Reflections on the Significance of the Public University: Interview with Christopher Newfield

McMaster University welcomed Christopher Newfield, a tireless advocate for the public university system in North America, as the inaugural lecturer for The Public Intellectuals Project@McMaster on November 21st, 2011. Newfield’s talk on “Rebuilding the University: From the Innovation Economy to Craft Society” both illuminated the range of economic and cultural factors that have contributed to the crisis in the American public university system and made suggestions about what can be done to oppose the privatization of public education.

Increasing financial strain and encroaching corporate influences have pushed the public university in the United States into a state of crisis. The struggles facing U.S. universities that Newfield and others have observed—which includes expanding class sizes and skyrocketing tuition fees for students—are not dissimilar from the ones that Canadian universities expect to face in the upcoming decade. If it is not possible to prevent a looming budget crisis from impacting universities in Ontario, then surely we must find ways to address financial issues effectively, while at the same time safeguarding the integrity of our public system and avoiding the takeover of public interests by private ones.

In anticipation of his visit to McMaster University, Newfield answered some questions about key themes in his scholarship and activism. The video of his lecture can be viewed here.

Grace Pollock: Your award-winning book Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Harvard University Press, 2008) provides a complex and fascinating account of the rise of the public university in the post-war United States and then its slow decline beginning in the 1970s with, among other things, the election of Ronald Reagan as President. Can you trace in brief the values that informed the development of the public university and comment on the status of those values today?

Christopher Newfield: The mid-19th century motive behind the “land-grant” public universities was to promote regional economic development.  Three important ideals came along with that. One was that every subject could be taught, and this established an ethic of intellectual inclusivity so that all the faculties of humanity could coexist: studies for increasing crop yields would be taught next to ancient languages.  The second was that thought and study were assumed to be applicable to every problem on earth, so that higher learning became a natural ingredient of social progress.   The third ideal was that higher education should be democratically inclusive of the whole population.  Universities rarely lived up to their inaugural ideas, and committed many original sins, particularly racial exclusion, to compound their founding in most cases on confiscated native lands.

But if we fast forward to the end of World War II, and the U.S. receives a huge influx of returning soldiers, politicians were for once building a proper social infrastructure to educate, house, and employ them. The public university had an ethic of intellectual and political egalitarianism to use as a base for massive educational expansion.  During this post-war expansion, public universities moved toward mass quality, that is, high quality instruction and expanded access to advanced research for all students.  At their leading edge, public universities took the educational quality available to the 3% of U.S students who attended the group of “most selective” colleges and were aiming to offer that, over time, to everyone in the 97% who wanted to take advantage of it.

GP: In what other ways has the public university changed since the 1970s? What forces have played a significant role in the decline of the public university?

CN: The main overall change has been a massive shift from public to private funding.  Public universities lost a quarter of their state appropriations between 1975 and 2000, and have lost another large share since.  The main university response has been equally massive tuition increases – 18 increases in the past 20 years at the University of California, where tuition has tripled in the past decade to about $12,500 just for fees, with a total cost of attendance close to $30,000 for state residents.  States like Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington have followed suit.

This shift from public to private funding has transformed the culture of public research universities.  It has increased the size and influence of every type of private funding, particularly industry research sponsorships and targeted philanthropy.  Revenue questions dominate most academic planning. Universities engage in expensive investments without the public revenues that used to support a “pay-as-you-go” approach that helped tie expansion to general rather than special interests.  We now build research facilities on spec for possible future private partnerships, depending in part on strong bond ratings shored up by ever-growing tuition revenues plus universities’ non-profit status.

When administrators see the university as a business, they are more inclined to treat students as customers engaged in buying an education for their private benefit.  This helps justify high tuition and the explosion in student debt, which in the aggregate now exceeds U.S. credit card debt.

Public university leaders now blame legislatures for their budget problems, but they all created the current system together.  Though university leaders often blame the public for having allegedly decided that higher education is a private good not to be supported by taxpayer funds, there is no polling evidence that majorities actually believe this – and in fact public education, like most specific services, enjoys widespread support.  What has happened is that as families take out second mortgages and parental loans to pay for high-priced public colleges, they become less likely to want to “pay twice” with higher taxes, since their tax investment no longer gives them affordable fees.

