- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
There is a multifaceted crisis occurring in higher education in the United States right now. Graduate students trained to be professors cannot find jobs, and the vast majority of professors today are not even working tenure-track positions. Instead, academics everywhere struggle to piece together enough classes, which pay a few thousand bucks a piece, to survive. Undergraduates leave college buried under debt, which today’s labor and housing markets make extremely difficult to ever pay off.
Meanwhile, major universities and elite colleges have become leviathan-like entities lording over their cities and towns, operating as real estate developer, landlord, cop, medical provider, and boss — not only to academic workers, but also to many blue-collar workers whose jobs are often contracted out to third parties. At a time when wealthy universities have celebrated historic returns to their multibillion-dollar endowments, public universities suffer from decades of declining state aid, while many poorer and less prestigious privates face the possibility of extinction.
For Jacobin Radio podcast The Dig in February, Daniel Denvir interviewed academic and organizer Dennis M. Hogan, who has written on labor and the American university, about the state of higher ed in the United States today. This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
What was the university, and what has it become? What, in other words, characterizes today’s neoliberal university and its place in society and in political economy? What, by contrast, was the prior Fordist model and its function in the New Deal American capitalist order?
To the extent that we want to talk about what the university was and what it’s become, we have to go probably even further back than the New Deal era, the Fordist university, and think about a time when a university was a fairly restrictive place for the education of an elite. This is the role that the university serves throughout the nineteenth century, especially in the United States, where universities are overwhelmingly private.
The institution of land grant universities started to change that in the nineteenth century. But it’s not a coincidence that so many of the colleges and universities in the United States are located in New England, the mid-Atlantic, the strongholds of the WASP [white Anglo-Saxon Protestants] elite. The university was created by and for those people to educate their kids and to prepare them for entry into the American ruling class. But the university also serves another function, which is as a tool of nation building, as an arm of the state.
So in the nineteenth century, land grant universities evolved to fulfill some of these roles to educate people in the techniques of agriculture and mining. There’s a reason that so many of these universities are called “A&M,” because they are dedicated to imparting useful skills. Here we have this classic opposition of the education for itself, the finishing school for a gentleman that’s incarnated by the New England model of colleges and universities, versus the practical, technical trades–based or technical-based education that’s incarnated by the public universities that sprung up in the nineteenth century.
Over the course of the twentieth century, the university begins to encompass more and more of these roles in different ways, and then to also develop ties to defense-based research and other kinds of high-flying scientific and technical research. At the same time, the GI Bill sends Americans to college at rates never before seen. That’s why, when we think about the “Fordist university,” we think about a massive expansion of access, particularly to this generation of students who had fought in the wars and who were then using the privilege of the GI Bill — which was always racially unequally applied — to get an education.
The management structure of the Fordist university depends to a great extent on faculty governance as a model that allows the university to run with input from, basically, very interested amateurs, faculty or non-administrators. They’re not professional runners of institutions; they’re professional researchers and teachers. But they, to a large extent, are responsible for running universities. So administrators generally are promoted from within the ranks of the faculty.
As the shift to the neoliberal university happens, first we have to think about what is meant by “neoliberalism” or “the neoliberal university” — which is a term that is frequently bandied about, but often for the sake of saying it’s somehow a worse version of capitalism. There’s capitalism, which is bad, and then there’s neoliberal capitalism, which is really bad. Neoliberalism, for me, really means the channeling of public goods into private hands: the capture of funds, of resources, of benefits dedicated for public consumption by private, often profit-driven actors.
In the 1970s and ’80s, public support for higher education, particularly public higher education, began to crater. Some of that is undoubtedly a response to activist movements in the ’60s and ’70s — Ronald Reagan pioneers in some ways the defunding of public higher education as governor of California, in part as a response to student activism. What makes it neoliberal is that there is, in fact, an enormous amount of public money or money being channeled through public avenues still in higher education. But it isn’t direct benefits or direct provision of support for higher education. It’s offloaded onto students via debt. It’s allowed to leave private actors, typically students, holding the bag.
The current model of the neoliberal university is in part about securing federal student aid, which ultimately students are themselves forced to pay back and be responsible for. It’s about cultivating other revenue streams, whether it be investment funding, direct donations, or research and medical revenue. It’s also about erecting a professional superstructure of administrators, who are not from the ranks of the faculty, whose main job and whose training is to run large and extremely complicated institutions, because the management of an institution that depends on so many different kinds of revenue requires somebody who’s trained to administer it.
What role has declining state and federal investment in higher education played in creating and laying the groundwork for the present crisis? What’s the scope of the decline in aid that we’re talking about? And why did it happen?
It’s really two pronged. On the one hand, there’s directly declining aid — federal funding, state funding — where states look at, and the federal government looks at, the budget that they’re allocating to public colleges and universities and reduce it. But then there’s also expanding student populations, even as aid remains either steady or declining. What happens is you have a certain amount of dollars per student allocated, and then the students go up, dollars go down, and the average continues to decline.
Part of how it’s happened is that loans have replaced grants and other forms of aid. So colleges are basically being told to subsidize their own operations through increasing collection of tuition. The really important piece is that what’s happened is not that the government has gotten out of the business of giving money to colleges and universities; it’s that it’s refused to be the ones who backstop it. Instead, it’s been offloaded onto the students in the form of debt. Part of what the debt is doing is serving a disciplinary function.
To think about how decreasing aid for colleges and universities functions as a reaction to student activism in the 1960s and ’70s . . . on the one hand, it’s just punishing them. It’s a way of saying, “Look, you created this problem, so we’re going to make you suffer for it.” But it also serves an important disciplinary function by loading students up with so much debt that they don’t feel like they can take the risks of engaging in radical social activism, because they’re far too exposed to financial penalties if they get kicked out of school or get arrested or can’t finish their degree or graduate with a “useless” degree.
This is probably an unintended effect. I don’t want to say, like, Ronald Reagan said, “If we make them indebted, then they can’t be radicals.” But this is certainly a meaningful effect and a big difference-maker in what student activism looked like in the ’60s and ’70s compared to what it looks like today.
Are the student debt crisis and rising tuition alike? Are they both simply the result of universities looking to student debt to replace lost public funding? Or is it principally a story about one income stream being replaced by another? Are there also things like increasing administrative bloat, which you referenced, and also this arms race for the sorts of fancy amenities that can attract full-freight-paying students?
Those factors are definitely playing a role. There’s also the ideological difference in what colleges and university education is understood to be offering. Part of the ideological shift that happens in this era of the neoliberal university is that college and university education goes from something thought about along the lines of an entitlement — if you can get in, you should be able to go and to go for free or for a very affordable price tag — to something like an investment, where you have to spend money to make money.
If you think about the way that college and university education, whether public or private, is marketed to students, the idea is that there’s pretty much no amount of money that you can spend on your education investing in yourself that would be too much, because the wage premium of a college degree is still going to pay you back. It’s something akin to what real estate is thought of, where it’s always a good idea to spend more money on real estate because you’ll always make more money on it.
Part of the problem is that the wage premium for college has been declining, and so the investment itself is not as good of an investment as it once was. Although it would be wrong to say that people with degrees are worse off economically than people without them, it’s also true that increasingly the investment doesn’t pay off if students are forced to leave college without finishing their program or their degree. So the benefit of the degree doesn’t come, but the debt remains.
Then there’s the amenities arms race, the administrative bloat, the increasing amount of budget that’s spent on activities that are not directly related to teaching and learning. This is principally going on among higher-prestige institutions, whether flagship publics or fancy privates, which is not always to say the most selective institutions. There are plenty of less-selective institutions that are still expensive and still relatively prestigious. And the arms race looks different in different places. In some colleges and universities, it looks like a fancy new research center or a fancy new student center. In other places, it looks like a giant, lazy river, because there are schools that have literally put in giant pools for students to hang out.
The lazy river is like a egregious example because it’s one of those things where . . . you put in a lazy river in 2017; it’s part of the $85 million recreation center. What makes it particularly egregious is that the classrooms are literally crumbling. The instructional facilities have not been maintained even as the recreational facilities, the sports facilities, and so on have been supercharged.
This gets to some of the critique of how universities are governed. What is the extent to which people are allowed to have some form of democratic input over the decisions that administrators make. Whether you want to envision those people as students, as faculty, as other staff employed at the institution — or in the case of public colleges and universities, whether you want to think about constituents, residents of the state, citizens, taxpayers . . . pick your group. The issue is that students are not asked, “Hey, do you feel like subsidizing the lazy river?” They’re charged a price tag, and they may never float down it, but they will likely sit in the crumbling classroom.
You mentioned that the amenities arms race isn’t happening at all universities, or at least that it’s not happening in the same way everywhere. We should pause now to break out what college looks like in the United States, because Harvard and Sarah Lawrence students — or to use the example of our alma maters, Reed and Swarthmore students — these are far from the median college experience in this country.
