In the last six years independent artists and writers across North America have witnessed the term crowdfunding go from annoying neologism to compelling proposition. In the United States, where artists of all sorts have long been over reliant on private forms of support, the ability to scale potential support has been truly revolutionary. For many musicians and artists, those institutions such as labels, grant providers and publishers that were willing to make long-term investments in an artist’s career have rapidly dwindled throughout the 21st century. Following the systematic disinvestment in human capital that began in the 1980s as states and other government actors cut taxes that funded schools and research institutions, other forms of capital such as labels and publishers have begun to place the risk of development squarely on the backs of artists. The resulting crisis has manifested in a kind of newspeak where independence translates into a belief that artists no longer need to rely on the support of any institution other than their Facebook/Kickstarter/Twitter/Wordpress enabled networks. It will be their efforts, combined with multiple IPO-enabled organizations, that allow pioneering independents to claim the fruits of the private sector. Furthermore, we should never forget that as innovative as an artist-entrepreneur may be she is ultimately the tip of capital’s spear, a weapon searching for those elusive white whales of disruptive return.
Before I go any further, allow me to accept that crowdsourcing may, indeed, provide a better, more sustainable path for many artists to help pay their bills. I am happy to grant that. However, it’s not clear that it allows musicians to save for old age and pay for health care. Perhaps someone will come up with a crowdfunded 401K for independent writers, but I haven’t seen it yet. It’s with this in mind that academics should be wary of such a gift.
It is also why I have so little patience with anyone quick to celebrate the so-called “crowdfunded professor” that was profiled in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. The tenured philosophy professor, Kevin DeLaplante, left his secure position to create his own online institution, the Critical Thinker Academy. Dr. DeLaplante has decided to use Patreon to grow a paid subscriber base to provide a significant income stream and kudos to him for taking that initiative. But most telling is that Dr. DeLaplante and his family moved back to his Canadian hometown of Ottawa. It makes sense that someone who quits their job would return home in search of the support of family and friends. However, I would also imagine that Dr. DeLaplante also eyed the support of his nation’s single-payer healthcare. It’s one thing to give up a job, but quite another to give up health insurance that covers your family.
Of course, forgoing any job and taking a new track is always a risky matter. For that I applaud Dr. DeLaplante, who stands out among change-abhorrent academics, many of whom are by nature conservative creatures. Academics specialize in defending standards and institutional practices, many of which are easy to lampoon and to the outside eye may appear wasteful, unsustainable, and ripe for disruption. Tenure, grant writing, and niche projects are easy to mock. Yet, as almost every American professor will tell you, these institutionalized practices are ostensibly there to support and protect the unpopular, the unmarketable and the marginal from the same market whims that drive fads and fashion. In this sense, the project of a great university is to act as an institution that essentially absorbs risk so that research and studies can be exercised without regard to market demands. As such, students at every great university are required to study unpopular subjects such as ancient art, world literature, rhetoric, and history precisely because wisdom cannot be effectively commoditized.
Every single university at which I have spoken and worked at operates with the belief that eliminating general education requirements and researchers from a four-year degree is risk not worth placing on the student. This is the particular genius of institutionalized risk deferral that has engaged my life and the life of many of my peers who spend time in universities researching and asking questions that short-term market logic ignores. The questions we often investigate often find no standing in the marketplace at the moment we ask them. It is only in the future that a professor who studies calligraphy can find her influence in the ambitions of Steve Jobs’ Macintosh. It was only in his future that Darwin’s past exposure to Malthus’s theories on population could become a primary influence on developing his theory of evolution. And just like Jobs and Darwin, it is only in the future that a Middle Eastern history class may influence the marketing decisions of a yet-to-be CEO. The problem is that the future is unknown. The solution, according to great universities, is to equip the student with preparations that they may or may never use by both requiring and funding the exploration of the unknown. I would argue that the unknown has always been bad at finding a market, no matter how well you can use social media.
I know that to some I may come off as some sort of conservative curmudgeon whose gut reaction to preserve past institutional investments in philosophy departments and temper any enthusiasm for a crowdfunded philosopher. However, I am in my mid forties and have been hearing the cry to disrupt the so-called “unsustainable”for well over four decades of my life. Yet we must recognize that just like Social Security and Medicare are institutions devoted the spread risk across our body politic, the benefits of a great university cannot be simply replicated by a number of individual entrepreneurs seeking their position in the marketplace. First, great universities do not operate like businesses in search of quarterly returns. Great universities are sustained by collective action and compromise devoted to growing community, not profits. Second, even if academics could gin up the proper social networks and web presence necessary to thrive as crowdfunded scholars, these items and their attendant agenda take time away from archives, deep reading, labs, translations and one-on-one sessions with students. Constant social media engagement is a labor unto itself and there is only so much time in the day.
Let me also acknowledge that academia fails. It fails all the time. Great universities are littered with failure. Talk to any one who has spent a week working at a large university and they will have at least one story about a long-term investment everyone wishes they could take back. A bad tenure decision here, a collection of underused materials there, a monorail that doesn't work, etc. However, these failures are the cost of community. Communities consist of those who succeed, hit bumps in the road and those who simply find disappointment. Living with flops and working around bad decisions is the cost of a stable, geographically specific community of intellectual discourse and debate. And for every bad decision we should never overlook that they are often the keys to intellectual and practical breakthrough. Academic success and breakthroughs often result from the multiple intellectual dead ends and breakdowns that universities demand. We might tell ourselves that these achievements could have been crowdfunded into reality and that may be the case. Perhaps.
However, I am not willing to give up my university position that allows me to risk taking oddball investigations to do so. I like being part of community. Again, as much as they generate knowledge great universities generate community, which is something I haven’t been able to replicate on Facebook no matter how much I try. But secondly, I often wonder what would happen if I took a similar risk as the crowdfunded professor and succeeded? What would happen if others and I succeeded to get their salary and benefits crowdfunded to research even their most obscure projects in the humanities and social sciences? I wonder what such successes would mean today in an atmosphere of reactionary regents and legislatures. Would these governing actors, many who would like to do nothing more than to shift the risk of research out of the university context and onto the back of the individual, forcing scholars to re-conceive themselves as academic entrepreneurs? My suspicion is that some of these legislators and regents would not hesitate to do so. Just like privatizing Social Security and Medicare, acts that would effectively deconstruct these institutions of collective risk deferral, it may be on their agenda and I have reason not to take that risk to find out.