Political, business, and educational leaders have created a tuition trap that encourages further cuts in public funding.  The failure to acknowledge this cycle and to fight it is the central failure of the current generation of public university leadership.

I argue in the book that the downgrading of public universities is part of a longstanding right-wing program to reduce the size, influence, and financial resources of an American middle class that became an alarmingly independent force during the post-war decades of major social investment.  This has backfired for the economy and society as a whole. Putting universities on a leash erodes their intellectual independence and their ability to develop their staff and students’ creative capabilities.  Administrators, staff, faculty, students all want to preserve and expand these capabilities, but we have trapped ourselves in an attempt to increase revenues by partially privatizing creative development. The record is clear: this doesn’t work.

GP: The 1970s witnessed the emergence of a “business culture” within the university and new modes of professionalism and scholarship. What effect did these have on the public mission of the university? What effect did they have on academics working within the university?

CN: The most dramatic concrete effect has been continuous labor cost reductions, which means that the majority tenure-track professoriate of the 1970s has become the majority temp-worker professoriate of the 2010s.  This can mean “permatemps” who work for decades on one-year contracts.  Degraded working conditions mean that even dedicated adjunct teachers cannot get the educational results they want.  Public colleges with low completion rates are generally those that use the most overworked-and-underpaid precarious labor.

More generally, private revenues now have higher status than public revenues, although they are never large enough to replace public revenues. Thirty years ago, industry contracts were less prestigious than government grants, which funded basic research.  Today, many more faculty and administrators believe that industry sponsorship is the good housekeeping seal of research excellence.  In teaching, cost reduction has become more important than increasing educational quality.

Although business people are often focused on product quality, business culture has in public universities encouraged a fixation on budgetary concerns at the expense of educational goals.  This is a major problem, since the real crisis in U.S. higher education is not the budget crisis but the educational crisis. Attainment has been flat or falling throughout our thirty-year experiment with per-student, real-dollar reductions in public funding, and yet the main excitement right now is with the idea of cutting instructional costs by replacing some teaching staff with online technology.  There’s nothing wrong with technology per se, but its invocation now is part of the university’s loss of focus on the non-financial results of great teaching and research.

Academics want to maintain and improve educational outcomes, but nothing about academic business culture authorizes their defiance of a business model that reduces the educational resources of public universities.  It’s hard to sustain confidence in education as such within this business model.

Another major issue is hidden cross-subsidies, in which revenues from one area of the university are used to cover losses in another.  Low-cost fields subsidize high-cost ones, which generally means that high-enrollment humanities and social science departments, where research is cheap, subsidize expensive research in the sciences and engineering, because their extramural grants never cover all their direct and indirect costs.  There’s nothing wrong with cross-subsidies as such – universities are a common enterprise and we need to support each other – but the subsidies need to be openly acknowledged and discussed.  Students have the right to know where their tuition dollars end up, and so do taxpayers.

Although higher ed officials are rightly nervous about telling the legislators about the extent to which they are supporting research as well as teaching, the political cost of the failure to explain is now higher than the explanation could be.  Without disclosure of the full costs of running a research university, legislators will continue to believe that the “cost disease” of higher education is teaching labor rather than premium research and other auxiliary activities, and will look for savings in the wrong places.

GP: In your book, you refer to “cultural development” as one way the social sciences and humanities contribute to universities and society as a whole. Can you explain what you mean by cultural development? Do the humanities and social sciences really matter?

CN: Cultural development means, most generally, non-economic development.  This centers on the development of individual creative capabilities, including the capability to originate, to cooperate, to improvise, to problem-solve on the fly. The humanities remain a special place for developing abilities that include interpersonal and cross-cultural skills such as crucial abilities in conflict resolution and the refusal of scapegoating, projection, and other psychological habits that escalate difference into conflict. There are a variety of cultural capabilities that need cataloguing and explication.

