peculiar power that the category of professionalization continues to wield in the face of its objective immiseration. In the face of an ever-increasing disjunct between the supply of PhDs and the demand for (tenured) professors, the conditions for achieving such success become simultaneously arduous and increasingly unquantifiable. Is it x number of peer-reviewed articles? A book contract? Two? No one can say with any certainty. The ensuing academic arms race over publication, credentialization, and professionalization merely reinforces the mystery surrounding those who have “made it.” Since such success cannot be explained simply by the numbers (of publications, credentials, speaking engagements, etc.), it must be the product of some additional, inexplicable quiddity, some ineffable je ne sais quoi. The irony, then, is that increased emphasis on ostensibly objective standards seems only to intensify the mythical aura surrounding the obscure factors regulating the academic labor market—what we might even call a dialectic of enlightenment undergirding the proliferation of discourses of professionalization.
Of course, one could argue that the pleasures of professionalization had always been less real than mythic. Indeed, the professionalization of the professoriate is perhaps best understood as a differentiation system in which the privilege of faculty autonomy operates as a mystified ideal against other forms of academic labor. Historically, professionalization allowed for a tenuous and limited affirmation of autonomy, but only through relative distinctions spread across administration, faculty, academic staff, and students, based on what might be called the ratio of managerial oversight to employee autonomy. As such, it is easy to see why the category of the professional could never be extended across labor ranks in the university, for instance, by extending it to janitors, food service workers, graduate students, or groundskeepers. Rather than a simple difference in income or benefits, what set faculty labor apart from other forms of labor in universities was precisely the distinction accorded to the professional. Otherwise put, professionalization was (and is) in a sense autotelic, its main privilege that of managing the fragile and overdetermined sphere of differentiation between professionals and (other) workers.
What has changed, however, is that even this fragile distinction is now collapsing. Professionalization and the privileges attached to it were inseparable from the historical contingencies of a particular configuration of public and private spheres in the Cold War US that have been largely dismantled. An important feature of such contingency is that the horizontal power relations of self-management so important to the characterization of professional relations as apolitical and nonantagonistic were developed in relation to a broader material infrastructure that no longer exists. In other words, the professionalization of faculty, defined primarily by the right of autonomy and horizontal power relations, was established in material conditions that are no longer ours. Fast-forward to 2019 and it would appear all that is left of the tenuous compromises of the post-Fordist economy is a kind of sadistic enjoyment of the right of a working population to its own self-discipline, emptied of the material means by which to reproduce the faculty as a class.
If the material conditions of possibility for the professional—the professional “star professor,” as well as the professional who operates through “collegiality and consent”—are no longer our own, then what are the conditions in which the demands to maintain professional standards and defend professional reputations are made? If the emergence of the faculty as a profession defined by relative autonomy and limited individual power was subsidized by massive state and federal investments and, most recently, by the influx of student populations with access to debt, then what conditions might now account for the persistence of this figure?
As Newfield's recent work shows, the proactive pursuit of tuition revenues by university administrators over the last two decades has been the primary driver of the transition away from state-based funding.17 With this fantasy of unlimited funding streams, unrestricted from state oversight, came increased efforts by public universities to wrest themselves from state oversight, even if this meant accepting massive cuts in state funding, too. This shifting revenue base, away from the Cold War dialectics of state support and star-powered academic autonomy, also led to an expansion in new student populations and a widespread reliance on mixed forms of labor by graduate students and adjuncts as a cheap source by which to derive the highest possible profits from instructional activities, as well as to shift the ratio of expenditures away from those same activities.
However, a quick look at any of the recent forecasts by major credit-rating agencies for higher education point to a stagnation or limit in such tuition-driven futures. For instance, the 2017 Standard & Poor's credit rating projections showed tuition already to be an unstable contributor to credit scores.18 Dan Nemser and Brian Whitener have also noted that the 2018 Moody's projection revised its outlook for the higher-education sector from “stable” to “negative” in the very same week the historic cuts to taxes for the wealthy was passed in the Senate.19 Indeed, at least since 2015 or 2016, tuition has gone from a positive to a mixed and even negative factor for determining university credit ratings and their access to credit.20
It is thus safe to say that universities can no longer rely solely on tuition revenues to remain financially solvent. This means that the most flexible revenue stream available to universities, and the only stream that can be used to pay off massive amounts of institutional debt accrued by major public and private universities, now looks to be tapped. Nemser and Whitener predict that in the near future universities will increasingly be squeezed for resources by which to access the capital that has enabled massive noninstructional expansion in their infrastructural, administrative, and police operations in recent decades.