What does higher education look like as a whole? Flagship versus satellite, public versus private, HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities], community colleges, elite liberal arts colleges versus the ones that face financial ruin every year: What does the sector look like generally speaking, across this huge diversity of institutions? How are the present crises in the sector being differently experienced and managed in these different schools and among different sorts of students?
Part of what makes it so difficult to get your mind around American higher education is precisely the diversity of kinds of institutions, funding streams, organizational structures, and missions that you’re referencing here. If you want to contrast it with countries with a much stronger and more developed public higher education system, their systems are a little bit more top-down. They’re designed in a way where there are regional institutions, there are national institutions, and there are local institutions, but they feed into each other. They have clear relationships. Whereas in the United States, we have this hodgepodge of different kinds of institutions.
The first thing to acknowledge is that 56 percent of students who attend college attend college within an hour’s drive of their homes. And a lot of those students are commuting. So if you think about the college experience, the idea that you get packed off to some New England state and live there for four years — that doesn’t look like the vast majority of student experiences. The vast majority of students who go to college go to the college or university that they can get into and that is closest to them. Seventy percent of students go to school within two hours of where they grew up.
Those schools overwhelmingly tend to be public schools or some form of public or quasi-public institution, whatever you want to call it: whether it’s community colleges, two-year colleges, regional, state, or city colleges. The funding crisis, the declining support for colleges and universities, hit them the hardest.
Importantly, when a student has a local college or university that is the default option for them and that school closes because of declining funding or because of consolidation, they don’t necessarily go to the next closest school. A lot of the students just won’t go to school, in part because going to school is thought of as one option that students have, among others.
For the kind of student that’s going to go to an elite college or university, there’s no question about going to college. The question is, which college? But there’s lots of students who go because they have an opportunity, because it’s around, because they see a program that’s interesting, because somebody directs them to it, because they reach a point in their working lives — whether they’re younger or older — when they feel like, “Hey, I need to do something different and get myself a credential or change careers, and I’ll go to the school near me.” Those are the schools that are hit hardest, and those are the students that are hit hardest, by funding cuts.
To shift gears a little bit and think about what the landscape looks like in the elite world or the private world: we see this bifurcation that’s driving the competition among the most elite schools versus the private schools that are struggling to survive. As running a college gets increasingly expensive and as the demands of keeping up with “peer institutions,” whatever group that they happen to be for the college that you’re at, continue to accelerate — there’s a winnowing effect where the schools that are richest and can invest the most in things like maintaining their rankings, keeping their selectivity up, and offering new programs and new innovative ways of attracting students, tend to survive. Whereas the schools that don’t have the resources to invest in that kind of planning and that kind of expansion of the mission end up getting left behind.
There are a few different ways that manifests. First of all, because of the way that elite colleges and universities operate as a prestige cartel. . . . With any other business, what you would have is you would have the richest and the largest institutions expanding. If you are a regular business and you’re sitting on tons of capital and you are outcompeting all of your peers, you would expand, you would franchise, you would move into another geographic region, you would go global, what have you. Harvard would buy other colleges and then have little Harvards all over the country. You do see some of that. There is this sort of global phenomenon. There is NYU [New York University] Abu Dhabi.
Part of the difficulty is that as the access to the elite credential expands, the credentials’ perception of value declines. Is there a difference between the person who has the NYU degree and the person who has the NYU Abu Dhabi degree? NYU would argue no. Yet I think employers would potentially distinguish between them.
So one thing that I’ve been thinking about a little bit recently is the market for these elite credentials probably looks a lot more like the market for a luxury good than it looks like the market for ordinary goods where you have a high-cost, high-prestige, high-value item whose cost, prestige, and value is at least partially due to the fact that the supply is artificially restricted. Harvard has the money where it could enroll thousands and thousands more students, but then it wouldn’t be able to accept fewer than 9 percent of the people who apply. Then what would the value of saying I went to Harvard be, if everybody gets to go to Harvard?
You mentioned that our system, or system of systems or overlapping systems, is really particular to the United States. I want to underline that, because we have a lot of listeners all over the place. Canadian friends, for example, have told me that the way Americans, especially those who went to more elite colleges, talk about the college experience is totally alien to them.
Yeah, I would believe it. I have taught in universities in Canada and Spain, and it really is a vastly different experience. Some of it is the same. You still have professors conducting research, offering classes, and teaching students. There still is an academic culture that I think is somewhat global.
What changes is, first, who the institution is understood to serve. [In other countries,] institutions are thought of as having this mandate to serve local students, to serve students who are seeking different kinds of education. The mission is at least somewhat conceived of as a public good. Then the entire infrastructure of donors — of naming buildings after wealthy donors, of buying, endowing offices, chairs, what have you — it doesn’t exist, because there is no basis for cultivating that kind of culture around private philanthropic support for education.
Donations to colleges and universities are among the most regressive forms of giving that exist. Philanthropic giving to wealthy institutions is almost exclusively reputational laundering rather than advancing a social mission. That’s not to say that if you give money that’s earmarked for increasing access to elite institutions — if I give a donation to a very fancy school and I say that this donation is going to be earmarked for students who are underrepresented, students who come from working-class or poor backgrounds — it’s not to say that there isn’t some social benefit to that kind of giving, but ultimately you’re taking an institution that has the resources to engage in that kind of mission anyway, and you’re giving it extra money to put your name somewhere and get a tax write-off. That culture just doesn’t exist in other places. It really is so normalized for us, despite being bizarre in a global context.
Speaking of expanding access, student bodies are far more diverse today than they were during the heyday of public education, though, of course, that diversity is very unevenly distributed across these overlapping public and private systems that we were just discussing. What should we make of that uneven diversification of the student body, which is obviously a good thing, not its unevenness, but the fact that it’s more diverse? What should we make of that coinciding with the neoliberalization of higher education?
They’re directly related. Part of the logic of education as investment that’s so pernicious is that it does not allow us to think about education as a right. Students have a right to a K-12 education provided by the state, although there are all kinds of ways in which the state provides that education unevenly, inadequately, and in a way that upholds white supremacy.
But students don’t have a right to a college education. Students who qualify can get federal grants and lower interest loans that have some chance for forgiveness. But ultimately, the thinking is still that if you want to pursue a college education, that’s something you’re doing for yourself because you’re going to get a benefit from it. But the reality of the labor market that students are being thrown into has made it so that college is far less optional than it once was.
That’s what seems so pernicious here: that growing numbers of people are being told that college is a requirement without it being accorded as a right.
Yes. We’re not just talking about four-year degrees. A bachelor’s degree is not necessarily required to the same extent that it was. But if you want to work in the medical field you have to get at least some sort of certification, a yearlong program, a two-year program, some kind of job training. Increasingly employers — and this is a failure of the labor market — have said that they are no longer going to be providing that kind of training. They’re demanding employees with that training already. So here’s another way in which the cost and the burden has been offset from an institution that’s capable of bearing it to an individual who’s basically being thrown to the wolves if everything doesn’t work out perfectly.
We have the tuition side, where declining state and federal support for public education means that individual students have to hold the bag. We also have the labor side, where employers are increasingly unwilling to offer training and credentialing as a routine part of what it means to employ people, which means that people are then forced to go and get their training and credentialing themselves. A lot of that looks like going to your local public school and getting the certificate or the credential that you need to be able to work in the field.
There are a couple of things I want to pull apart here that I think are really important. One has to do with the fact that employers are no longer investing in workers over the long term. Part of the cost that you bear if you choose to train someone is that if you decide to fire them, lay them off, let them go, restructure your organization, or what have you a year or two down the road, all the money you spent giving them that credential, you’ve thrown away or made available to another employer. So it’s way better, if you’re an employer, if the worker has to bear the cost of doing that training themselves. Because if you fire them, you’ve lost nothing. If you lay them off, you’ve lost nothing.
But for the first time, in the labor shortage that we’re experiencing now, employers are seeing that the chickens are coming home to roost, because they cannot find people credentialed to do the work that they need. The labor shortage is certainly affecting lower-wage occupations that don’t require any credentialing, but it’s really acutely felt in things like health care where there’s not only a real mismatch between labor pools in regions and the need for them. That is only going to grow as the need for health care continues to explode, as the boomers age into needing more and more intensive care.
But the credentialing race has meant that there’s not even a pool of workers who are ready. Even if you were to throw a bunch of workers who are interested in getting those credentials into training programs today and give the credentials for free, you still wouldn’t come close to solving the labor shortage for months, in some instances, and years in others. That’s why there’s such a competition for the relatively smaller number of workers who already have these credentials.
To come back to the question of the diversification of higher education, increasingly students are being thrown into a labor market in which getting some form of higher education is not optional, but a requirement for working, even in what we would think of as normal jobs.