I would like to see humanists work more systematically with already-institutionalized public discourses on related subjects, like the human development projects at the United Nations, the Millennium Goals, the human capabilities approach advocated by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, as well as radical, indigenous, and experimental understandings of the way individuals in groups create value and new possibilities together.

GP: You run a blog that addresses current issues in higher education called “Remaking the University.” What are the most critical things people need to do in order to remake the university? How important do you think the digital media and other cultural apparatuses are to this effort?

CN: Digital media allow people without lots of resources and access to get the word out.  We’ve used the blog to create an inter-space between the public relations offices of university administrations and the major media off-campus.

The most important single thing people can do to remake the university is to formulate their ideas in writing – or music, videos, etc – and get them out there to be debated and developed. There still aren’t enough of us doing this, although sites like the New Faculty Majority and other web-based versions of daily newspapers have helped shape debate around crucial issues like teaching conditions, health care benefits, and job security.

The most exciting development for me with the student movement has been extending the tuition protests and the “Occupy” uprisings that started in California at least in 2009 into a growing movement for educational quality.  Faculty need to defend, define, and redefine educational quality in research as well as teaching, but they will be perceived as a self-interested party if they do not have support from the students whose futures are directly affected by deteriorating educational resources.

I’ve been concerned that faculty members have been acting like a cognotariat that increasingly accepts external control of its professional activities.  I would like to see faculty being more united across status divides (tenured vs. non-tenured) on the basis of common professional standards and goals.

Finally, we need widespread budget studies in universities. Very few of us feel comfortable talking about a domain where the crucial educational decisions are made.  I would like to see a general awakening about the importance of not simply demanding budgetary transparency, but knowing how to interpret and apply budgetary information once you get it.

GP: You are also a contributor to the alternative news website The Huffington Post. What role might publicly engaged intellectuals play in renewing the university as a space for critical thinking and broader public engagement?

CN: There’s a lot to say about this, but the most important thing for me is getting the wider public to see the university as part of their everyday world – as a place that will hear their issues and problems, and address them directly. Universities have concentrated too much on high-tech industry and related constituencies, and not enough on the diverse public whose capabilities we should rededicate ourselves to developing.  This will involve more direct contact between university staff and the public, unmediated by administration and publicity.

GP: Given the emergence of protests all over the globe that are challenging various forms of economic and political oppression, what role might students play in the struggle to reclaim the public university?

CN: Debt strikes, tuition protests, and definitions of educational outcomes, for starters.  The Occupy movements represent widespread unhappiness with the extractive mechanisms of finance capital, particularly in relation to public resources – the privatization of public services is one example.  Another is the incredible “tax” that banks have placed on pensions and other forms of employee savings and salaries. A third is the charges that medical corporations take out of health care dollars in the United States. A fourth is student loans, in which a big slice of every education dollar ends up going to banks. Today’s students are the big losers in this unjust system, and they are making important connections between the budget and tuition problems in public universities and the intrinsic failures of the current economic system.   The de-concentration of wealth will get our societies moving forward again.

GP: Does the university have a role to play in supporting global citizenship?

CN: Yes, and the most immediate way this happens is through study abroad, particularly in immersion programs that serve as a form of temporary transmigration. My simple rule is that every single student in every college and university should spend at least one semester studying abroad – in another language.

GP: Imagine the university in the year 2030. What will be its most notable characteristics?

CN: It will be even better than it is right now.  We’ll see new hybrids of teaching and learning, some mediated by technology but most not.  We’ll see a renewal of a portfolio approach to student learning, more use of intensive face-to-face feedback and group interaction.  We’ll see much more interdisciplinary learning and research, with meaningful cross training (literature students will learn programming systematically rather than as an add-on, history students will be able to follow financial math).  Universities will return to core activities, meaning they will shed most of their auxiliary enterprises, particularly those that provided public subsidies for non-educational activities.  If faculty and students can’t move in these directions within our large state institutions, we’ll start bootleg universities and deliver more craft and invention at our kitchen tables.  But I like the public university for everyone better than my kitchen, and am confident we’ll be able to reinvent it together.

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