In response to an impending tuition limit and the downgrading of tuition as a source of funds, university revenue streams are being diversified or spread across a number of heterogeneous—but not nearly as profitable or consistent—financial streams in an attempt to sustain university budgets. In the place of tuition, a whole range of activities have cropped up on university campuses: technology transfer and start-up ventures, proliferating study-abroad programs and global partnerships, and fundraising and endowments. Each of these efforts is being mobilized to offset an impending crisis around the end of tuition, especially as the international student market is becoming saturated.
We see these activities as a frantic attempt by universities to cobble together new revenue streams while also doing damage control over numerous scandals that have accumulated in recent years—magnetized, likely, by general resentment over the ever-increasing burden of student debt. But the stability of these new funds hinges entirely on the extent to which the brand or reputation of universities can be represented as stable and secure for international student audiences, past alumni, and philanthropic donors. A newly augmented reliance on such revenue streams demands a different kind of reputational work than was needed prior to the tarnishing of university reputations by student debt, pepper spraying incidents, university police forces’ routine racial profiling, and attacks on student populations.21 Amanda Armstrong wrote that “the consolidation of a reputation-oriented form of risk management” emerged “between 2011 and 2013—a period that, as we have seen, was defined by the crisis and partial reconstruction of university financial models, and by a wave of mass campus protest. Reputation emerged as a keyword of university governance at the precise moment when administrators were confronted with the tuition limit and compelled to seek out new revenue-generating and cost-saving measures.”22
The most explicit connection between the emergence of risk management and the return of professionalization can be seen in the continuity between individual and institutional branding. A 2017 Chronicle Vitae piece threads the needle between these reputational practices. On the one hand, “via their research, public appearances, and online presences [public PhDs] . . . brand themselves according to their fields of study”; on the other hand, in the words of the president of the University of Toronto, “whether you like it or not, universities have a brand. . . . It's an image people associate with us.”23 In a very straightforward way, professionalization today incentivizes those seeking stable intellectual labor within the academe (students, junior faculty, adjuncts, etc.) to engage in the kind of reputational branding that has emerged as central to the financial management of a posttuition, postcollapse landscape of higher education. These two aspects of professional branding and university branding aptly represent the entwinement of the subjective and objective faces of reputation and risk management, where branding is not just another advent of neoliberal subjectivity formation but entwines students’ own potential means of reproduction with the production of institutional reputation as a commodity. In this entwinement we can also see the assemblage-style way brands must be produced and managed, at scales operating from the molecular to the institutional.
In contrast to the examples of the Ronell and Hungerford cases, in which professionalization appears in a desiccated twilight, we suggest that the contemporary professional can best be understood in light of this newer phase of intensified “reputation-oriented form of risk management” that Armstrong describes. The category of the professional mediates risk and reputation at the level of student, faculty, and administrative relations. On the one hand, today's professionals are both indebted student and exploited worker—the subjects of risk. On the other, they are members of a horizontally managed and nonantagonistic community of peers—the producers of reputation.24 Making good use of the mixed sovereignty that once defined professional relations, but now in a new landscape, the retrenching of the professional sutures together multiple threads of the crisis of reproduction as it manifests in the context of the university. While reputation becomes more significant as a commodity to ensure against the kinds of risk that threaten institutional credit ratings, (pre)professionals are being asked to preserve the fiction of a nonviolent sphere of power to maintain their own means of reproduction, present and future. Their own reproduction is thus bound to the production of a commodity that ensures the maintenance of a landscape of risk that is born not by institutions but by indebted and harassed students, exploited workers, profiled and policed community members, and so forth.
