Category: Public Higher Education

American Decline

I have never had much patience for the kind of universal history that trades in ideas like “decline and fall.”  I look at Italy or Spain in 2018 and don’t really buy that life for the ordinary Italian in 1470 or ordinary Spaniard in 1570 was better than life for a comparable person today.  Power and empire have their obvious pathologies—and their perhaps a little less obvious costs.

Is the US today worse off than it was in 1955?  Not for blacks and gays, it would seem obvious to say.  Or even for leftists, one might add, given the rather terrifying impact of Joe McCarthy’s ravings.  For the grand American middle class, things generally are worse.  We can tell ourselves a story about how, coming out of the collective effort and collective sacrifice of the War, we entered the most egalitarian moment in US history, the moment when a grateful nation rewarded all its citizens for what they had done for the war effort.  It is certainly true that Harry Truman’s embrace of civil rights (as far as it went) was driven partly by electoral calculations, but also partly by his outrage that black veterans could be treated so shabbily at home.  Truman’s ah-ha moment came with the killing (not quite a lynching, but damn close) of a black Army veteran in Georgia in 1947.

American confidence—and rude health—in the post-War years can also be seen in its investments.  The interstate highway system, the airports, the public universities and health care facilities were all products of a positive outlook on society and its future.  American decline can be measured, it seems to me, in the growing refusal to invest in the future—either in infrastructure or in our children’s health or education—since the 1970s recession.  The contrast to China (as illustrated in the most recent issue of The New Yorker) could not be more stark.  While they are building universities, roads, high speed trains, we are letting our infrastructure decay all around us.  Our subways and highways are falling apart—and our universities are being left to rot.

Of course, this is a story about privatization, about the evils of neoliberalism, about the loss of any sense that the public coffers should finance such things as education, health, or transportation.  But we can also tell a story in which it stems from the on-going (and seamlessly endless) backlash from the 1960s, the interminable culture wars.  The right has insisted on an “us” vs. “them” narrative since 1968 (at least), where “them” are the uppity blacks of the civil rights movement and the hippies of the anti-war movement, later joined by feminists and gay activists.  The right will be damned before spending public money (“our taxes”) on these god-forsaken folks.  Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face it all too often is, but to hell with the consequences.

It’s the loss of any sense of fellow-feeling with whole cross-sections of one’s fellow Americans that makes abandonment of infrastructure investment so easy to countenance.  We know it is not for lack of funds.  So we all get to live in a crumbling physical environment in which higher education and decent health care become increasingly unaffordable.  Each day present day America resembles

The Script for Dismantling Protest Sites, or Fool Me Once . . .

In late August of this year, students at UNC, Chapel Hill initiated and maintained a round-the-clock vigil at Silent Sam, the Confederate monument on campus.  The vigil, which never had tents–but did have tables, sleeping pads, and folding chairs–was left unmolested by campus authorities for eight days.  Then the students were informed on Thursday, August 31st that they had to vacate the spot and that anything they did not remove would be confiscated by the police at 6AM on Friday morning, the first.  It did not seem coincidental that the first football game of the season would be played in Chapel Hill on Saturday the 2nd.   The administration did not want football fans to be distracted with thoughts of the legacies of slavery.

I cycled over to campus at 5:30 that Friday morning in order to witness—and to video on my phone—the arrival of the police.  About fifteen students were there.  Most of the vigil’s paraphernalia had been removed.  The students did not intend to resist the police incursion or to get themselves arrested, but did plan to chant various slogans throughout the police action.

I hung around until 8:45 or so, chatting with students and colleagues on the scene.  The police did not show up.  Later that day, I learned that the police arrived around 9:00 am and did just what they had informed students they would do: dismantle the site of the vigil and threaten any students who refused to leave the site with arrest.

Now, some two months later, I discover, while reading Micah White’s The End of Protest (of which more in subsequent posts) that the Chapel Hill action followed a script devised for the dismantling of Occupy sites around the country in late 2011 and early 2012.

