Category: Public Higher Education

Church vs. State

The current battles between the politicians in North Carolina (both those in our state legislature and those on the Board of Governors for the state-wide university system) remind me of nothing so much as the battles between church and state as portrayed in the film, Beckett.  Like the medieval church, the university, under the double banner of academic freedom and the right of professional expertise to self-governance, claims—and actually possesses—an autonomy that infuriates the statesmen.  The politicians (despite their hypocritical claims to abhor state power and over-reach) are determined to bring the university to heel.  It only exacerbates matters that universities generate a loyalty and affection among students and alums that politicians can only dream of attaining.

Put this way, the university is the Church.  And, certainly, the university has plenty of analogues with the Church, especially in the pretension to and, sometimes achievement of, the otherworldly.  Plenty of room for hypocrisy there—and undoubtedly no shortage of actual indulgence in that vice.

But I can’t help but view our power-grasping politicians through the lens of religion as well.  I have tried, mostly successfully, during my life and academic career to resist those narratives that posit a sickness deep in the American soul, that see our nation as doomed by a darkness, an original sin, that means it is impossible we will ever live up to our high-falutin’ ideals.  I don’t want to believe that racism explains all of the American past and the American present.  I do want to believe that the US has done a decent—albeit far from perfect—job of providing a good enough life for a higher percentage of its citizens than have most societies in human history.  But I cannot deny that the desire to believe these things may be making me blind to the uglier truth.

In any case, I read this in a Kipling story (“Watches of the Night”): “You may have noticed that many religious people are deeply suspicious.  They seem—for purely religious purposes, of course—to know more about iniquity than the unregenerate.  Perhaps they were specially bad before they became converted!  At any rate, in the imputation of things evil, and in putting the worst construction on things innocent, a certain type of good person may be trusted to surpass all others.”

Now, you could say that the evangelicals meet their match in this regard with the “America is rotten to the core” crew.  Fair enough.  But what I want to ponder is the desire to punish.  When I consider why these right-wingers hate the university—and consider the ways they express that hatred—what I see (among other factors, no doubt) is the desire to subject professors to “market discipline.”  It is not enough to see evil.  One must punish it.  And the chosen instrument for punishment is the market.  The right-wingers may be able to mouth all the virtues of the free market.  But what they really like is that it punishes people, that it causes pain to the reprobate.  How else to explain the need to hunt down the poorest and most vulnerable at every turn and make sure that they are suffering enough?  It’s almost as if the prosperous cannot enjoy their riches without also knowing that some are excluded from that enjoyment.

Of course, the price for that enjoyment is “hard work”—and the right (reminiscent of Kipling’s comments on “suspicion”) is obsessed with the notion that there are people out there who are avoiding “hard work,” who are living off the fat of government largesse.

The university looks like a free consequence zone.  Bad enough that students get to play on their parents’ and the state’s dime for four years.  But that professors get to do so for a lifetime is truly insufferable!  Teaching only two days a week!  Summer vacations!  Sabbaticals!  And with fancy titles and exaggerated respect.  There ought to be a law against it.

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.