There’s a massive difference between a public flagship institution that can replace declining state and federal revenue by chasing out-of-state students who then pay full freight. Because there’s much less of a public mission to educate out-of-state students versus in-state students. So the idea is, we’ll recruit some out-of-state students and they’ll subsidize the in-state students.
A community college doesn’t have that option. And the function that they fulfill is at least as essential as the function that the four-year public flagship that offers graduate education and specialized research is fulfilling, because at a very basic level, the workers who need credentials now to even participate in the economy and plug really dire labor market gaps are not going, for the most part, to a university. And they’re not coming from out of state. They’re going to these locally serving public institutions that specialize in offering these kinds of programs.
We’ve been complaining about administrative bloat; everyone is always complaining about administrative bloat. But what exactly is going on with these growing ranks of administrators? Who’s being hired to do what and why? How does that all change what a university does, how money and resources are allocated across the university, and then who governs the university?
The administrative bloat question is one that faculty in particular love to point the finger at, because the problem is always that there are new administrators and never that the faculty are to blame. And I agree. But part of the story is about how colleges and universities have increasingly divested themselves of blue-collar employees and pink-collar employees to chase increasingly professionalized white-collar administrative employees to fulfill specialized functions.
If you look at the composition of who’s actually employed by college and universities, especially private ones, what you see is massive outsourcing of the blue-collar and service work. You get contracts with Aramark, with Allied Barton, with security forces, with food vendors, whatever. Then you don’t have to directly employ those workers, which, by the way, means that you’re not subject to the same sort of labor protections and standards. It’s also a way to union bust and erode the college’s responsibility to employ people from local communities.
So that’s happening on the one hand — colleges are reducing how many people in those categories they employ — while they’re also increasing the credentialing requirements for administrative jobs, because they are asking that the day-to-day running of the institution, which is getting increasingly complex as the institutions themselves become increasingly complex, fall on this middling rank of administrators who have some sort of professional degree.
That’s not even to get into the high-level administrators. When faculty complain about administrative bloat, they don’t mean, “Hey, we used to have one department secretary, and now we have a department administrator, a department administrative assistant, and a department manager.”
Faculty love department secretaries.
Of course they do. Because they actually do the work; they are doing the actual day-to-day work to make the department run, which is precisely what people got into academia to avoid — doing paperwork.
Although I want to be fair to faculty, one of the things that has really accelerated dramatically over the last few years is the amount of time spent doing assessment, documentation, and paperwork. When you start to look into this stuff, there are so many paradoxes. Even as there are more and more administrators running around fulfilling these roles, faculty are being asked to do so much more of their own administrative labor. The question is, why? How does that happen? It’s somewhat different at every institution.
But to come to the question of the higher-level administrators, this is where you see the consolidation of something like technocratic power among university managers. These are people who sometimes have an academic background; sometimes they don’t. It’s different in different institutions. In elite private schools, there’s still a premium on hiring high-level administrators who have some academic background, whereas in a Republican-controlled state, you’re just as likely to have the legislature appoint the CEO of a fast-food restaurant and be like, “We’re going to run college like a business” or whatever.
But these people increasingly have unilateral power to impose their vision from the top down on the institution. Partially it’s because things like shared governance have been so consistently eroded over time. And partially it’s a function of the increasing complexity of the institutions, to the point where they can no longer be run by amateurs because amateurs would be out of their depth.
By “amateur,” I don’t mean naive: I mean somebody who is primarily trained in doing something like research and teaching, who then takes on some of the labor of helping the institution run as part of their service. You can’t have a professor of classics or professor of physics also look after the investments on the side. That would be a disaster. Not because they’re not qualified or they can’t understand it, but because they have their own jobs. You need somebody whose full-time job is to look after the investments — ideally, an entire department of people whose full-time jobs are to look after the investments.
If this whole “you should go to college” or “you must go to college” mode depends on colleges delivering students future earnings higher than they would otherwise have made as non–college graduates, and high enough beyond that to pay off their debts — you suggested that there’s a nascent problem at work here, given the growing share of college-educated people who are downwardly mobile, unable to secure the sort of job that they imagined they would be able to, or to purchase a home. What does that problem look like and how do you see it playing out?
There’s a couple of different ways. First, to think about the majority of students, the people who will attend a local two- or four-year institution seeking some sort of very practical job credential — they encounter a lot of different roadblocks. One is that a lot of colleges and universities are not set up to support these kinds of students, even if they are specialized in serving them, because of the way the academic calendar works, because of the requirements to get a degree, because of scheduling, because of language barriers, what have you. So those students, even if they may enroll and they may take on debt, they may not complete the program, and then they have the debt but they don’t have the credential.
Let’s say they do complete the credential. They will find that that credential already has a built-in expiration date, either because they are going to get themselves into one tier of the labor market, but they will need to go back for another credential to get into the next tier, or because they have specialized in something that is a good opportunity now but won’t be a good opportunity later.
You can get federal financial aid and student loans to go to coding boot camp. But if you get a coding boot camp credential now, you may get a coding job for a while, but at some point your skills are going to be out of date, and you’re going to have to go back and either get another credential or find another job. That’s already begun to happen.
I have a good friend who switched careers and jumped in on the code camp boom. They make very strong — if not promises — suggestions that they will hook you up with a job. And now the tech sector is shedding tens of thousands of jobs.
Tressie McMillan Cottom talks about this at the end of her book Lower Ed, which came out a few years ago. Since then the trend has already accelerated — astonishingly, because so many of these credentialing programs are money grabs. You get placed into one job, and then you’re not the problem anymore. You can’t go back and say, hey, I got laid off, I got fired, or the thing that you taught me to code is no longer the current language. They just say, you could always reenroll, take out more loans to get another degree, or get another certificate or credential.
Then there’s the extent to which these credentials are not that meaningful. Obviously, for something like health care, there is a certain amount of job training that’s required, but there are lots of instances where somebody has been doing a job as a professional for a number of years, and then in order to get a promotion, they need a stamp or a piece of paper saying that they have the skills that they already possess, and then they are sort of extorted by the credentialing system into paying for that imprimatur of knowledge that they already have.
We’re requiring people to do these dizzying calculations of, is it a good risk to do this and do that, and then maybe I can get into this next salary grade? But will I make more than the loans that I’ve taken out? Or maybe I should go this other route, or maybe I should change careers. We’re asking people to become entrepreneurs of their own life. Which is not fair to workers who are looking to get a decent job and earn a stable living and raise a family and what have you.
Then there’s the question of the downwardly mobile so-called PMC [professional-managerial class], which is a totally different scenario. Here you have people who have gotten a four-year degree and in many cases have gone into pretty astounding levels of debt for it. Because even if you take a one-year certificate program at a public school, you may be in what is a significant amount of debt, but it can never amount to what four-year private college is going to charge you, even in the worst-case scenario.
So you have people who’ve gone to these kinds of institutions, who’ve obtained a degree, in many cases, modeled on this liberal arts or finishing school model, where the degree itself doesn’t credential you to do anything; it merely stamps you as somebody who has gone to college. I don’t want to overgeneralize. There are lots of ways in which even a liberal arts education has become responsive to labor market pressures to graduate with specific skills that can be immediately employed.
But also, many white-collar jobs require a college degree, not because the jobs themselves demand skills that only people who’ve been to college possess, but because it’s a way of winnowing out who, on a class basis, is able to work those jobs. It is just a way of saying, we want someone who’s “educated,” somebody who knows how to write an email, and who can wear business casual and sit in the office and act in a certain way that is very classed and racialized. That’s a big part of what requiring a nonspecialized bachelor’s degree means in a lot of hiring situations.
I’m in academia, so obviously I believe in education. Obviously, I believe in the liberal arts. I’m teaching students right now a course that’s on these issues around colleges and universities, not because I think they’ll go on to be college and university administrators, but because I think that their lives will be enriched by critically approaching something that’s really important in their lives. The issue is not “educating” students to do something useless. The solution is not that every degree becomes a professional degree, because then you fall into the same pitfall as the coding camp — you educate people to do something specific, and then their skills get out of date, or the economy changes, or whatever.
The issue is you cannot continue to expect people to go into tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt for, basically, four years of exploring their interests. It’s not fair. It’s not fair to them; it’s not fair to the people who are expected to teach them. If students are going to pursue education for its own sake, we need to create a system and a society in which they are allowed to do that.
To return to our discussion of public schools and institutions in other countries with more developed social welfare states: it’s not to say that they get them entirely right or that they’re perfect, but there’s a lot more freedom for people to get into college and choose courses of study that may not directly lead to what they end up doing for their career — because they want to, because they’re young, because they’re interested, because people fundamentally deserve an opportunity to learn about the world and explore things that matter to them.
