University Reds

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Review of 'Taking Back the Academy', editors Jim Downs and Jennifer Manion, Routledge £18.99

The university is a contradictory institution. On the one hand it is an institution of class society, providing capitalism with workers educated to fulfil specific roles in the economy. On the other hand it has to provide a degree of critical thinking about the society in which we live in order to retain any credibility. It groups young people together in large numbers, often independent for the first time in their lives. Both students and radical academics have played an important role in the anti-war and social forum movements.

All this makes Taking Back the Academy timely and interesting. It combines a historical look at student participation in movements alongside a look at contemporary campaigns, as well as strategies for activists in academia. As the editors put it, 'We want to ensure that university campuses remain hotbeds for intellectual inquiry and political dissent.' The question is sharply posed in the US, where right wing academics such as Ann Coulter and Lynne Cheney have recently gone on the offensive against the left. Coulter's recent book was entitled Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terror.

The book is made up of numerous contributions from student and teacher activists. Eileen Eagan gives a useful account of the history of student participation in movements. The 1960s were the decade when student revolt became a serious political phenomenon, but small signs of resistance were present before then. Students in 19th century Russia played an important role in the early revolutionary movements and striking coal miners in Kentucky in the 1930s received support from delegations of students. Eagan also reveals the startling fact that the massacre of hundreds of student activists in Mexico City in 1968 was only officially recognised by the Mexican government in 2000.

One of the themes of the book is the need for activists in academia to seriously analyse and understand changes going on in their own institution. In her article Kimberly Phillips-Fein looks at how postgraduate teaching posts have become increasingly precarious. Like most public institutions the university has not escaped the effects of neo-liberalism. Remarkably for a supposedly 'liberal' institution such as a university, attempts to unionise postgraduate teaching staff have been vigorously resisted by some US universities. Phillips-Fein argues that in this respect the spread of corporate ideology into the institution of the university could not be clearer: 'The strategies that Columbia [university] has used to fight the union have been borrowed from corporate America.'

One of the most interesting parts of Phillips-Fein's article is when she argues that campaigns that resist the neo-liberal restructuring of academia actually have an impact on conceptions of teaching and learning. The neo-liberal vision of academia is of isolated individuals who research and study in competition with each other in order to gain prestige and funding. By contrast the collectivist impetus behind unionisation campaigns can help make the university more of a social and cooperative place, where learning and studying can be a collective process.

Despite its many illuminating and useful moments, the book does have weaknesses. Its specialist appeal means that those outside of academia will find little of interest. It is very US-centred and I also found that it wasn't clear enough about how activists in academia should relate to wider society.