The “corporatization” of the academy is often cited as a cause of the “de-professionalization” of the professoriate, and that in turn is cited as a cause of the faculty’s current disempowerment. The specifically modern conception of professionalism presupposed by these arguments occludes the deep implication of the academy in the generation and legitimation of specific configurations of power. This essay begins, accordingly, by elaborating this early conception of professionalism and showing how it informs twentieth century arguments on behalf of tenure, academic freedom, and the participation of faculty in institutional governance. The explicitly political reading of professionalism I offer as an alternative better explains how the academic workforce in recent decades has been thoroughly reconfigured in accordance with neoliberal imperatives. The downside of this reading, however, is that it deprives us of the justification for tenure, academic freedom, and shared governance that rested on an apolitical representation of the professoriate. I close, therefore, by asking what we stand to lose if we relinquish this ideal, but I then ask what costs we are likely to incur if we cling to a notion that compromises our ability to grasp the faculty’s current situation.
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