On that note, enrollment in the humanities and many social sciences has been plummeting for quite a while in favor of degrees deemed to be more economically practical. Although I did just see an article in Axios that there are some recent signs that this is beginning to shift a little, in terms of undergraduate students increasingly declaring nonpractical majors.
Is this a phenomenon of student debt and that increasingly bleak labor market, coercing poorer students into ensuring that their credentials will deliver the return that they need — a big return big enough on their investment to pay off their loans? Which would then leave this pure liberal arts pursuit of critical thinking for its own sake something that’s increasingly the exclusive preserve of students rich enough to afford it.
That’s part of it. If you look at the high watermark of humanities majors in American higher education, like English, for example, it’s the ’60s, it’s the ’70s. In the nineteenth century, almost everybody was graduating with some sort of humanities-influenced degree.
But if you want to look at when English was the majority of declared majors, it was right at the moment when this turn to the neoliberal university started to happen. Part of that is just the class character of who was in college at the time. Even though there was a massive expansion of access to higher education relative to who had been allowed to go to college previously — even so, colleges and universities were overwhelmingly populated by wealthy and middle-class students who understood that they were getting a well-rounded education so that they could enter the ranks of the professional world.
That is less the case now. At least some of that is determined by the changing composition of who’s going to college. To the extent that the “decline” of the humanities is a reflection of increased access to college among working-class and poor students, it’s hard to be too sentimental about that. I would much rather have a diverse higher education landscape along the lines of race, class, gender, geographical origin, and what have you, than one in which 70 percent of the students majored in English, but which is more homogenous.
At the same time, there’s a great extent to which the increasing specialization in so-called STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] fields is a policy choice. Not to in any way denigrate the STEM fields or my colleagues who work in them. But there’s been a concerted push by everyone from politicians down to university and college administrators to funnel students into those programs, because they provide the kind of practical job training skills that employers are increasingly demanding out of colleges.
So there’s a mutual interest: we’ll train our students to work for you, our students will pay for it, and then you’ll hire them. And that’s great for everybody because the students get a job. You get a worker, and we get a placement.
That is not happening at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I’m sure they hire some wonderful people, but they can’t hire thousands of people. We would live in a better world if we lived in a world where the Shakespeare Library or any other humanities institution could hire on that scale. But that’s another story.
So you have this piece: the cycle of training, placement, and job that is unique to the technical science, math, and engineering fields. You also have a steady stream of corporate and government money that’s devoted to subsidizing research and development in these fields. Because you’re never going to produce a breakthrough in the comparative literature department that can be monetized to the tune of millions of dollars for which the university owns the patent.
If you go to college campuses, students are being fed a steady stream of propaganda from administrators telling them that this is what they have to major in. There’s some part of it that is determined by students’ interest. Students need to make good on their investment. Students desire to come out of college with a skill that’s useful and immediately marketable, particularly if they’re the first in their family to go to college and they feel a need to immediately begin to deliver on everything that’s been put into getting them in that position.
But there’s also some amount that’s within the room of maneuver: where students come to school, maybe with a certain set of interests or a certain background, knowing that they can major in anything. And from the day they set foot on campus they are being told by everybody in positions of responsibility that the humanities is good for fun, but ultimately they need to be thinking about something more concrete.
Daniel Bessner had this great New York Times column recently on the decline of history as a profession. Rick Scott, the former governor of Florida in 2012, had a task force that recommended that people who major in history and other humanities fields be charged higher tuition at state university. Kentucky governor Matt Bevin, in 2016, said that French literature majors should not receive state funding for their degrees. Ron DeSantis, a real star in the anti-humanities war, mocked people who go into debt to “end up with degrees in things like zombie studies.” Then he cited [Barack] Obama, who in 2014 said, “Folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” He later apologized to an art historian, apparently.
There’s this political-economic thing going on and, very much related, this culture war thing that gets to its spiciest when it’s these right-wing attacks on the humanities. But it’s pervasive throughout American political culture in many ways.
I think historians in general — my dear colleagues in history — tend to overestimate the extent to which the mere existence of history poses a threat to right-wing models of national narrative. But there’s some truth in that. It is not totally untrue that part of the reason why the humanities get targeted by these demagogues is because they do, on some scale, offer people competing narratives about who we are, what our history is, how we got here.
There’s at least some extent to which these battles are mutually beneficial or have been mutually beneficial [for both sides]. Because it allows both to seem as though they’re the sworn enemies of the other and thus perpetuate the cycle of editorial and countereditorial. But I think it’s very important to acknowledge that the power is overwhelmingly weighted on the side of the people who control the purse strings, which are not academic historians, no matter how many excoriating editorials they might write. This is not about Bessner’s piece, by the way, which I think has a much more expansive understanding of what’s at stake.
To come back to the economics of it — and as much as it’s possible to divorce an economic question from political, ideological questions — we can somewhat divorce this from the straight-up ideological culture war battles. It just comes down to revenue streams. Humanities and social science departments are thought of as cost centers, whereas science, technology, engineering, and particularly applied science departments and programs are thought of as revenue generators. Because they bring in grant money, they bring in research funding, they bring in corporate partnerships, they bring in all of this investment.
So when a college is looking at developing revenue streams and building the bottom line, they’re going to say, what would we rather invest in spending money on? Something that’s going to potentially generate new revenue in the form of these partnerships and these investments in these sponsorships — and most important, in the form of research breakthroughs that can be monetized? Or do we just throw money at this humanities department that’s constantly asking for more money and that never brings in a single dollar in terms of in terms of the kind of revenue that we’re looking for — both because they’ll never produce a monetizable breakthrough and because they’re not going to partner with Lockheed Martin to train the next generation of airplane builders to read French literature?
But to bring the ideological piece back in, what that misses is all the ways in which these technical and scientific programs do cost the university enormous amounts of money. One way that you have to remain competitive for research grants, for example, is by maintaining state of the art systems, like laboratories facilities. The grants are often to conduct the research, not necessarily to build out the facilities needed to actually do the research.
This is another way in which even this competition for subsidies privileges the wealthiest institutions. At Brown, for example, there was a constant conversation about how we need to upgrade our research facilities because we’re losing out to places like Harvard and MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], because our labs are older and they’re not as extensive, and we have researchers who are going up to Boston to use other facilities rather than doing [research] here. So we need to invest tons of money in building new labs and upgrading our lab infrastructure so that we can be competitive for the grants again. This is always the investment mentality, of “you need to spend money to make money.”
But the other thing that that ignores is the largest revenue stream for colleges and universities still is tuition money, whether it’s money that comes from federal grants and aid or money that comes directly out of students’ and families pockets. When you start to look at it that way, humanities and social sciences departments are not these major cost centers, the way they’re portrayed, as they are generating the tuition dollars by educating huge numbers of students.
Even as English majors decline, for example, a very large number of students, even if they majored in physics or computer science, are going to take an English course at some point. Whether it’s because they feel like they should read some literature while they’re in college, or whether it’s because they are doing the “service courses” like writing across the disciplines or college composition. They’re going to be educated by people who are in the humanities and social sciences. Not every student is going to take a class in electrical engineering. In fact, a much smaller percentage of students will.
There’s also a potentially powerful contradiction here. What we have is an ideological current that, at one level, seems to be serving capital’s economic interest in a neat way, by rendering the university a purely instrumental STEM boot camp to serve capital’s accumulation purposes.
But at the same time, it undermines this more general, less quantifiable liberal purpose that liberal arts education serves to reproduce capitalist society. This is something that has been important to the system from the get-go. So I am guessing it serves some purpose in reproducing the system. Maybe it’s a case study of this broader contradiction we’re seeing in terms of capitalism and illiberalism.
Putting the Republican right-wing ideologues to the side, because I think that to a certain extent, they actually buy what they’re selling — but if you think about the liberals, the Obamas, the Democratic politicians and social figures, like the Mike Bloombergs, who want to foreground this kind of very narrowly, technically focused education . . . the hypocrisy is revealed in the fact that they would never themselves educate their own families and children in that way. They want to create one model of education to educate workers and then another model of education to reproduce their class and to educate the next leaders.
Increasingly that is just what the economy looks like: an incredibly rarified system of education in which wealthy students and a select few students from other backgrounds are allowed to pursue their passions, to develop as people, to work with luminaries, and to generally get very highly valued, prestigious credentials. Another tier in which ordinary college students are funneled into getting a technical credential that’s going to allow them to fulfill white-collar management jobs.
Other students are funneled into the two-year and certificate-granting institutions to get a short-term credential that’s going to let them get a job that capitalists happen to need today or tomorrow or next year. Then, roughly half the students are funneled into either prisons or low-wage work and are never given the opportunity to attend college or higher education really at all.
That is the system. That’s what it looks like. Those are the groups of students, broadly speaking, that it’s designed to serve. And it’s very difficult — not impossible, many such cases — but difficult to jump between them, to move up the ranks of prestige and exclusivity. You tend to stay in the system that you’ve been funneled into for the most part.