The return of the professional, then, actually marks a significant change not only from its earlier iteration of limited autonomy but also from tendencies to treat the neoliberalization of higher education as simply a matter of the standardization and bureaucratization of academic labor. While these last are real phenomena, the renewed emphasis on the profession and attendant professionalization discourses also flags the effects of financialization—in which the distinction between production and reproduction is increasingly blurred—in the context of higher education. That is, becoming professional means not only being disciplined to increased productivity and quantification but also reproducing social relations as if they were independent of the violences of the workplace—not to mention the social and affective labor of participating in listening sessions and institutional climate discussions, teaching in university-based prison education programs, maintaining an accessible research profile on Twitter and blogs, and all kinds of other work that adds reputational value to institutions. We should also situate these new permutations of the professional in relation to the emergence of systems of flexible production that replace the mass production of homogenized commodities with a constantly shifting array of products and practices unified solely beneath the rubric of a brand identity. In other words, professionals reproduce themselves not strictly through the academic labor of teaching or through the production of quantifiable products but by protecting the reputation of their disciplines, departments, and universities.
The professional is not just a cheap trick or ruse of commodification. It entwines institutional reputations with individuals’ own means of reproduction, making it difficult to acknowledge and organize around workplace risk. This feature of the professional in some ways is a continuation of the separation between material conditions of reproduction and a Romantic community of scholars, as implied by Yale dean and English professor Amy Hungerford's description of a hunger strike as a “disagreement among members of a privileged community” and not a matter of material needs or power. As Sarah Brouillette described in the Los Angeles Review of Books blog, “Hungerford said that what the hunger strikers are really starving is not their own lucky bodies but ‘the commitment to principled disagreement in a community dedicated to education.’ ”25
But there is something new about this, too: what professionals of the present reproduce is their possible entry into the violence and risks of the workplace by maintaining the reputation of the profession as a nonviolent community. At the very moment that the academic job market ensures little to none of the former material benefits of becoming professional and that the conditions of academic labor look more like the superexploitation that has long characterized “nonacademic” labor at colleges and universities, professionalization practices ensure the securitization of university reputations by necessitating that academics act as if their profession is a safe and collegial space.26 Here the mixed model of sovereignty described by Newfield persists but in a newly intensified form. Whereas professionals were once incentivized to suffer the vertical management of administration to obtain their own sphere of disciplinary and expert autonomy, the potential professionals who today face increased chances of entering a surplus labor population and chronic underemployment are incentivized to manage the risks of the workplace and exploitation by reproducing the appearance of disciplines and institutions as sites of safety, consent, and collegiality.
Rather than simply a farcical or exhausted deployment of an anachronistic residue of an earlier era, the preservation of the professional can be more productively understood as part of what Armstrong calls the “universal equivalent” of reputation: “Reputation functions as a sort of universal equivalent, allowing seemingly unrelated crises, from the drying up of endowments to the death of students, to appear as commensurate: the fallout from each includes damage to the brand.”27 Under this universal equivalent also falls the real limits of reproduction faced by the surplus of un- and underemployed workers brought into the university in the quick blink of its expansion.28 Still personally and individually dependent on that mixed model of management or sovereignty described by Newfield, precaritized professionals also face a terrain in which the old horizontal and vertical axes of benefits and risks that once accompanied it has disappeared. In its place is only the vertical reality of exploitation that always made the horizontal possible—the more stark and precarious landscape of employment, gendered and racialized violence, and indebtedness that defines worker struggles in distinction from the professional class. As institutions do the work of managing their reputations by distributing risk across different revenue streams, graduate students enter a workplace defined by the limits of the profession we described above—of individuated power and labor differentiation—in which they are asked to manage the risks of their workplace by maintaining and reproducing the reputation of their institution.
For these reasons, the return of professionalization cannot be viewed simply as a pragmatic desire to retrain graduate students for a new economy, any more than worker retraining in any other sector is ever a pragmatic affair.29 But neither is it an empty repetition of a former academic moment. Rather, our sense is that the preservation of the professional as a figure—and the processes through which students are required to make themselves into that figure—is bound up with the crisis management of the university, a real uncertainty of its institutional reproduction, and its location within a larger crisis of social reproduction indicated by a debt-saturated workforce in which exposure to direct violence (of sexual harassment, etc.) appears less as a compromise on the way up a ladder and more as the requisite demands of simple reproduction.
