A few years back, Paul E. Lingenfelter began his report on the defunding of public education by saying,
“In 1920 H.G. Wells wrote, ‘History is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe.’ I think he got it right. Nothing is more important to the future of the United States and the world than the breadth and effectiveness of education, especially of higher education. I say especially higher education, but not because pre- school, elementary, and secondary education are less important. Success at every level of education obviously depends on what has gone before. But for better or worse, the quality of postsecondary education and research affects the quality and effectiveness of education at every level.”
In the last few years, conversations have been growing like gathering storm clouds about the ways in which our universities are failing. There is talk about the poor educational outcomes apparent in our graduates, the out-of-control tuitions and crippling student loan debt. Attention is finally being paid to the enormous salaries for presidents and sports coaches, and the migrant worker status of the low-wage majority faculty. There are movements to control tuition, to forgive student debt, to create more powerful “assessment” tools, to offer “free” university materials online, to combat adjunct faculty exploitation. But each of these movements focuses on a narrow aspect of a much wider problem, and no amount of “fix” for these aspects individually will address the real reason that universities in America are dying.
To explain my perspective here, I need to go back in time. Let’s go back to post-World War II, 1950s when the GI bill, and the affordability – and sometimes free access – to universities created an upsurge of college students across the country. This surge continued through the ’60s, when universities were the very heart of intense public discourse, passionate learning, and vocal citizen involvement in the issues of the times. It was during this time, too, when colleges had a thriving professoriate, and when students were given access to a variety of subject areas, and the possibility of broad learning. The liberal arts stood at the center of a college education, and students were exposed to philosophy, anthropology, literature, history, sociology, world religions, foreign languages and cultures. Of course, something else happened, beginning in the late ’50s into the ’60s — the uprisings and growing numbers of citizens taking part in popular dissent — against the Vietnam War, against racism, against destruction of the environment in a growing corporatized culture, against misogyny, against homophobia. Where did much of that revolt incubate? Where did large numbers of well-educated, intellectual, and vocal people congregate? On college campuses. Who didn’t like the outcome of the ’60s? The corporations, the war-mongers, those in our society who would keep us divided based on our race, our gender, our sexual orientation.
I suspect that, given the opportunity, those groups would have liked nothing more than to shut down the universities. Destroy them outright. But a country claiming to have democratic values can’t just shut down its universities. That would reveal something about that country which would not support the image they are determined to portray – that of a country of freedom, justice, opportunity for all. So, how do you kill the universities of the country without showing your hand? As a child growing up during the Cold War, I was taught that the communist countries in the first half of the 20th century put their scholars, intellectuals and artists into prison camps, called “re-education camps.” What I’ve come to realize as an adult is that American corporatism despises those same individuals as much as we were told communism did. But instead of doing anything so obvious as throwing them into prison, here those same people are thrown into dire poverty. The outcome is the same. Desperate poverty controls and ultimately breaks people as effectively as prison…..and some research says that it works even more powerfully.
So: here is the recipe for killing universities, and you tell me if what I’m describing isn’t exactly what is at the root of all the problems of our country’s system of higher education. (Because what I’m saying has more recently been applied to K-12 public education as well.)
Step I: Defund public higher education.
Again, from Anna Victoria:
“(The) ultimate objective, as outlined in the (Lewis Powell) memo, was to purge respectable institutions such as the media, arts, sciences, as well as college campus themselves of left-wing thoughts. At the time, college campuses were seen as ‘springboards for dissent,’ as Newfield terms it, and were therefore viewed as publicly funded sources of opposition to the interests of the establishment. While it is impossible to know the extent to which this memo influenced the conservative political strategy over the coming decades, it is extraordinary to see how far the principles outlined in his memo have been adopted.”
Under the guise of many “conflicts,” such as budget struggles, or quotas, defunding was consistently the result. This funding argument also was used to reshape the kind of course offerings and curriculum focus found on campuses. Victoria writes, “Attacks on humanities curriculums, political correctness, and affirmative action shifted the conversation on public universities to the right, creating a climate of skepticism around state funded schools. State budget debates became platforms for conservatives to argue why certain disciplines such as sociology, history, anthropology, minority studies, language, and gender studies should be defunded…” on one hand, through the argument that they were not offering students the “practical” skills needed for the job market — which was a powerful way to increase emphasis on what now is seen as vocational focus rather than actual higher education, and to devalue those very courses that trained and expanded the mind, developed a more complete human being, a more actively intelligent person and involved citizen.