A key feature of this crisis is that academic labor has undergone massive casualization with roughly 70 percent of professors currently working off the tenure track, most of them making less than $3,500 per course. What’s driving this phenomenon? Is it just a cost-saving measure, or are there other motivations and forces at work?
It was once the case that in the ’70s, for example, over 70 percent of instructors at colleges were either tenured or on the tenure track. It used to look very predictable: You would finish graduate school. You would get hired as an assistant professor. You would work for a certain amount of time to demonstrate your value to the profession and to the department. Then, on the basis of a vote of your colleagues, you would be granted tenure, which would make you essentially unfireable, except in certain extreme circumstances, and guarantee you a job for life.
There are lots of reasons why, as the manager of a fundamentally neoliberal institution that values having a much greater deal of flexibility, that model is bad for you as the boss. It makes workers very difficult to get rid of. It makes it very expensive to hire new workers because there’s an expectation that they’re going to be around for the rest of their careers. It makes it difficult to respond to changing curricular needs and changing student interests. And the longer they stay around, the more these people expect to get paid.
So you have this situation where the people who have been at the institution for the longest and in some cases are doing the least — not to generalize in any way about senior professors, many of whom are extraordinarily active teachers and researchers. But those people who are the least hungry are getting paid the most, while the people who are fighting to make it are commanding less.
The answer to this has been increasing casualization — the replacement of permanent guaranteed work with short-term, term-limited, and incredibly insecure work. It’s also important to acknowledge that this is not exceptional about academic labor; it’s just something that American workers have been experiencing for decades now. There’s been an increasing turn toward subcontracting, toward hiring temporary workers, toward gig working.
All of this is finding its reflection in the conditions of academic employment. Universities neither pioneered it nor perfected it, and so there’s not really much of a difference, I would argue, between Amazon hiring temp agencies to employ everybody in their warehouses so that they can be hired and fired at will, staffed up at times when it’s busy and let go and times when it isn’t, and to indemnify the company from what they would view as draconian restrictions like fair labor treatment. . . .
There’s not much difference between that and universities deciding that most of their teaching is going to be done by adjuncts or visitors who they don’t have to pay full time, who they don’t have to give so many benefits to, who can be hired on a term basis and not renewed. There’s a difference between not renewing someone’s contract and firing them, and yet materially, the experience is the same. You don’t have a job where you once did.
There’s really a broad-based sharing of this experience of institutional devaluation across everybody employed by colleges and universities. It’s not just the adjunct instructor or the visiting assistant professor who’s going to be there for a year and then has to pack their bags and go move to a different college across the country next year. It’s dining services being entirely contracted out. It’s library workers who are getting replaced by student labor and being attritioned out of being employed by the university. It’s security guards and desk employees.
All these categories of workers are experiencing the same drive to abrogate the responsibility of the employer to the employee to guarantee income, benefits, fair treatment, and so on. It is just that academic labor, which has traditionally, especially in the private sector, been nonunionized, has been given the opportunity in an overwhelming way to fight back with this NLRB [National Labor Relations Board].
How has that massive decline in tenure-track jobs reverberated into the graduate programs that ostensibly exist principally to produce new professors? In that recent New York Times op ed, Bessner cited a report finding “that only 27 percent of those who received a PhD in history in 2017 were employed as tenure-track professors four years later.”
What happens to history PhD programs or others down the line when there are so few history and other such discipline professor jobs available. And what’s happening now? Because that statistic looks bleak and like it challenges the very rationale for a PhD program’s existence.
It’s incredibly bleak. What is the function of training graduate students in a discipline? We don’t have to talk just about disciplines like history or comparative literature, but even disciplines like the pure sciences, where research is conducted in a primary way but without necessarily promising application: math, physics, chemistry, what have you. What is the goal of having graduate students?
One is to train the next generation of researchers and teachers. It is this old-school apprenticeship model where you’re under respected experts in the field who have a certain mastery of the craft of research and teaching, and you’re expected to absorb those skills from them.
The other function is to engage in frontline teaching and to bear a significant portion of the instructional duties of the department. So, either you’re teaching sections or you’re offering introductory courses or you’re engaged in one-on-one advising and mentorship with undergraduates — which is not only part of the labor that you do, but also in theory, part of the training for the job that you’re going to get when you finish your program of apprenticeship.
I would add that it is a major benefit offered to faculty at these institutions that they are given the opportunity to engage in this training. All faculty, I would argue, have at least some desire to reproduce the things that they love about their discipline, about their profession. They want to train people who are interested in their ideas, who are interested in their work, and who are going to carry on their legacy.
When you’re inculcated into this culture of academia, there is a great premium placed on the tradition, on the history, on the ways in which the discoveries and the research and the ideas of people who’ve come before you have paved the way for your ability to do that. The advisor-advisee relationship does at least notionally create that bond in an incredibly personal way and incarnate the ways in which knowledge and method and craft are passed down across generations. When you eviscerate that, you eviscerate the ability for any of those things to continue.
Somebody who doesn’t see the value in something like academic research happening in disciplines like history, literature, or even in pure science would say, “Who cares? Too bad.” But I would argue that it is being experienced by people engaged in that work as an incredible loss of richness in their lives and in their world, that they can watch evaporating before their eyes — whether it’s the faculty who are seeing their graduate students fail to secure employment or the graduate students who are themselves on the business end of the incredibly poor labor market.
Even a statistic like 27 percent of all PhDs not being employed as tenure-track or tenured professors doesn’t give us the whole story, because the best, most highly respected graduate programs, at the places that have the highest placement record, may be getting 50 or 60 percent of their graduates into tenure-track employment within four years. That’s the best-case scenario, which means that you still have close to a majority of them failing to secure that kind of secure employment. At programs that are lower in the prestige class — which still includes most programs, because not everybody is going to be in the top ten — the placement rate looks even worse; in some places, abysmal, nonexistent.
People are getting these degrees and then graduating into nothing. They’re teaching high school, which is in some cases a great outcome, but not, again, what you’re necessarily being trained to do when you get a PhD in a subject like history. They’re teaching as adjuncts. They’re outside of the academy forever as a career.
Being outside of academia is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. In some cases, it can be very refreshing, and I speak from experience in that. But when you invested a decade of your life being trained to do a job, and then you’re told that the job doesn’t exist, it’s a difficult pill to swallow. It’s even more difficult because it’s not as though nobody’s doing the work that the job entails. It’s that they’re not going to pay you to do it in a way that makes it sustainable for you to live.
It would be one thing if it was like, “We’re phasing out this thing’s existence; we’re not going to teach college students anymore.” But college students are still going to college in huge numbers. They’re still taking these courses, they’re still enrolling, they’re still learning. We’re just not paying people adequately to do it because we’ve reimagined in a profoundly negative way what it means to do this kind of teaching. It’s not like we just need a just transition — we need job retraining and a just transition for indigent academics.
If we want to think about the project of diversifying the faculty, of hiring professors, researchers, and teachers who look a lot more like what this country looks like and who represent the diversity of experiences that students who come to college have, one of the worse ways that we can go about achieving that is by demolishing the prospects for people to get decent employment after finishing graduate programs. Because it’s going to have the effect of not only restricting who is able to undertake the substantial risk of devoting eight or ten or twelve years of your life to enter a profession that may never employ you. It’s also going to throw up all kinds of barriers for people who don’t have financial resources, family wealth, or other forms of private safety net to fall back on and to stay in the game.
Faculty diversity lags far behind the demographics of this country in part because faculty tend to stay around for a long time. It’s a job that people continue to do into their seventies and into their eighties, which in many cases is great. But it’s also because we’ve created a system that makes it functionally impossible for somebody who comes from a background in which they are not set up socially to be funneled into elite academia to overcome the many hurdles that are put in place.
An an enormous amount of academics have family who are also academics; in many cases immediate parents. So it really is in these instances a family business, where you’re inculcated into the many codes, the many secrets, the many tips and tricks and the many ways of behaving and carrying yourself and supporting yourself, that succeeding in the profession requires.
All of which makes it almost impossible for somebody who is first-generation, somebody who is working-class or poor, somebody who attended a lower-ranked graduate program or a lower-ranked undergraduate program to succeed. These are exactly the kinds of people who we should be recruiting into the profession — both because it makes the profession stronger, because students are going to be able to better connect with people who have the kind of experiences that they’ve had, and because the work that the people are doing is good, and that deserves to be recognized and rewarded.
As long as we continue to attack and destroy labor standards within the profession, we’re going to make sure that only those who have the independent means to support themselves outside of work are able to do it, which would be a tremendous loss for research, for the profession, and most important, for the students that we claim to teach and educate.
You’ve written a lot about the financialization of the university, principally about the growing role played by endowments. At most elite universities, those endowments in recent years have been securing absolutely massive returns. Meanwhile, many colleges have almost no endowment to speak of at all.