What is the implication of this risk management model for professionalization and the contradiction we highlight above? First, that this new terrain of professionalization is oriented not toward upward mobility but toward the prevention of risk; second, that how graduate students decide to conduct themselves (including everything from time to degree to unionization drives) is part and parcel of the continual assessment of risk to university brands; and third, that the doubling down on professionalization is less about the maintenance of the relative autonomy that once characterized the professional and more about making individuals’ own risk management productive for university and disciplinary reputation.
In our analysis of the specter of the professional that haunts academic labor today, we have been arguing for a fundamental shift in the relationship between the reproduction of labor and that of its institutional contexts. The increasingly tenuous and heterogeneous composition of university budgets resulting from a move away from state funding and toward financialized assets not only has led to a need for greater risk and reputational management on an institutional level, but also has recomposed the work that graduate students and faculty do to maintain access to their means of reproduction on a collective level. Here it is intimacy and not autonomy that structures the relation between labor and management or administration, an intimacy defined entirely by workers’ exposure to risk that they are asked to reproduce by affirming institutional reputation. Indeed, we could perhaps say that this is what professionalization is today: the paradoxical entwinement of the means of reproduction with the reproduction of institutional reputation. The dark irony here, of course, is that given the increased deprofessionalization of academic labor, this means that those hoping to count themselves as academic professionals must reproduce themselves by reproducing the reputation of risk-saturated workplaces. Professionalization is no longer a process that disciplines academic laborers through the aspirations of autonomy from the institution but is, rather, an education in the simultaneity of their own means of reproduction and the reproduction of the university through workers’ disavowal of the precarity of their workplaces.
At stake in this shift is not simply a matter of prestige, the individual star power of faculty, or the relative autonomy of intellectual work as it was enabled by a Cold War, public-sphere model of the university. Rather, it indexes a crisis in social reproduction as it manifests in the forms of labor and commodities particular to higher education. The material conditions and infrastructures through which universities have become sites of accumulation rather than “production (of a national labor force or national culture)”30 mean that workers within these institutions are more dependent than ever on circulation for their own reproduction—and, in the case of professionalization, dependent on the circulation of institutional reputation as a speculative commodity.31 The specific cases of Ronell and Hungerford exemplify the extent to which this reproduction through circulation demands a continual disavowal of the risks to which workers are increasingly exposed because of such accumulation through circulation.
In other words, the examples of Ronell and Hungerford we have offered here are case studies not just in the rigor mortis of the professional but in the fits and starts of transformations in social reproduction as they appear in academic labor. They demonstrate that those workers on the lowest rung of the “differentiation system” that structures academic labor are differentiated by way of not autonomy and self-management but an exposure to the violence and precarity of workplace relations that they are also encouraged to believe can be obviated through the practices of professionalization.
Particular to the contradictions of this exposure today, then, is the extent to which the most visible option made available to precaritized workers in the academy for protecting themselves from various forms of risk, such as sexual harassment, debt, and unemployment, is to adopt the same reputational management strategies deployed by their employer. Insofar as the individual reputations of academic workers are intimately linked to those of the institutions in which they labor, this means that workers increasingly reproduce themselves through the labor of reproducing the appearance of risk-free work environments.
As we hope to have shown, however, the introjection of the university's reputational and risk management strategies carries real risks of its own. In wagering their reputation on that of their institutions, aspiring professionals are compelled to uphold the latter, even or especially when this comes at the cost of their own physical, emotional, and mental well-being. The Ronell-Reitman case is only the most glaring example of this pervasive pattern, in which the structural compulsions of professionalization produce the appearance of consent to one's own continued exploitation. This, then, is the perverse truth at the heart of the Ronell scandal: rather than exceptional, the case in fact reveals the quotidian violences adhering to contemporary practices of professionalization.
If the Ronell case reveals the true price of professionalization, then the only remaining recourse, it seems to us, is to become unprofessional. Unprofessional, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, is “below, contrary to or failing to meet the standards expected in a particular profession.”32 In particular, we are drawn to the idea of being contrary not only to professional codes as we have outlined them above but also to a status existing below or beneath that of professionalism. Recalling the historical emergence of professionalization as an always only provisional horizontalism constructed in and through its vertical differentiation from other subject positions—and particularly that of nonacademic university workers—the unprofessional would then be precisely the subject who rejects the premise of this partial autonomy, instead embracing a true horizontalism without hierarchization.
