Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake—Part One: The Big Picture

Christopher Newfield’s sobering new book, The Great Mistake (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), is subtitled: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them.  Most of the book is devoted to the wrecking part—and it is a grim tale indeed.  I think of myself as more conversant than the average faculty member with the realities of university finances and the world-view of university administrators.  So, for example, I was aware before Newfield began bringing this fact to more general notice (in his work prior to this new book) that funded research is a money-loser for big universities.  Just as athletics drains money (in almost all cases) away from the instructional budget, so large grants for research (whether funded by the feds or by private foundations or businesses) do not cover the costs of doing that research.  Instructional funds (whether secured by tuition or by state operational appropriations ) subsidize the research being done in the “big” science fields of engineering, the natural sciences, and the health sciences.

But, despite my being fairly knowledgeable about such things, every page of Newfield’s book taught me something new—and, again and again, showed me that what I believed to be the case was quite simply wrong.  Anyone who wants to understand how American higher education is organized and funded needs to read this book.  It, of course, has more to say about public universities, but has plenty of information to offer about private research universities as well.

I will get into the details in subsequent posts, because the details are important.  But in this post and the next one I am going to talk about two big picture items.  First up, is the inability in the current climate to make a compelling case for public goods.  Next up (next post) is the decoupling of productivity gains from wage increases over the past forty years.  Both items are, arguably, hallmark features of that vague monster called “neo-liberalism.”  Whether labeling them in that way is at all helpful is a moot point.  But it is important to recognize these two facts of the world we currently occupy.

SO: public goods.  Newfield offers what he admits is a crude definition of a public good, a definition more geared toward provocation, for getting us thinking, than to nailing down the term once and for all.  That definition is a public good is a good whose “value increases as access becomes universal” (65).  The basic idea is that rendering access to such a good scarce (or even just differential) through market processes undermines the good effects the good can achieve.  An obvious example is clean air.  If you allow pockets of pollution, there is really no way to segregate them so successfully that at least some people will not feel the effects of a somewhat polluted atmosphere.  Since society’s economic productivity increases as more people have access to higher education, and since there are other demonstrable effects of higher education (including better health, less criminal behavior, better education and cognitive development of one’s children, increased longevity, and better control over family size, consumption and savings [69]), the return on investment in higher education is pretty direct if measured economically (lower prison and health care costs for society etc.) and also substantial if we turn to a non-economic measure like “well-being” or the Nussbaum—Sen set of “capabilities.”  General social welfare, in other words, increases as access (and ability to complete) higher education increases.

But, in fact, access to higher education in the United States has stagnated over the past thirty years.  The US used to be the world’s leader in number of college graduates as a proportion of its entire population.  “The United States is now nineteenth of twenty-three countries (the rich countries of Europe and Asia) in the proportion of entering university students who successfully graduate.  . . . [T]wenty-four year olds in the lowest quartile of income have college graduation rates of 10.4 percent, or about one-seventh that of students in the top quartile” (19).

There  are multiple causes for this decline, but Newfield makes it abundantly clear that under-investment in public education (both at the K-12 level and at the university level) is a major factor.  As a society, we have simply lost the will to invest in the commons, in the infrastructure on which all depend for certain shared goods.  We know this is a fact about our roads and bridges, about our dangerously antique electrical grid—and it is also true of our public colleges and universities.  We do not, in the United States, spend nearly as much (as a percentage of GDP) on infrastructure as we did in the 1950s and 1960s.  Quite simply, today’s politicians will not approve the appropriations necessary to maintain, no less upgrade, our current infrastructure.

Why this failure?  1.  Simple short-sightedness.  An inability to invest today to secure benefits that are not short-term and may, in some cases, be hard to measure.  To answer why we have, as a society, become less capable of long-range investment would lead us into questions of confidence, of solidarity, and of equity.  All important questions, but I am not going to linger there.