What do endowments look like at these most elite universities, and how has their increasing centrality transformed those institutions? What does that growing divide between the endowment haves and have-nots mean for higher ed as a whole?
Let’s begin with what endowments look like at these elite universities. One of the things that’s important to understand about both the growing size of endowments and the growing centrality of endowments to the university’s operations is that the concept of the financialized university endowment is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Universities have always had endowments, which are intended to support the operating budget of the university and the university into perpetuity. But the idea that the endowment should be fundamentally a pool of investment capital that is used to seek large rates of return to sustain and grow that initial pool of capital into perpetuity is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it tracks the growing importance of financialization in all other aspects of the economy. In other words, there are more and more pieces of capital as more and more sources of wealth get put into markets and investment vehicles.
That’s also true for university endowments. They’re no longer like pools of cash. They’re now pools of finance capital with everything that entails — with the risk that entails, but also with the reward that entails. They’re really diversified. The proportion of endowments that are held in equities and stocks and investment vehicles like that versus other lower-rate-of-return but lower-risk instruments has exploded over the last thirty years or so. It was growing in the 2000s, and now it’s really dominant.
The other thing is that the sheer amount of wealth under the control of university investment offices — on the order of, for Yale, $40 billion; for Brown, $6 billion; for Swarthmore, where I went to for undergraduate, $3 billion — allows investment offices at these institutions to invest in all kinds of exotic, nontraditional, and experimental instruments as well. So venture capital is increasingly a large proportion of the fund.
The advantage of this kind of investing is that when you strike it rich, you can hit rates of return that are unimaginable even for traditional stocks. The risk is also far more substantial. But conventional investing wisdom is that if you’re investing on a time scale that’s forever, you’re willing to take big risks, knowing that the rewards are going to balance the risks out over that long time scale.
So when you talk about the university having an investment office, it’s not a couple rooms down the hall from the provost where some people sit and do accountancy. It is on the order of an investment fund. It’s substantial finance capital that’s being run by and for these institutions. And of course, it’s tax-free. So there’s nothing better.
The Trump endowment tax was a watershed moment, because it did finally begin to tax the capital gains. But for most of their history the vast majority of these institutions were excluded from the endowment tax. It’s tax-free investment income.
The effect of having an endowment like that is that it has functionally empowered these institutions to act without any oversight whatsoever. Because when you have $40 billion in the bank, you do whatever you want. You can build your own town; you can start your own campus in some other city or some other country. You can buy off any politician who comes knocking. You can build any building that you want. You can hire any professor that you want to. You can recruit as many students as you want to.
You can even not collect tuition. If you look at a school like Harvard, actual tuition revenues make up such a minuscule portion of the income of the university that they could actually just send everybody to Harvard for free, and it would barely touch the bottom line. That’s the extent to which these universities are not dependent on tuition for their revenue.
That is not the case for the vast majority of institutions. Most private institutions are overwhelmingly tuition dependent, which also affects the generosity of their student aid policy. Because federal financial aid grants, loans, things like that that come through the state. Then typically, private institutions go some way toward filling the rest of the gap with their own money from the financial aid office.
But if you are dependent on tuition for most of your operating budget or a great deal of your operating budget, your ability to provide generous aid packages to students who need it is substantially affected. As a result, what you will do is you will admit richer students. So paradoxically, some of the less wealthy institutions in terms of endowment capital actually have some of the wealthiest student bodies, because they’re most dependent on tuition revenue.
That’s not always true either, because some of the wealthiest universities also have more students from the top 1 percent than they do from the entire bottom 60 percent, which is staggering, despite being places in the Ivy League, for example. Not all of the schools in the Ivy League, but several.
Can you draw out that distinction in the Ivy League? Which ones are spending some of their vast resources to at least put forward the appearance of being these laudable engines of economic redistribution? And which don’t seem to care, even though they’re sitting on loads of money and just brazenly serving a majority 1 percent clientele?
There was a New York Times report in 2017. Some of these statistics have changed, but the number-one school in this respect was Washington University in St Louis, which took 21 percent of its students from the top 1 percent, which at the time was an income of more than $630,000 a year, and just 6 percent of its students from the bottom 60 percent, which is everybody making less than $65,000 a year, which of course was different given inflation since 2017.
One of the things that I have to say Washington University will get credit for, for me, is that they were the all-time leading endowment return getter by percentage of endowment growth in 2021. They did use a major portion of that money to institute, for the first time, need-blind admissions to start diversifying the income representativeness of their student body. But obviously they have a long way to go.
In the Ivy League: Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn, and Brown were the five schools that had more students from the 1 percent than from the bottom 60 percent. Yale and Princeton are two of the wealthiest institutions on the planet. And Penn, Brown, and Dartmouth are not exactly paupers themselves.
But if you look at the top ten from this list, these are not necessarily the richest schools. Some of these are schools that need the tuition revenue, like Washington University until recently. Again I would bracket that, and say that the need for the tuition revenue is relative to their “peer institutions.”
All these schools, every single one of these wealthy private schools, could do so much more to admit and to better serve poor and working-class students. But it is also undeniably the case that when you look at a metric like tuition dependence, there are schools like Yale or Princeton, frankly, that have the latitude such that they could pretty much send people to school for free. But in spite of that, they continue to overwhelmingly enroll wealthy students.
Every single one of these wealthy schools will point to the fact that they increasingly do pursue, enroll, and support poor and working-class students. But we also need to have a more expansive conversation about what justice looks like: what economic justice looks like, what racial justice looks like, in the context of institutions that have been able to hoard billions of dollars of wealth, sometimes directly the product of profit off of slavery, or displacement of indigenous people, or urban renewal clearances even more recently.
To address the last part of your question about the “endowment-poor” schools outside of the elite: there are huge numbers of private schools that are struggling to make ends meet. Given their relatively smaller endowments, they’re going to be a lot more dependent on tuition. They’re going to be a lot more dependent on students who have to take out loans and other forms of aid. They’re going to end up graduating students with more debt who also have comparatively less-elite credentials when they’re done.
This also has a substantial racial component as well, because so many of these venture funds and equity funds that some of the most elite Ivy League schools are invested in operate through networks of financiers. Charlie Eaton’s book on this, Bankers in the Ivory Tower, talks extensively about them: these networks of financiers who have ties to the school, either through alumni or some sort of relationship, which then gives that school’s capital priority relative to, say, HBCUs that don’t have the same access to these elite social networks.
When you talk about elite colleges as engines of class reproduction, it’s not just about training the next generation of lawyers and business titans, but it’s also about physically reproducing the capital that it takes to support the mission of being the wealthiest universities in the world.
Universities are spending a fraction of these endowments every year on the university. We’re putting aside whether the spending is on good things or bad things, whether it’s on lazy rivers or need-blind financial aid. Bracketing that, they’re spending a fraction of their endowment on the university’s operations, period. So what good is an endowment if it’s not being spent on the university?
Maybe this gets to a more philosophical question about capitalism. I’m lying awake at night thinking, why do people like Jeff Bezos want and need more money than they can ever spend by orders and orders of magnitude? What drives this pursuit of a larger and larger endowment as an end unto itself, almost?
On the one hand, you hire investment people to make money. Their job is to grow the fund — they don’t care. Actually, it’s not fair to them to say that they don’t care because a lot of them could make a lot more money working on Wall Street than they make even in the comparatively highly paid investment offices of these institutions. There’s at least some investment in the mission, whether we choose to find that laudable or not.
But you hire financiers to invest your money and make money for you. That’s what they’re going to do. They’re not particularly worried about what you do with it afterward. Their job is to make it get bigger. They are simply doing their job.
But also, the theory here is that you don’t want to touch the principal. Anytime you have a pool of capital, ideally, you live off the interest, you live off the return. As long as you don’t touch the principal, the capital never diminishes, and you’re never eating into your savings. That’s the difference between living off of your savings and living off of your investments — that if you have enough investments, you get returns and you don’t touch the principal.
Then if you want to go even further and be thrifty, or if you don’t spend all of your returns but you reinvest a piece of the profit, then the principal actually grows, which if you can wait it out means that you get larger returns. This is the timescale that these institutions are thinking about. I can either spend down my money today and start to eat into my savings, or I can tighten my belt a little, and in twenty or thirty years we’ll have even bigger returns and we’ll be able to do even more. Because ultimately, who would you rather be? The person who’s living off spending 7 percent of $1 billion or the person who’s living off spending just 1 percent of $5 billion? It’s an easy choice.
So the goal is always to push the endowment draw as low as possible. If you spend 7 percent of your endowment, you have to get 7 percent returns or else you’re spending down the endowment, which you never want to happen.
