An Education Worth Fighting For

The neoliberal revolution is radically reshaping higher education. Faculty can play a central role in fighting it.

A model of the Purdue University campus. Lina Rodriguez / Flickr

On April 27, Purdue University’s president, Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana, unveiled a dramatic new program that he and the board of trustees had been fashioning in secret for months. This self-proclaimed world-class university would be acquiring Kaplan University, one of several controversial for-profit, online education companies that have emerged over the last twenty years.

The announcement surprised the university community, who learned about the deal either during a hastily called meeting between Daniels and select faculty or through an email message. When the Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed students and professors about the proposed merger, many expressed concern.

My colleague David Sanders decried the “Walmartization” of higher education, in which degrees are provided quickly and cheaply. “When speed and cost become more important than quality,” he explained, “faculty are going to object.”

The dramatic developments at Purdue point to a number of issues facing universities and colleges in the twenty-first century. While universities have long served the interests of business and the capitalist state, the neoliberal revolution has radically shifted educational priorities, assessments, and budgets, sparking adjunctification, state disinvestment, attacks on faculty tenure, the prioritization of STEM fields, and the introduction of online education.

In the face of this barrage, faculty, in alliance with students and other groups, must fight for a free and well-rounded education for all students, fair employment practices for all instructors, and the right to participate in the decision-making process about their institutions’ future.

The Ivory Tower’s Capitalist Roots

The modern university system in the US developed at the turn of the twentieth century, as capitalism bounced back after a string of deep recessions.

Mergers created an economic system in which a few hundred corporations and banks dominated the entire economy. Interlocking directorates birthed a system of financial speculation and concentrated wealth. The government enacted pro-corporate and pro-banking regulations, allocated tax and other benefits to the wealthy and powerful, and used repression — as when President Grover Cleveland deployed the army to break the 1894 Pullman strike — on capitalists’ behalf.

During this period, higher education, which had been dominated by theological pursuits, refashioned itself to serve the modern economy. Corporations needed workers with scientific and technical knowledge, so educational institutions were established that could produce credentialed graduates.

Theoretical work and classroom education inculcated in the young a reverence for capitalism’s blessings and the government’s conduct. Young people learned about the benefits of free-market economies, the United States’ long tradition of democratic institutions, and the glories of Manifest Destiny, which justified the American conquest of not only North America, but the Philippine Islands, Cuba, and Central and South America.

As Clyde Barrow documents in Universities and the Capitalist State, members of university boards of trustees came largely from corporations, banks, and law firms that served big business. In the Midwest and South, trustees who represented regional manufacturing and finance capital ran the universities. Their outlook paralleled the administrators at the Northeast’s major universities. Few representatives of non-elite groups, like labor unions, were ever selected to serve on these boards.

Trustees established an administrative class that both oversaw the university’s day-to-day operations and managed the faculty, who produced the school’s key commodities: education and research. They adopted managerial procedures to control mental labor in the classroom and the laboratory and institutionalized metrics that measured enrollment, publications, and university rankings to evaluate productivity.

Federal and state governments, as well as nonprofit organizations, stepped in to fund a national university system designed to serve the interests of twentieth-century capitalism. Major foundations generated studies, conducted surveys, and made recommendations that influenced both public and private universities’ policies.

Crises, from the depressions of the late nineteenth century to World War I, sparked critical analyses from some professors. Frequently, faculty faced discipline or even termination for challenging the economic system or the state. The university’s educational mission was to serve elites and the state, not provide a venue for debating important social issues.

Fast forward to today. The capitalist class has further consolidated its power in higher education since the Great Recession of 2008, using the crisis to justify austerity policies that have wrested money away from colleges and universities (not to mention public K–12 schools).

Boards of trustees and their advisers in think tanks and political organizations have used economic shocks to demand greater efficiency in the production and teaching of knowledge. Programs that cannot be justified as good “investments” have become vulnerable to termination. Humanities programs now have to prove their utility to the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to survive.

Colleges and universities use quantitative instruments to measure qualitative categories like “creativity,” “critical thinking,” “personal satisfaction,” and “teacher effectiveness.” University administrators strongly imply that if faculty cannot measure their activities in the narrow numerical sense, they do not count.

Finally, just as academic critics of child labor, anti-union policies, World War I, and financial speculation a hundred years ago faced censure and unemployment, universities are being pressured to circumscribe accepted debates. While the higher-education system has extended academic freedom and provided job security for some through tenure, attacks on these provisions are spreading as the twenty-first century reconstruction of American higher education proceeds.

The Crisis of Higher Education

The decades between the end of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the onset of neoliberalism can be characterized as the golden years of American higher education.

After World War II, economic priorities shifted toward stimulating manufacturing, creating consumer and military demand, and expanding education. For the first time, college was affordable for working-class Americans. War veterans enrolled in great numbers with the help of the GI Bill, and big states like New York and California built whole university systems to serve the influx of students. Community colleges were set up to provide inexpensive degrees and allow workers to attend school part-time.