  1. Privatization. Newfield focuses on this cause—and I am not going to be able to do justice to his sophisticated handling of the topic. Just read the book.  He is very shrewd and completely convincing about the way that prisons, roads, and (yes) our universities have been semi-privatized in ways that let private businesses extract profits from government contracts that also place almost all the risks on the government (state or federal) that pays the bills.  He also proves, through a careful and thorough look at the budgetary books, that “privatization,” which is supposed to bring “market discipline” to universities and thus improve their efficiency and their bottom lines, inevitably increases costs.  That’s because the private contractors milk the university’s resources; those contractors are not more efficient than government workers.  There are some exceptions, and thus outsourcing on a case by case basis is worth examining, but blanket assertions that “the market can do it better” are worthless—and positively destructive in many cases.  In sum: an ideology that says “private enterprise” can always do the job better and at less cost than the public sector has done palpable harm to public education without delivering its promised benefits.  The disaster of the for-profit universities (which feasted on federal funds supplied to lower income students) is a notable case in point.

  2. The great risk shift. The term comes from Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, whose wonderful work on contemporary trends in American society and politics, is cited by Newfield.  Part of privatization is to take costs that were once “socialized,” were distributed across the whole population, and to shift those costs onto the individual.  Once we lose the idea that higher education is a public good, one whose benefits redound to everyone, then it is a short step to saying the good of an education is the benefit it provides to the student.  So why should I pay for the student to get that benefit?  If we define education as an exchange similar to the market exchange in which I buy a pair of shoes, then the logic of a public subsidy for that good is lost.  The student must take the gamble that going into debt to get a degree is going to pay off.  Society as a whole refuses to take the gamble that providing a good education to as many as possible will produce wide-spread social benefits.

  3. Structures of feeling and common sense. Brush up on your Raymond Williams and your Antonio Gramsci.  What seems most discouraging about the current mess is that the “logic” of privatization has become such a generally accepted “taken for granted.”  Here’s a health care example: I am unmarried, or a 50 year old.  I am not going to have a child.  So why should I pay increased health care premiums so that health care covers pregnancies?  The prevailing idea is that I should only pay for what I get.  In North Carolina, that has led our Board of Governors to declare that money from tuition increases cannot be devoted to financial aid.  Why should middle and upper-class students subsidize the costs of lower-class students?  Why should they be “taxed” (as the issue was framed in the public debate before the vote) to pay someone else’s tuition?

I am particularly interested in this last point for this reason.  I am part of a reading group that meets yearly to discuss works in political theory.  Our group ranges in age from 35 to 65—and spends, as you might imagine, lots of time agonizing over the current political climate in the US.  I have phrased to this group my sense of things, which is: the right wing has devoted a vast amount of time, energy, and money to discrediting the basic features of the post World War II social democratic framework.  That social democracy was hardly perfect, but it delivered the most widespread economic prosperity history has ever witnessed.  It created a truly mass middle class. And it created that middle class, in part, by creating a robust public higher education system, which greatly expanded access to college.  We are in the process of dismantling that success.  We know the kinds of things that work—social security, government assurance that labor has some power in its bargaining with capital, mass free education, universal health care.  The left should makes its priority the protection and expansion of  those successful programs.  We do not need to reinvent the wheel—and if we get disillusioned with social democracy we have let the right-wing’s relentless propaganda attacks upon it win.

This argument leaves my younger colleagues cold.  It does not resonate with them at all.  The find social democracy completely unappealing—as a rallying cry or as the place they want to make their political stand.  (Maybe Bernie Sanders’s campaign will have moved the needle a bit.  I will have to see when we next get together.)  Social democracy is just not where their affections (in the most literal sense of that term) lie.  Their investments are, in fact, scattered about—and say a lot about the left’s current disorganization.  The shift in “common sense” or “sensibility” is a shift in what matters to people, in what they feel passionate about.  And I think it correct to say, as Newfield does, that there has been a “loss of collective understanding of collective capability.  That is the loss of a feeling for it, of a sense of attachment to it, or commitment, or a right to it—the loss of a common feeling that a complete education to the highest level is a part of who we are” (308).  Public goods, and the public programs to supply those goods, do not command widespread allegiance today—even, I am saying, among the younger leftists that I know. Recapturing that commitment will be essential.  Otherwise, public education will continue being hounded to starvation, a way station on its progresss toward death.

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