Chris Newfield’s The Great Mistake (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016) is a passionate denunciation of the failure to preserve (over the past 20 years) the incredible system of public higher education created in this country between 1945 and 1970. He places much of the blame on the acquiescence of top-level college administrators in the steady, slow drip of year and after year reductions in state subsidies. Death by a million cuts–without any strong push-back or effort to forge a constituency that would lobby against the cuts. As with our decaying bridges and power grid, we have witnessed a persistent refusal of our society to invest in the upkeep and growth of basic infrastructure.
In North Carolina at the current moment, the animus against public higher education is not a matter of simple neglect or short-sighted stinginess. There is an active push to dismantle the state system, an attack that ranges from undercutting student aid packages for less well-off students to interfering with core curricular programs to shutting down research institutes and centers. None of this has the slightest economic rationale, since the universities are demonstrably the economic drivers in a state that has managed the transition away from its traditional industries—tobacco, textile, and furniture—to the “new” economy reasonably well. (Poverty in the state is still a severe problem, but located precisely in the eastern and western regions that are furthest away from the universities.) No, despite all their talk of economic rationales, the Republicans in the state legislature simply hate the universities, especially Chapel Hill, for everything that we stand for: the “liberal” values of free thought and diversity.
In one conversation this week, a fellow faculty member who (because of fund-raising responsibilities and by virtue of his academic discipline) interacts often with these powerful—and hostile—critics of the university, said that he can never figure out “their end game.” After they cripple the university, what is the utopia they imagine? What good will they have achieved? They seem to be set on destruction for destruction’s sake.
I mentioned this conversation to another academic later in the week—and he offered a theory. Your mileage may vary. But I found his thoughts intriguing and, at least, semi-plausible. Education is a billion dollar “industry” that remains frustratingly outside of normal profit-taking business. Destroy public education and you create a whole new market for capitalism. Think of it as equivalent to health-care. We know that providing health care is a public good and a human necessity. But keeping the provision of health care private means large profits for insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, and various other players. Now think about an education sector structured in similar ways. Education is also a public good and a human necessity. Piles of money to be made if it is privatized.
None of this requires a conspiracy theory. Just the knee-jerk hostility to everything that is public among our free-market ideologues and the determined effort to erode all publicly provided services and goods. Outsource it all—so that someone somewhere makes a profit, even as working conditions for those in the trenches get steadily worse and the actual beneficiary of services is left to fend for himself or herself. A scary and depressing thought, precisely because it is a future too easy to imagine.