An obvious example of such a movement can be found in the recent, encouraging trend toward graduate student and contingent faculty unionization. At once rejecting the polite fiction of a “community of scholars” divorced from material conditions, the promised path of career advancement through individual brand management, and the putative distinction between lofty professional practices and mere work, the move toward unionization instead treats the risks of academic labor as a collective condition. The shock and horror evident in Amy Hungerford's response to Yale's striking graduate students shows what a blow this move makes to the very concept of the professional, separate from any success (or its lack) at the bargaining table. Replacing a putatively horizontal realm of reason, research, evidence, debate, and persuasion with the stark reality of hierarchical power relations, the move toward unionization enacts an immediate transformation in social relations, which we call that of the unprofessional.
Illustrating this shift is the centrality that pervasive racial and (especially) sexual harassment assumed in the unionization efforts of Duke graduate students, with which one of us was deeply involved. As the union drive began to create new networks among and between departments, it emerged that what many had considered an individual struggle was in fact a structural crisis, intimately linked to the unaccountable authority wielded by tenured faculty with the complicity of university administration (who, in line with the analysis outlined above, typically preferred to protect the reputation of the institution over that of individual students). What had previously been seen as isolated instances emerged as a shared condition, demanding a shared response. This transformation in social relations did not rely on the recognition of the university. While a goal of the union drive had of course been to win formal recognition, our efforts to combat harassment and discrimination persisted even after administration (with the aid of a union-busting law firm) defeated our attempts to secure collective bargaining. Instead, our harassment and discrimination working group created a training program through which union representatives learned how to recognize harassment and discrimination, provide information about on- and off-campus resources, and support survivors of harassment, discrimination, and sexual violence through the byzantine (and broken) institutional mechanisms ostensibly intended to adjudicate it.
Relatedly, recent transformations to higher education and the degree to which financial risk management has become an important strategy for universities to remain solvent suggests that, for the university (and here, UVA in particular) to reproduce itself, it must imperil the social reproduction of the communities that surround it.33 That is to say, when it comes to housing, UVA's ability to buy land cheaply and easily depends on its geographic proximity to (a) UVA's historic relationship to settler colonialism as evidenced by the Meriwether Clark “Conqueror of the West” monument on campus, which led way to (b) lands traditionally owned and occupied by working-class Black populations, (c) who will not be able to withstand the rising real estate taxes that follow when luxury student buildings are erected in their neighborhoods, driving up rent and cost of living, and (d) who are therefore vulnerable to being “bought out” by UVA or one of its related foundations. And, indeed, each of these conditions has come to pass. Here, we see the private market working in tandem with the public university in the guise of developers building student apartments within the community (which caters to the desires of well-heeled co-eds) to house an expanding student population too large to live on campus. To date, there are no public plans to build student housing on campus.34
The contrast here is striking: a wealthy public institution, ostensibly bound to “serv[e] the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world,”35 located within a community faced with an affordable housing crisis, high poverty rates, and one of the largest income gaps in the nation according to the Economic Policy Institute.36
In the terms of our argument, then, the expansion of UVA's professional aims (and, in particular, its professional programs, such as the medical school and hospital and a new data science institute) is purchased by offshoring the risk of displacement and precarity to the surrounding community. In geographic terms, that community in Charlottesville happens to be low-wealth people of color who find themselves pushed out, literally and metaphorically, by the larger footprint UVA now occupies in their erstwhile neighborhoods.
Though some groups within UVA have proposed professional solutions to this stand-off, such as the recently founded Equity Institute, others have taken a different approach that veers away from public-facing partnerships with the university. Instead, these “unprofessional” activities have looked internally to see how risk and a crisis of reproduction, and the ideals of professionalization, have made communities artificially distant from each other.