To engage in these arguments on their own terms is to begin to see the logic. Who would want to say that the endowment should be spent down? But ultimately, part of the problem is a governance problem. There’s never a mechanism for deciding when it’s time to dip into savings or the rainy-day fund. It’s almost always at the discretion of the investment people, the finance office, or the high-level administrators who make the major strategic decisions.
There’s no opportunity for students who need support in times of, say, a global pandemic; for faculty who are struggling to make ends meet; for workers who are living on poverty wages; or for the communities who are enduring the brunt of college expansion and urban real estate acquisition policies to make any kind of decisions about when it’s time to use the largesse of the institution to pursue a social mission. That decision is kept carefully guarded inside of a room, which is inside a further locked room, that most people never even get to the outskirts of.
Why have universities been so resistant to divestment campaigns, most recently fossil fuel divestment demands? I find it hard to believe that fossil fuels are absolutely essential to high returns. There are a lot of realpolitik arguments that would suggest that fossil fuels are becoming an increasingly risky investment. Is it about something else?
It’s about power. It’s about control. It’s about the ability to unilaterally decide what gets invested in on the basis of what makes the most money. So colleges and universities are extremely resistant to aspects of their endowment spending being politicized, because once you open the door to politicizing endowment investments, then you can begin to do it for any topic — whether it’s fossil fuels, whether it’s Palestine, whether it’s companies that have benefited from their role in the global slave trade, whether it’s companies that have been targeted for their support for Republicans or right-wing dictatorships in other countries or their complicity in gentrification and displacement.
Once you start to open the door to saying you can’t invest in this because of that reason, then all of a sudden, it’s like, well, where can you ethically and equitably invest? And the answer starts to be nowhere, because there is no real ethical finance capitalism in a world where capital’s need to accumulate is causing endless depredation across the planet and has been for centuries. That’s where the need to have an endowment at all intersects with the purported mission of social good and the very liberal values that these colleges proclaim to hold.
So it’s not that universities are resistant to themselves making certain decisions about what is going too far, because there are certainly things that they might divest from because it becomes a PR issue or they just feel gross about it. But they don’t want those decisions to be made by activists or anybody else in the community, because ultimately that has to be a financial decision, not a decision made on the basis of a social justice campaign.
Another key way that wealthy universities have strayed beyond their ostensible core educational mission into what are seemingly just brazen profit-making opportunities is through real estate. We have the so-called University City neighborhood in West Philly, adjacent to the University of Pennsylvania; Harlem, north of Columbia; all the area around NYU. I’m sure there are a ton of other examples. Here in Providence, Brown has been expanding downtown and across the river, all while being exempted from property taxes, either largely or entirely.
How and why did universities emerge as such a force for urban redevelopment and real estate capital? And what about, more broadly, the role of the university in their surrounding neighborhoods as not only landlord and developer, but also policeman, health care provider, employer?
This is a crucial part of talking about what universities do and the role that they fulfill in our society today. Because on the ideological level, universities would tell you that they are primarily sites of research, teaching, education, and learning. Whereas if you look at the actual revenue streams in the balance sheet, it’s very clear that universities, while they do fulfill those functions, fulfill many other functions beyond that: as you said, as an employer, as police, as real estate developer, as landlord, as health care provision.
These are all businesses that universities are increasingly part of. That is just about diversifying the revenue stream, about chasing the thing that makes the most money, because universities understand that they have to continue to grow or else they’re going to get eaten by a bigger or more powerful university. There really is a race to the top and a race to the bottom happening among these institutions.
That being said, so much of it has to do with the history of the ways that cities have been read, imagined, redeveloped, and restructured over time, whether you want to talk about the postwar era or the ’90s and the 2000s. So much of Buddy Cianci’s Art City reimagination of Providence in his second mayorship had to do with capitalizing on Providence’s reputation as not only a place where there’s art, but also a place where there’s a great art school, a place where there’s a great Ivy League university, a place for creatives, and a place where different kinds of thinkers can feel welcome and make the city their home. Universities across the country have played starring roles in these kinds of reinventions and transformations. That was sort of the ’90s and 2000s model.
The model now is the ads-and-meds model, the high-tech research park model, the acquire-a-hospital-system model. That is where the real money is. Brown University had traditionally been what they called a university college, meaning that it was a college that served some of the functions of the university, where the focus was overwhelmingly on undergraduate education. Over the last couple of decades, Brown realized that that model was really endangering its ability to compete with their peers.
If you ask somebody at Columbia, “Who’s your peer?,” they’ll say, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Chicago, maybe Penn. If you ask somebody at Brown, “Who’s your peer?,” they’ll say, Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Penn, Chicago. If you ask somebody at Harvard, “Who’s your peer?,” they’ll say no one. If you ask somebody at Yale “Who’s your peer?,” they’ll say Princeton. There is this aspirational model within this extremely small network of extremely elite universities, where each is always trying to get into that top three or top four. Brown realized that, if you don’t end up looking a lot more like Penn or Columbia, you’re going to end up looking a lot more like Dartmouth. Nothing against Dartmouth. It’s a great school, but it does not command the sort of massive university presence that these other, larger, richer institutions do.
Brown did not have a medical school. Brown still doesn’t have a law school. The School of Public Health was only founded very recently. And it still doesn’t have a hospital system. What differentiates Brown from Harvard, from Yale, from Columbia, from Penn, from [Johns] Hopkins — no medical system. So over the last few years, Brown has been aggressively expanding into the downtown.
This is part of a trend in general of universities wanting to have more of an urban downtown presence and to build out these urban knowledge districts. Brown, not to be outdone by its peers, has gotten into this business, partnering with these public and private entities to redevelop the jewelry district. Providence used to be the capital of costume jewelry in the United States; now that district had stood pretty much disused. Brown has aggressively been not only buying up properties and redeveloping them, but also putting in new medical labs, new bio research centers, with the hope, first, to begin to profit off of some of the work and the discoveries being done there, but also as part of the play to connect to a medical center.
Brown was a partner in the proposed merger of two major hospital systems in Providence that would have consolidated 80 percent of the hospital market under one entity. The reason being that, ultimately, Brown would like to begin to get into the game of owning a medical center because . . . what federal student loans are to colleges and universities, Medicare and Medicaid dollars are to medicine. So if you can combine those income streams, you can become very well-resourced very quickly. That, ultimately, is the goal, and I don’t think it’s entirely speculative to say that.
This is just one example of a way that, first, having the resources in the form of endowment money and other kinds of large agglomerations of nontaxable capital allows you to act in a way that builds businesses, builds buildings, redevelops whole cities, invites in partners to act as vendors or tenants, and then creates an environment in which the kinds of workers and students you hope to attract will feel comfortable. These things are all enabled by the kind of resources that only extremely wealthy schools have.
Second, it is a play to continue to compete in what is a really cutthroat market where colleges read the writing on the wall. The other piece is that there is a coming enrollment decline that’s going to happen as demographics shift over time. A school like Brown is likely not going to be affected, because there will always be more students looking to go to extremely prestigious schools than there are spots in the schools to seat them. But many private colleges and universities, especially in the Northeast and in the Midwest, are definitely going to feel a contraction.
I’ve already heard from a professor at a not-so-prestigious small liberal arts college that the administration is using the “demographic cliff” as a stick to beat the union with in bargaining.
You got involved in university politics at Brown, where you and your colleagues successfully organized the first Ivy League grad student union and you won with a comfortable but not giant margin. But recently, there’s been a string of grad student organizing victories blowing up, from the massive [University of California] grad student strike to the recent victory at Yale where the union won by enormous margins — just like authoritarian-dictatorship, fake-election margins, some of these grad students are starting to win by.
What’s changed? Is it about a broader political and cultural change around young people’s attitudes toward unions, something that has been evidenced all over the place, from Amazon to Starbucks workers to the polling around favorability toward unions? Or is it more specifically that academics’, particularly grad students’, relationship to the job has changed?
It’s really extraordinary. By way of connecting some of the dots, the same work that I was doing with the union is what got me interested in university finance, because I was sitting on university committees as a graduate student representative where these questions of financial investments, of endowment spend, of budgets and of strategic directions, were being openly discussed. It was an incredible learning experience, both in the realities of how these decisions are conceived by administrators and also of the limited power that even these relatively transparent governance structures offer given other institutions’ operating procedures. I didn’t feel that there was really an opportunity to contest budgets being written on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars, as a graduate student who is being allowed to sit on the committee for two years to talk about where we’re going to invest $6 million this year.
These two things are intimately related: the ability of labor across the university to exercise some form of leverage to begin to contest top-down administrative decision-making, and the increasing centralization of administrative decision-making power among a small handful of extremely empowered technocrats. Which is not a term of derision; it is a term of art. These are highly trained, highly competent people. I’m not merely lobbing invective.