Another argument used to attack the humanities was “…their so-called promotion of anti-establishment sentiment. Gradually, these arguments translated into real — and often deep — cuts into the budgets of state university systems,” especially in those most undesirable areas that the establishment found to run counter to their ability to control the population’s thoughts and behavior. The idea of “manufactured consent” should be talked about here – because if you remove the classes and the disciplines that are the strongest in their ability to develop higher level intellectual rigor, the result is a more easily manipulated citizenry, less capable of deep interrogation and investigation of the establishment “message.”
Step II: Deprofessionalize and impoverish the professors (and continue to create a surplus of underemployed and unemployed Ph.D.s).
There was recently an article talking about the long-term mental and physical destruction caused when people are faced with poverty and “job insecurity” — precarious employment, or “under-employment.” The article says that, in just the few short years since our 2008 economic collapse, the medical problems of this group have increased exponentially. This has been the horrible state of insecurity that America’s college professors have experienced now for 30 years. It can destroy you — breaking down your physical and emotional health. As an example: the average yearly starting salary of a university professor at Temple University in 1975 was just under $10,000 a year, with full benefits – health, retirement, and educational benefits (their families could attend college for free). And guess what? Average pay for Temple’s faculty is stillabout the same — because adjuncts now make up the majority of faculty, and earn between $8,000 to $14,000 a year (depending on how many courses they are assigned each semester – there is NO guarantee of continued employment) — but unlike the full-time professors of 1975, these adjunct jobs come with NO benefits, no health care, no retirement, no educational benefits, no offices. How many other professions report salaries that have remained at 1975 levels?
This is how you break the evil, wicked, leftist academic class in America — you turn them into low-wage members of the precariat – that growing number of American workers whose employment is consistently precarious. All around the country, our undergraduates are being taught by faculty living at or near the poverty line, who have little to no say in the way classes are being taught, the number of students in a class, or how curriculum is being designed. They often have no offices in which to meet their students, no professional staff support, no professional development support. One million of our college professors are struggling to continue offering the best they can in the face of this wasteland of deteriorated professional support, while living the very worst kind of economic insecurity. Unlike those communist countries, which sometimes executed their intellectuals, here we are being killed off by lack of healthcare, by stress-related illness like heart-attacks or strokes. While we’re at it, let’s add suicide to that list of killers.
Step III: Move in a managerial/administrative class that takes over governance of the university.
You see the state of healthcare in this country, and how disastrous it is. Well, during this same time, there was a similar kind of development, something akin to the HMO — let’s call it an “EMO,” Educational Management Organization, began to take hold in American academia. From the 1970s until today, as the number of full-time faculty jobs continued to shrink, the number of full-time administrative jobs began to explode. As faculty was deprofessionalized and casualized, reduced to teaching as migrant contract workers, administrative jobs now offered good, solid salaries, benefits, offices, prestige and power. In 2012, administrators now outnumber faculty on every campus across the country. And just as disastrous as the HMO was to the practice of medicine in America, so is the EMO model disastrous to the practice of academia in America, and to the quality of our students’ education. Benjamin Ginsburg writes about this in great detail in his book The Fall of the Faculty.
I’d like to mention here, too, that universities often defend their use of adjuncts – which are now 75% of all professors in the country — claiming that they have no choice but to hire adjuncts, as a “cost saving measure” in an increasingly defunded university. What they don’t say, and without demand of transparency will never say, is that they have not saved money by hiring adjuncts — they have reduced faculty salaries, security and power. The money wasn’t saved, because it was simply re-allocated to administrative salaries, coach salaries and outrageous university president salaries. There has been a redistribution of funds away from those who actually teach, the scholars – and therefore away from the students’ education itself — and into these administrative and executive salaries, sports costs — and the expanded use of “consultants,” PR and marketing firms, law firms. We have to add here, too, that president salaries went from being, in the 1970s, around $25K to 30K, to being in the hundreds of thousands to MILLIONS of dollars – salary, delayed compensation, discretionary funds, free homes, or generous housing allowances, cars and drivers, memberships to expensive country clubs.
Step IV: Move in corporate culture and corporate money.
Anna Victoria writes:
“Many universities have relied on private sector methods of revenue generation such as the formation of private corporations, patents, increased marketing strategies, corporate partnerships, campus rentals, and for-profit e-learning enterprises. To cut costs, public universities have employed non-state employee service contractors and have streamlined their financial operations.”