For instance, a small group of contingent faculty have allied with public housing and extremely low-income residents in Charlottesville and antiracist organizing before and in the wake of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. As one of their projects, this group has been establishing a community research review board run by public and section 8 housing residents that will serve as an initial clearinghouse for proposals to conduct research in public or section 8 housing or with its residents. The project already has some enforcement power: it has obtained a preliminary agreement from the UVA institutional review board to reject any research proposal they receive that deals with public or low-income housing if it has not gotten approval from the community research review board first. Alongside this project, some of these same faculty have drawn on humanistic research skills to contribute to a forthcoming report that traces the history of housing segregation in Charlottesville from the early twentieth century until today, documents the affective experience of displacement and gentrification in the words of low-income residents, and provides comprehensive solutions to escalating housing costs. In doing so, the report will make the case that Charlottesville's stratified housing market is the legacy of slavery and structural white supremacy and that UVA is, and has always been, a crucial part of this system. As such, affordable housing initiatives are a form of racial reparations.37
In addition to the political import of partnerships that seek to shift the locus of power away from administrators and highly remunerated researchers, such partnerships also produce new activities: meetings in public housing computer labs, apartments, and community centers; training for public housing and section 8 residents in institutional review board protocols; community-driven research projects; and decentered archives and archival practices.38
These kinds of collaborations and conspirations (with public housing and extremely low-income residents, between graduate students and contingent faculty) produce a number of important outcomes regarding professionalism. First, in conducting research with those typically seen as objects of research, these practices offset the kinds of distinctions Newfield argues characterize the birth and maintenance of the category of the professional. It would be naive to suggest that the structures of race and class can fall away so easily. Nonetheless, in making unprofessional alliances, the university ceases to have a monopoly on the production of knowledge, the authoritativeness of knowledge, the ownership of knowledge, or the archiving of knowledge. Such a move, therefore, draws resources—intellectual and otherwise—outside of the university to become part of a different community (and, indeed, in some cases to be community building). In other words, behaving unprofessionally restricts the ability for the university to reproduce itself by devoting those resources toward community reproduction.
To us, these seem like good reasons to be unprofessional.
Newfield, Ivy and Industry, 79–88. In contrast, George Yúdice argues that the centrality of academic freedom and autonomy flowed from science departments and their research funding into the humanities, where faculty were organizationally more likely to participate in structures like shared governance. Here he quotes Richard Lewontin: “Increases in the collective power of faculty governance that have resulted from the financial power of individual recipients of research money have . . . gone disproportionately to humanists and social scientists because of the social organization of scientific work” (“Privatization of Culture,” 23).
Thanks to Julietta Singh and Nathan Snaza for noting the resonance between the role of professionalization in higher education we describe and professionalization discourses in the 1970s and 1980s in secondary education. In that period, discourses of professionalization similarly registered and attempted to resolve a crisis that was properly political, in that it concerned resources and privatization rather than standards. See, e.g., Gottleib and Cornbleth, “Professionalization of Tomorrow's Teachers.”
The report stated that “tuition revenue continues to be the major source of revenue for most colleges and universities. And while that is not expected to change, net tuition revenue growth is becoming less certain” (S&P Global Rankings, “U.S. Not-For-Profit Higher Education 2017 Sector Outlook”).
Nemser and Whitener draw the conclusion from the Senate report “that things have changed in a crucial way: We have hit a tuition limit” (“Tuition Limit”).
This turn to the stability of university brands provides one way to understand the proliferation of safety and security programs and the intensification of diversity initiatives across campuses. In the wake of a hegemony that has formed between right-wing legislators and liberal news outlets on the moral and economic failures of higher education, and in need of new revenue streams to supplement tuition, universities paradoxically representing themselves as safe spaces in which students will be prepared to enter the labor market is becoming the new normal. We have written briefly about this phenomenon in Carpenter, Goldblatt, and Hanson, “The University Must Be Defended!”
Thanks to Nathan Snaza for pointing us to Saltman, Swindle of Innovative Educational Finance. Saltman argues that institutions of higher education have now developed new financialization schemes with futures markets based on students’ future earnings. Within this system, student earnings serve as future anterior collateral, bundled among all graduates from a school. In effect, this means that an individual student's future earnings become tied (through financialization) to the entire university brand.