So what’s making graduate students vote so overwhelmingly for unionization right now? I think the pandemic is undeniably a major part of what’s going on. Part of what we encountered when we were organizing is there was still a great deal of trust between graduate students who’d come to the institution and the institution itself. When the institution was able to campaign against the union, it was able to leverage a positive relationship that students had with their advisors, with deans, with mentors, with their own students, and to say, look, you really don’t want to hurt your ability to continue to do this work. And a union would interpose some sort of third party — a classic third-partying the union strategy — which would make it harder for you to be effective as a graduate student, as a mentee, as an apprentice, as an instructor.
As the job market in several key academic fields, not only the humanities, has continued to crater; as people have seen much more exploitative relationships play out between academic employers and instructional staff; and particularly as the pandemic revealed universities’ widespread inability to respond to student needs and worker needs — I think that people have had a moment where they’re just like, they’ve had it. They no longer have faith in the ability of these institutions to safeguard their interests. Because we can’t forget how quickly people were shoved back into these workplaces.
This is particularly true in the STEM fields, where in the humanities we were able to continue to be remote during COVID for a long time. We were able to conduct classes remotely, do research remotely, have contactless pickups of books at the library, all of that stuff — which, I would add, was always underwritten by an army of workers who had no choice but to work not remotely. But in the sciences, people had to go into labs. They were in labs mere months after COVID really began to hit. For a lot of people, they were forced back to work at a time when they were still not sure that it was safe or if they were comfortable with it. That really changed their relationship with their employer.
Many colleges and universities did a lot to offset the effects of the pandemic, arguably more than many employers who, as soon as they stopped being required by law to provide accommodations, instantly stopped. But relative both to the mission [colleges and universities] claim to have, as well as the rhetoric of care, concern, and paternalism that they consistently deploy, the failure to safeguard the interest of workers, whether academic workers, not academic workers, was staggering and has changed people’s relationship.
I think there’s a micro-generational thing at play too. The people who were voting in graduate student elections five years ago are not the people who are voting in them now. The people who are voting in them now came of age during COVID. They came of age after the 2016 election and the Bernie Sanders presidential run. They’re much more pro-union. They’re an environment that’s much more friendly to not only labor organizing, but [other] forms of collective action that challenge power in concrete ways.
There have been a number of conflicts within grad student unions over whether to approve contracts, something that we saw at Columbia and then most recently at the University of California. What’s your general analysis of the nature of these conflicts?
I would avoid, to the greatest extent possible, taking sides in these disputes because I do properly view them as for the members of the unions who are going to live and work under these contracts to decide.
I think that unions increasingly are understanding that they need to adapt. Even as they fight to provide lifetime jobs for workers that offer security, dignity, and a path to a decent retirement, many workers are confronting conditions of precarity where they’re going to end up in jobs for only a short period of time. That’s true of many forms of academic employment, which means that the struggle over a particular contract can become really high stakes, because people may only live and work under one contract or two contracts. They’re not going to be at a place where they see contracts build over time.
If you’re going to work at a job for twenty years and you negotiate a contract with your union and you don’t get all of what you want and you don’t even get most of what you want, you have faith that when the next contract comes around, you’re going to get more of it. And the next contract comes around, you’re going to get more of it. By the time you retire, twenty years later, you’re going to be working at a place that is completely transformed from the place where you started working twenty years ago.
Because each contract is going to be stronger as long as you can keep building your union. And you’re also going to have other workers who’ve been there longer than you, who remember when things were even worse than they are now. They’re going to tell you, “When I started here, we didn’t have retirement. Now we have retirement, and we didn’t get it right away. We got it over time.” So there is an implicit acceptance of a gradual increase in the quality of a contract over time.
In these academic contracts, the need to transform the institution is so urgent, the conditions under which people are working and living are so dire, and the demands are in some cases so radical. I don’t say that as a way to disparage them, but to say that these workers take very seriously their duty to reimagine what the institution can be, who it should serve, and what can be achieved by contesting it through labor power, so that inevitably what they’re able to actually get on paper falls far short of what they can imagine. I think that the conflicts that we see are the working out of what workers want to throw down for and what they’re willing to wait until the next contract to fight for.
Universities have long been attacked by the Right for producing rebellious or unpatriotic or, more recently, “woke” subjects. I remember being in college in the early aughts and there being this extremely energetic right-wing reaction against any professor who was deemed to be deviating from post-9/11 patriotic norms. These days, and Florida very much comes to mind, it’s a simultaneous attack on the university and K-12 schools, teachers, students, kind of around the same themes.
Why is the Right so dedicated to fighting culture wars in education? How should we on the Left, dedicated to substantive rather than superficial liberal forms of racial and gender justice struggles tethered to economic fights, respond to those right-wing attacks as we fight to transform the entire higher educational system — so that the universities serve a diverse and expansive democratic public, instead of simply reproducing the elite and serving the interests of capital accumulation?
Why does the Right continue to fight culture wars? Because it has very little to offer to people who are not extraordinarily wealthy in the form of material benefits. It has the psychological benefits of feeling part of a team that is wreaking havoc on the other team. It has the well-known psychological seduction of fascism that seems to be omnipresent in capitalist society. And it has the wages of whiteness, which it does not want to do anything to harm. So right-wing demagogues can create a specter of a left-wing communist infiltration and takeover of all forms of education, and then pretend to be doing something about it.
They can, for at least a time, turn the attention away from the fact that they enable student debt, medical debt, people to lose their homes; Ron DeSantis destroying people’s ability to get homeowner’s insurance when they live in areas that are on the front lines of climate change because he’s making it impossible for people to get last-line-of-defense kinds of insurance, so that people lose their houses and their entire life savings — empowering all manner of capitalist cretins to visit unbelievable suffering on the very people he’s supposed to be representing. Rather than have any conversations about that, he wants to have a conversation about “Stop Woke” or searching professors’ emails to see if they’ve ever been involved in DEI work.
It’s probably an overused term, but it is a witch hunt. Plain and simple. It’s the creation of an internal enemy that doesn’t exist, that is almost entirely notional. And there’s the deployment of massive state resources that could be better used doing fucking anything else to perpetuate the persecution. And it’s not by coincidence that the things that they’re targeting are things that celebrate black and queer and trans identity — I don’t want to conflate them — but these do ultimately represent major threats to the vision of a patriarchal, white normative society that DeSantis and his supporters want to impose, despite the fact that many major blocs of the Republican coalition don’t even look like that.
I want to be careful about asserting that the mere existence of radical perspectives or radical critique within the university, by the very fact that they’re there, pose a threat to the system. Because one of the things that I think the university has proven incredibly good at doing, and especially the liberal university over the last few decades, is finding safe places to cordon off dissent, to both profit from the existence of that dissent and then also to neuter some of its most radical possibilities.
That being said, I think the virulence with which right-wing politicians want to fight against the mere existence of CRT [critical race theory] or queer studies or black studies, to eviscerate the African American history AP course — it does suggest that there is still some really important radical potential that’s contained within these forms of history, of critique, of teaching and learning. And they’re willing to do a lot to prevent it from getting to people.
Whether it’s effective is another question. It certainly is effective at perpetuating the politics of white revenge, and perpetuating panic about queer people in classrooms or among students or trans people in bathrooms. But electorally, it hasn’t actually been that effective on a national level. Because classically, something happens in one wealthy suburb, and the media instantly descends to spread the analysis across the entire country. I think DeSantis could basically do a lot less of this stuff and would still be winning by the same margins because Florida is cooked now for the Republicans.
But in this recent electoral cycle, Republicans asked everybody in this country to vote for hate, and most people said they didn’t want to. Most people, despite the fact that they have all kinds of complicated ideological relationships and are beset by misinformation and vote against their own interests all the time and are captured by the two parties — famously, the Republicans and then the second-most enthusiastic capitalist party in the history of the world, the Democrats, as Ronald Reagan’s advisors put it. . . . Despite all that, I think most people are decent, and when they get the chance to reject something that’s clearly hateful and vile, they do. At least that’s the hope that I cling to.
Why are universities a good target? In part because people are alienated from them. They feel that they are bastions of elitism. They feel that they are doing work that’s fundamentally disconnected from the realities that people live. Part of that is pure rhetoric. It’s just the creation of an illusion, because so many of us have relationships to colleges and universities even more than we would think — whether it’s the kinds of two- and four-year institutions we’ve been talking about, all the way up to working at a local school or whatever.
But there’s also a reality that, as we have continually cordoned off the benefits of higher education for more and more people, or allowed people to experience the relationship with higher education as somehow predatory — whether it’s because the school destroys their community or because they’re saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, or because they simply can’t access higher education no matter how badly they might want to — that allows higher education to become a political target for Republicans. If we want to think about how we can put colleges and universities into more authentic relationship with who most people in this country are, to the extent that we can achieve that, we will also have the side benefit of beginning to make these attacks far less potent because people will have an experience of what these institutions are like that goes beyond the caricature that they’re fed.