Simultaneously, the size of faculties increased dramatically. Professional associations and journals grew to credential new generations of instructors. In response to uprisings in the 1960s over war, racism, and student rights, universities created new programs that supplemented the traditional canons of scholarship and education, which had often omitted people of color, women, workers, and immigrants. The postwar economy boomed and took higher education along with it.

But national and global economic stagnation set in in the 1970s. Rates of profit declined, and consumption could no longer match production. Governments stopped allocating sufficient resources to fund public programs, and critics of the modern welfare state marshaled their wealth and power to challenge the very premises of public policy.

By the late 1970s, Democrats as well as Republicans began to endorse government policies that cut support for social programs. Both parties deregulated finance, manufacturing, and markets; politicians on both sides of the aisle approved privatization schemes for public institutions and programs.

Below the political radar, the billionaire Koch brothers established the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in the early 1970s to encourage state legislators to pass pro-business bills. ALEC created expert think tanks on various policy issues and wrote model legislation on subjects as varied as health care, labor, charter schools, and higher education.

Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 brought a cascade of victories for the neoliberal project in the US. By the late 1980s, Rush Limbaugh could celebrate neoliberalism’s many triumphs. But the radio host declared that one institution remained as-yet untouched: the university.

This has become the project endorsed by ALEC, state legislators, right-wing advocacy groups, and university administrators all across the nation.

The Shock Doctrine

On March 17, 2015, Mitch Daniels testified before a US House subcommittee about what he calls higher-education reform. That same week, he spoke to the American Council on Education and the Brookings Institute. A centerpiece of his recommendations was “income share agreements,” whereby students partner with investors, particularly alumni, who provide funds for their education in exchange “for a small share of the student’s future income.”

Daniels touted this idea while boasting about new policies at Purdue that he said would save students money: three-year programs, new metrics for measuring student preparation to reduce the time to degree, and tuition freezes. He also urged a reduction in federal regulations.

Some of Daniels’s proposals and programs have merit, but the ideas he and other administrators have put forward to slow rising tuition and mounting student debt ignore the major reason why costs are increasing: the collapse in state government financing.

In 2014, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) issued a report demonstrating that higher-education funding remained below 2007–8 levels in forty-eight states. According to the CBPP, “the large funding cuts have led to both steep tuition increases and spending cuts that may diminish the quality of education available to students.”

CBPP reported that, since the Great Recession, state spending on higher education had fallen 23 percent, or $2,026 per student. Public colleges and universities substantially increased tuition from 2008 to 2014, ranging from $253 in Montana to $4,493 in Arizona. In Indiana, tuition rose $1,191 during this period.

In 1988, higher education institutions received 3.2 times more of their revenue from government than from students. By 2013, that ratio had declined to 1.1.

“Nearly every state has shifted costs to students over the last 25 years — with the most drastic shift occurring since the onset of the recession,” the CBPP writes. “Today, tuition revenue now outweighs government funding for higher education in 23 states.”

In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein argues that elites use periods of economic or political crisis to introduce policies that slash public services.

The CBPP data suggests that the Great Recession gave ALEC, as well as the politicians and educators they support, the pretext to reduce resources available to higher education. As a result, universities have become even more dependent on corporations, banks, and the military, and students have had to pay a higher share of the cost of their education. The Daniels plan, for instance, relies on wealthy benefactors to support students while doing nothing to stall rising costs.

The end result of these trends is the privatization of higher education.

Threats to Education and Faculty

In 2015, Lindsey Russell, director of ALEC’s education task force, published an essay called “STEM — Will It Replace Liberal Arts?” His answer was a qualified yes. While Russell cited Bureau of Labor Statistics projections that estimate a 13 percent growth in STEM-related jobs between 2012 and 2022, he also quoted a Forbes article suggesting that STEM graduates still need “critical thinking skills” to pursue their careers.

These skills, Russell asserted, are precisely what a liberal arts education provides. “Liberal arts education may seem irrelevant today, but it is necessary if America’s youth are to become successful members of today’s STEM-dominated workforce,” he wrote.

Arguments like Russell’s — as well as similar claims that the American educational system is falling behind in science and math education — are nothing new: they date back as far as the Soviet Union’s successful Sputnik launch. Nor are they particularly well-founded.

As a May 2015 article in Monthly Labor Review notes, STEM-related employment prospects are far more complicated than Russell implies. “The STEM labor market is heterogeneous,” the report states. “There are both shortages and surpluses of STEM workers, depending on the particular job market segment.”

In the academic sector, evidence points to “noticeable oversupplies of PhDs,” while some government sectors cannot find enough STEM-trained personnel to hire. Private industry struggles to hire “software developers, petroleum engineers, data scientists, and those in skilled trades,” but have plenty of biomedical, chemistry, and physics PhDs to choose from. Training in science and technology alone cannot solve the United States’ rising youth unemployment rate.