For Anna Tsing, superexploitation essentially designates racial and gendered skill sets or knowledges that increase productivity outside the normative Marxian framework of the working day or technology: “ ‘Super-exploitation’ [is] exploitation that depends on so-called noneconomic factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexuality, age, and citizenship status. . . . The use of these so-called noneconomic factors to determine the rate of exploitation would be one conceivable use of the term” (“Supply Chains and the Human Condition,” 158). Such superexploitation is one way to think about the divisions within university labor, especially as those divisions between academic and nonacademic labor (i.e., between faculty and staff and service workers) were expanded and intensified along intensely raced and gendered lines throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
The MLA's 2006–7 survey of graduate student doctoral placement found that roughly half of respondents had secured employment for the coming year. Of that half with employment, 49 percent in English and 41 percent in foreign languages found a job on the tenure track and roughly 34 percent in English and 35 percent in foreign languages jobs were non-tenure-track or postdoctoral positions (Modern Language Association, “MLA Survey of Placement of 2006–07 Graduates”). The survey showed that for the broader category of letters, which includes doctoral recipients beyond English and American language and literature, roughly 53 percent reported having definite employment, and in foreign languages 57 percent had employment. (Tenure track vs. non–tenure track were not differentiated in this report.)
In addition to attempts to retrain humanities PhDs for nonacademic work, professionalization efforts have also recently shifted toward training PhDs more intensively in pedagogy to increase their chances of employment in community colleges. But such retraining neglects the fact that in recent history this teaching labor has been met by individuals with MA degrees. As David Laurence wrote, “A doctorate is the highest degree held by only 30% of the full- and part-time faculty members teaching off the tenure track in a four-year institution and by a small percentage of all faculty members teaching in a two-year college, whether on or off the tenure track. . . . Most hold a master's degree. The pattern is even more pronounced in the humanities where . . . well over 90% of tenured and tenure-track faculty members teaching in a four-year institution hold a doctorate, compared with just over 30% of humanities faculty members teaching full- or part-time off the tenure track” (“Our PhD Employment Problem”). This shift in training and employment will likely mean the displacement of an existing mode of employment for those without PhDs and risk further inflating the demand for degrees.
In Jasper Bernes's words, this means that workplace relations are structured by the more general crisis of social reproduction in which “the working class confront[s] capital as circulation or reproduction, as storefront and trade union office, prison and university, as riot cop and shopping mall.” Quoted in McClanahan, Dead Pledges, 186.
Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “unprofessional,” www.oed.com/view/Entry/216572 (accessed May 29, 2019).
According to research conducted by Walt Heinecke, UVA, an elite public institution, boasts the only UNESCO World Heritage Site on a US university, a $9.5 billion endowment, and over $1 billion in property holdings in the city of Charlottesville (on which it pays no taxes—and for the record, most of the university owns the bulk of its real estate in Albemarle County, technically outside of city jurisdiction). For the privilege of using publically maintained roads, sewage, bus services, and a host of other amenities, UVA pays Charlottesville a mere $42,321, approximately 0.39 percent of what its tax burden would be if they were not a nonprofit institution. Heinecke, presentation.
In various advertising brochures and web pages, authors often compare UVA to its peer institutions—frequently to those peer institutions’ detriment. This index of excellence, though, does not apparently apply to its relationship to its neighbors and particularly the extent to which it drives displacement and gentrification in the Charlottesville area. Since 2012, housing costs (concentrated in the “urban ring” around the university) have risen by an average of 5 percent per year (US Department of Housing and Urban Development, “Comprehensive Housing Market Analysis”), and a recent affordable housing survey conducted by the city of Charlottesville estimates 3,300 people with unmet housing needs in the city alone (Charlottesville Neighborhood Development Services, “Affordable Housing Report”). The area's low wages only compound the lack of housing options for those at the bottom end of the income scale, with over one-fifth of city residents living at or below the federal poverty line according to the 2018 census (US Census Bureau, “Quick Facts”).
We see this process as in keeping with Fred Moten and Stefano Harney's imperative to “steal” from the university in Undercommons.
Unprofessional activities also lead to new humanistic questions. How does gossip work among undocumented communities? How does the organization of the domestic space signal our allegiances and disallegiances? What power structures are encoded in the routes through low-income communities, and how do residents navigate them to find their own power? How do hourly workers at UVA think about time passing when they are at work, and how does that passage of time compare to their other activities?