So what is the problem with corporate money, you might ask? A lot. When corporate money floods the universities, corporate values replace academic values. As we said before, humanities get defunded and the business school gets tons of money. Serious issues of ethics begin to develop when corporate money begins to make donations and form partnerships with science departments – where that money buys influence regarding not only the kinds of research being done but the outcomes of that research. Corporations donate to departments, and get the use of university researchers in the bargain — and the ability to deduct the money as donation while using the labor, controlling and owning the research. Suddenly, the university laboratory is not a place of objective research anymore.
As one example, corporations that don’t like climate change warnings will donate money and control research at universities, which then publish refutations of global warming proofs. Or, university labs will be corporate-controlled in cases of FDA-approval research. This is especially dangerous when pharmaceutical companies take control of university labs to test efficacy or safety and then push approval through the governmental agencies. Another example is in economics departments — and movies like The Inside Job have done a great job of showing how Wall Street has bought off high-profile economists from Harvard, or Yale, or Stanford, or MIT, to talk about the state of the stock market and the country’s financial stability. Papers were being presented and published that were blatantly false, by well-respected economists who were on the payroll of Goldman Sachs or Merrill Lynch.
Academia should not be the whore of corporatism, but that’s what it has become. Academia once celebrated itself as an independent institution. Academia is a culture, one that offers a long-standing worldview which values on-going, rigorous intellectual, emotional, psychological, creative development of the individual citizen. It respects and values the contributions of the scholar, the intellectual, to society. It treasures the promise of each student, and strives to offer the fullest possible support to the development of that promise. It does this not only for the good of the scholar and the student, but for the social good. Like medicine, academia existed for the social good. Neither should be a purely for-profit endeavor. And yet, in both the case of the HMO and the EMO, we have been taken over by an alien for-profit culture, our sovereignty over our own profession, our own institutions, stripped from us.
A corporate model, where profit depends on 1) maintaining a low-wage work force; and 2) charging continually higher pricers for their “services” is what now controls our colleges. Faculty is being squeezed from one end and our students are being squeezed from the other
Step V: Destroy the students.
The Second Prong: You make college so insanely unaffordable that only the wealthiest students from the wealthiest of families can afford to go to the school debt free. Younger people may not know that for much of the 20th century many universities in the U.S. were free, including the CA state system: you could establish residency in six months and go to Berkeley for free, or at very low cost. When I was an undergraduate student in the mid- to late-1970s, tuition at Temple University was around $700 a year. Today, tuition is nearly $15,000 a year. Tuitions have increased, using CA as an example again, over 2000% since the 1970s. This is the most directly dangerous situation for our students: pulling them into crippling debt that will follow them to the grave.
Another dangerous aspect of what is happening can be found in the shady partnership that has formed between the lending institutions and the financial aid departments of universities. This is an unholy alliance. I have had students in my classes who work for financial aid. They tell me that they are trained not to say “This is what you need to borrow,” but instead, “This is what you can get,” and to always entice the student with the highest possible number. There have been plenty of kick-back scandals between colleges and lenders — and I’m sure there is plenty undiscovered shady business going on. So, tuition costs are out of control because of administrative, executive and coach salaries, and the loan numbers keep growing, risking a life of indebtedness for most of our students. Further, there is absolutely no incentive on the part of this corporatized university to care.
The propaganda machine here has been powerful. Students, through the belief of their parents, their K-12 teachers, their high school counselors, are convinced by constant repetition that they HAVE to go to college to have a promising, middle-class life, they are convinced that this tuition debt is “worth it” — and learn too late that it will indenture them. Let’s be clear: this is not the fault of the parents, or K-12 teachers or counselors. This is an intentional message that has been repeated year in and year out that aims to convince us all about the essential quality of a college education.
So, there you have it.
Looking at this wreckage of American academia, we have to acknowledge: They have won.
But these are victors who will never declare victory — because the carefully maintained capitalist illusion of the “university education” still benefits them. Never, ever, admit that the university is dead. Quite the opposite. Instead, continue to insist that the university is the only way to gain a successful, middle-class life. Say that the university is mandatory for happiness in adulthood. All the while, maintain this low-wage precariate class of edu-migrants, continually mis-educate and indebt the students to ensure their docility, pimp the institution out to corporate interests. It’s a win-win for those right-wingers – they’ve crippled those in the country who would push back against them, and have so carefully and cleverly hijacked the educational institutions that they can now be turned into part of the neoliberal/neocon machinery, further benefitting the right-wing agenda.
So now what?
We have a big job ahead of us, and are facing a very powerful foe in a kind of David and Goliath battle. I’m open to hearing ideas about how to build a much, much better slingshot.