“The eviction in Lower Manhattan was effective, and it was no coincidence that evictions spread immediately.  Five days before Zuccotti [the Occupy Wall Street site] was dismantled, police coordinated nation-wide conference calls with mayors from eighteen cities.  An eviction script was developed to counter the tactics of Occupy.  Mayors learned to announce an impending eviction, to give Occupiers a firm deadline so that the people would gather to defend the encampment.  Authorities would then let the deadline expire so that protestors were exhausted by the state of tension and readiness.  Many protestors would return home believing the crisis had passed.  At that point, the police would strike and complete the eviction using maximum force.  The counter-revolutionary tactics developed by Bloomberg and others were quickly deployed in city after city” (The End of Protest, 30-31).

“Maximum force” was not used in Chapel Hill, nor was it needed given the students’ resigned acquiescence in the eviction.  But I was gulled by a trick used five years earlier because I didn’t know of its existence.

UNC Now Spies on Its Students

Spying on the students.  The disheartening actions of Chancellor Carol Folt’s administration at UNC, Chapel Hill just keep coming.

Last Friday, the university community learned that an undercover policeman spied on the students who participated in an eight day vigil to protest the continued presence of Silent Sam, UNC’s Confederate monument, on campus.  Claiming to be an auto mechanic named Victor, sympathetic to their cause, the undercover policeman from UNC’s Department of Public Safety, chatted up those at the vigil.  Does the university now have dossiers on students that contain information gathered under false pretenses?  What exactly was the spy fishing for?  What threat did the administration imagine these protestors—conspicuously non-violent throughout their vigil—posed?

The student vigil at the Confederate statue lasted from August 22nd to August 31st, at which point the administration intervened and insisted that it come to an end.  The vigil itself, the two mass rallies that took place during its eight days, and its dismantling (which the students did not contest) never disrupted normal operations at UNC and, apart from two arrests for very minor infractions the night of August 22nd , never involved any illegal or violent behavior. At least two uniformed police officers were on site at every moment during the vigil.  Their presence (in my view) was completely appropriate. Maybe even having a plainclothes policeman on the scene can be justified.  But to infiltrate the student group gathered around the statue?  Those are J. Edgar Hoover tactics.

These are our students! The university’s educational mission is predicated on the free and open exchange of ideas.  When there are disagreements or even more serious conflicts on campus, we address them by talking to our fellow community members with whom we disagree.  If the matter at hand is too delicate, that conversation may have to take place in private. Ideally, however, –and in 90% of the cases in actuality—the dialogue is public, starting with frank discussions in our classrooms and spilling over from there into the other spaces our campus provides for open inquiry and spirited debate.

Yet no one in the administration ever approached the student protestors and asked for an opportunity to talk with them about their opinions or goals.  The only meeting of administration personnel, including the Chancellor, with the student protestors was a belated gathering on September 23rd, held in response to threats the students had received.  The students were told at this meeting that “we are not here to discuss Silent Sam, but only your safety.”

Where does the fear, the suspicion, that would motivate sending a spy to infiltrate the students camping out around the statue come from? Why should they be treated as potentially dangerous criminals instead as participants in the general conversation that is at the heart of education? These are our students, whom we work with every day, trying to give them the knowledge and skills they need to grow and prosper.

Is this the message we want to send to prospective and current students: you attend a university that instead of talking with you will accord itself the right to spy on you?

If Chancellor Folt did not authorize this over-the-top response to a student protest, then the person who did so should be fired.  The undercover police officer should be suspended, pending a full investigation, not for following orders and doing his job, but for his behavior when “outed” by students who recognized him on campus in his police uniform.  According to reports (and video of the incident), he told the students they could not film their interaction with him, a clear violation of their unambiguous rights, while also threatening them as they tried to walk away.  There should be no rush to judgment here, but what exactly happened needs to be discovered—and appropriate action taken once the facts are determined.

If the Chancellor herself authorized this undercover operation, she owes the campus community an explanation—and an apology.  What was the administration aiming to accomplish and how has it used the information collected?  The apology is for spying on students, a practice that only the most extreme circumstances could ever justify.

If neither an explanation nor an apology is forthcoming, the disintegration of our educational community, based on transparency and open dialogue, will continue apace.

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.

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)”