Perhaps the most damning statement about STEM degrees and jobs came a few years ago in an article by the sociologist Hal Salzman: “All credible research finds the same evidence about the STEM workforce: ample supply, stagnant wages and, by industry accounts, thousands of applicants for any advertised job.”

Rather than continuing to debate about prioritizing STEM, we should discuss the substance and role of what is usually called the liberal arts. Are they only a training ground for honing critical thinking and communications skills, or does the project go deeper?

At Purdue University and elsewhere, administrators now measure all sorts of things. They collect data on time to degree, on trends in grades, on the quality of jobs attained by students, on employer satisfaction with graduates, and on graduates’ and faculty’s satisfaction. They’ve begun ranking professional journals and other universities (and only those with high scores count toward faculty promotion).

In virtually every phase of the education process, universities have traded qualitative evaluations for quantitative assessments.

There’s nothing wrong with quantitative metrics. But they should be supplemented with qualitative yardsticks, and assessed with rigor. Instead, administrators use a narrow set of metrics to justify the neoliberal policies they endorse. For example, they defend the shift to STEM education on the basis of some empirical research while ignoring findings that would suggest a different set of educational priorities. Numbers have all but replaced analysis.

The shift in metrics has pushed schools to socialize administrators, faculty, and students into measuring their own performance in terms of these standards. Some schools have even created new programs to help “mentor” faculty and students to perform better according to the new regime.

Faculty end up worrying more about the number of articles they publish than their quality. Students end up focusing on grades rather than acquiring knowledge. Assessing a school’s performance comes down to enrollment numbers, grade distribution, and the introduction of new technologies. Intellectual curiosity, a passion for knowledge, and the pursuit of exciting questions have disappeared; no one has time to do anything except perform by the numbers.

On top of that, tenure itself is under assault. Schools and states are attacking the idea that faculty, who work in a setting where the free flow of ideas is vital, should be protected from controversy in their teaching and research.

As part of this assault on tenure, colleges and universities have radically reduced the percentage of classes taught by tenure or tenure-track faculty, relying instead on graduate students and adjuncts. This policy also saves the institution money: as state legislatures reduce funding, universities hire low-paid adjuncts, often on a course-by-course basis.

The adjunctification of teaching has negative effects on part-time faculty as well as students. As most adjuncts have to teach at more than one university to survive, they spend more time traveling between institutions than they do keeping up with relevant research and working with students. These precarious jobs not only reduce the quality of education but also hinder instructors from securing one of the very few secure, full-time jobs still available.

Of course, as the Purdue-Kaplan story shows, boards of trustees, ALEC, corporate executives, and politicians-turned-university administrators all believe that online education works just as well as in-person instruction.

But this is not necessarily the case. Online education may have a place in a student’s total academic career, but there first must be discussion and debate on the appropriate mix of campus and online coursework, of interpersonal and electronic contact, of reading assignments, video lectures, and remote PowerPoint presentations. While Kaplan’s model of for-profit education is being touted as a boon for nontraditional students, the quality of such education is not being discussed.

In fact, Bernie Sanders’s proposal to make higher education free for everyone would do more to help nontraditional students than collaborations with for-profit firms with dubious performance records. Likewise, programs that provide additional support to regional campuses, community colleges, and extension programs or extended hours on campus for evening classes would help students who cannot access a traditional course of study.

Organizing for the Future of Higher Education

Seven years ago, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus made a series of proposals to address some of higher education’s crises. They began by noting that tuition for public and private colleges had doubled compared to a generation ago. Rising costs have forced parents to make large financial outlays for their children’s education — often second only to house mortgages. Students have had to take out loans that burdened them for their entire lives.

To combat this accumulation of debt, Hacker and Dreifus suggested a number of proposals, all of which faculty should fight for.

Institute free higher education for all who want it. Maintain course requirements that provide instruction in history, the arts, sciences, and reasoned discourse. Provide secure, full-time teachers for every classroom and eliminate the system of graduate students and temporary adjuncts, who receive one-sixth the pay of the tenured faculty. Pay presidents and other administrators salaries commensurate with public employees, not Wall Street CEOs.

While our wealthiest and most powerful institutions — corporations, banks, the military, the health care system — have come under intense public scrutiny in the new century, higher education has not. Education is still cast as an escape route from poverty, despite elevated real unemployment and crushing debt.

For faculty, the task is to organize effective groups, in alliance with students, labor, and the public at large, to defend the ideals of the university and challenge assumptions about higher education and its costs, accessibility, and labor practices. In every college and university setting, instructors must lead discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of the neoliberal agenda, with particular emphasis on its consequences for higher education.

The erosion of public higher education is proceeding apace, but it is not inevitable. “Education,” Barrow reminds us, “has been and remains a contested terrain.”