Category: Christopher Newfield

The Right-Wing Attack on the Universities

Chris Newfield has a response (lifted from Facebook) to my previous post.  Here it is (in quotes) followed by my reactions to his comments:

“I’m reposting this because I meant to comment on this before. Thank you John McGowan for raising so pointedly both the Right’s systematic attacks on public universities and the question of their end game. To amplify what you’ve written, I think there are two big things going on.

One is a struggle for political control: 40 years of culture wars has convinced the Right that universities are a block arrayed against them, and with few exceptions it favors their political enemies. The university seems to them to have powers of deep cultural change and not just of truth-claims that generate policy and lawsuits, though those are also a major threat.

The second thing is their real economic plan, one that I detail in Stage 8 of the book. That is to cut capitalism’s dependence on knowledge and knowledge workers–to move it “past the knowledge economy,” though no one ever uses that phrase. This involves reducing brain workers’ independence from management, shrinking the middle class, particularly its politically troublesome “liberal professions” (in the French sense), freeing employers of any obligations to their direct employees (health care, pensions, shared governance through unions or employee representatives), and dumping any and all social costs. In the Right’s traditionalist capitalism, poor people have existed to provide fungible and hence precarious labor on demand, not to get better educations than their parents had; everyone should be fireable at will, etc.

The Right’s model makes cultural and economic sense in US history: it remarries corporate ownership to patriarchy, affirms de facto white supremacy, helps restore an earlier dependence of women on men, to name just a few cultural features. And it makes economic sense in the context of the American extractive economy–which requires mass quantities of cheap docile labor via slavery, then Jim Crow and immigration without rights– that is historically the bedrock of American wealth, and still is in most “red state” sectors of the country (e.g. NC’s hog and poultry agribusiness).

In short, the right’s “endgame” is the restoration of plantation capitalism. It will have new forms, but the key economic strategy is the prevention of knowledge workers from keeping the value of their productivity gains, which requires they be marginalized politically. The Great Mistake also discusses the various ways university administrators have played into the Right’s hands on economic as well as policy matters. At the same time, I’m fairly sure that if more regular voters understood what the weakening of universities will do both to their salaries and their status in society, these NC-style attacks would lose most of their (already mostly passive) support. I think the national politics are more fluid than they appear.”

I agree with Chris that red states (especially) are pursuing a strategy that undercuts the “knowledge-based economy” in pursuit of a nostalgic vision of “manufacturing” that fits the “extractive model.”  But I am more convinced than I am sure he is that such a strategy is hopeless.  The Alabamas of our union are condemning themselves to comparative poverty—and the agony here in North Carolina is watching a state that has attracted a fair share of the knowledge based economy to these parts work to dismantle it and become Alabama instead of Massachusetts.  In other words, I don’t see where the right can win if it is playing the game that Chris describes—and I think much (hardly all) of the business elite understand that fact.

That said, it is worth saying a few further things.  One, North Carolina’s prosperity is largely based now on the Research Triangle Park (RTP), which was built as a private—public partnership between businesses, state government, and the three research universities: Duke, UNC, and NC State, starting in the late 1950s.  That kind of public investment—as opposed to the kind of negative investment of tax credits epitomized by the new FoxComm deal in Wisconsin—is pretty close to unthinkable today.  The difference is that the positive investment of public dollars gave the public a place at the table in the planning of the RTP, with largely positive results.  It was also based on a fifty year plan that proved to be fairly accurate about the challenges facing North Carolina (decline of textile, tobacco, and furniture industries) and pretty accurate about what could replace those lost economic drivers.  There’s a decent case to be made that the original fifty year plan is now outdated and that the RTP needs a serious reboot and rethink at the moment.  Not surprisingly, the ability to forge the kind of partnership that got things rolling in 1957 appears totally lost.  But there is also no coherent vision of what the next fifty years will see us requiring.

There is no denying that North Carolina’s prosperity is very, very unevenly distributed.  This is not just about income and wealth inequality, which still does not reach Northeast levels (New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts) in this state, but is nonetheless real.  It is also about geographic distribution.  The eastern and western parts of the state are far poorer than the prosperous Piedmont in the middle.  Given the structure of American political districting, which gives disproportionate power to rural over urban voters, the legislature is skewed toward those who are not beneficiaries of the knowledge economy—and who, in many cases, view that economy as their cultural and economic enemy.

If nothing else, the left should be pushing for a realistic “living wage” for all workers and for basic job security and health/retirement benefits.  I don’t see any realistic alternatives to a market economy.  That’s where I am liberal.  But I do think there should be strong state intervention in/regulation of that economy.  On the intervention side, some measures should address market forces directly (like a high minimum wage) while other measures—primarily progressive tax rates—should mitigate the market’s tendency to produce extremely unequal outcomes.  That’s where I am a social democrat.

And, as my last few posts have suggested, I believe the tax revenues should be devoted in part to investment in infrastructure.  I take universities—and the creation of an educated citizenry—as part of that infrastructure.  Even if the right wing refuses such investments—and, in fact, as Chris suggests, desires a return to “plantation capitalism”—I don’t see how such a strategy can be anything but self-defeating.  The knowledge economy will leave the Alabamas in the dust.

Note that all of this says nothing about “finance capitalism.”  New York (and the way wealth is generated there) is not California (Silicon Valley).  The relation of finance capital to education is very complex—as is suggested by today’s Kevin Drum piece about the way that membership in a fraternity increased lifetime earnings by a whopping 36%.  That wouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone in the development office at UNC.  All the Wall Street guys were frat boys back in the day.  And the measures needed to regulate/intervene in finance capital (starting with a transaction tax, a meaningful increase in capital gains tax, and strict rules about computer trading) are different than those called for when dealing with Google, Apple, and Facebook.

Finally, I agree with Chris that the political situation in this country is more fluid than might appear.  One of the left’s biggest problems has been its inability to overcome the “passivity” of which Chris speaks.  I was astounded—and still am—by how quietly the unemployed took their fate in the wake of 2008.  They crawled into a corner, ashamed, and licked their wounds, as if it were a personal flaw that led to their being laid off.  I don’t understand that.  There’s an enthusiasm gap, at least when it comes to electoral politics, that is fatal in the low turnout on the left for mid-term and local elections.  Counting on 75 year old Bernie to solve that problem is a formula for disaster.  We need some you, fire-breathing, and inspirational leaders.  I think there are plenty of people out there who could be inspired by such a visionary.

Destroying Public Education


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.

Newfield’s The Great Mistake: The Big Picture (2)

Newfield’s The Great Mistake: The Big Picture (2)

The second “macro” setting for the disinvestment in public education that Newfield highlights is the disconnect (since 1970) between rises in productivity and rises in wages.  Since economic growth is driven primarily by two factors–increasing population and increasing productivity–the economy’s health is dependent on making workers more productive.  At least in the years from 1940 to 1970, when workers became more productive, their additional contributions to the economic well-being were registered fairly directly in higher wages.  And those higher wages tracked very closely with higher household incomes.

Continue reading “Newfield’s The Great Mistake: The Big Picture (2)”

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.