At Public Books, Joshua Clover reviews The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them by Christopher Newfield. Newfield’s book examines the transformation of public universities in the US from government-supported public goods to increasingly privatized entrepreneurial entities, using the University of California as the central example. He argues that in order to rescue US public universities, we need to restore their public funding and return to thinking of them as a public good instead of factories for professional accreditation. But as Clover argues, the decline of public-minded education was driven by global economic forces that go “beyond the edges of campus,” and it can only be restored by social transformation on a similarly broad scale. Check out an excerpt from Clover’s review below, or the full text here.
But at the same time Newfield dismisses the most consequential cause of the public university’s metamorphosis: the very same restructuring, and its effect on the larger economy. The shift to the “new economy” and its flexible labor market was a response not to some idea (despite now-common references to “neoliberalism” as some sort of explanation), but to the end of the long postwar boom and the economic decline that followed. With the exception of a brief bump in the late ’90s, the best year for economic growth after 1973 is worse than the worst year from 1947–1973. Long boom, long bust: the public university expanded dramatically during the former, and contracted during the latter. In California, our leading example, tuition was nearly nonexistent, and then it was ever-increasing. Ideas of what the university should be closely followed economic growth and its lack. The sequencing is not up for debate: public higher education and the economy move together, but the economy moves first. This is true in myriad and observable ways: to choose just one further example, student debt moves in a depressing choreography, following household and credit card debt as the burdens of stagnating wages are transferred to individuals. “Our problem isn’t actually a lack of money,” the book insists repeatedly. Yet the public university’s crisis coincides precisely with an increasing lack of money.
The book’s argument rests on a sophisticated version of the commonplace idea that “the money is out there.” It must be out there, we think, because California, for example, has had little booms and periodic recoveries, enterprises that return vast profits, and a state operating budget so large it could absorb the expenditure needed to fund the University of California without undue disturbance. But this misrecognizes the nature of economic competition at the systematic level. The huge profits of individual firms in our era are not signs of healthy growth but of winner-take-all wars in what is basically a zero-sum arena. The nation has never recovered from the massive recession of 1973, despite the happy talk of professional boosters. Once there was less to go around, the struggle over the remaining surplus intensified. The tax revolts that resulted greatly reduced state revenues. Two constituencies that had enjoyed a postwar entente, homeowners and public-school parents, were suddenly set at each other’s throats to win a share of this shrinking pool. Unsurprisingly, the team with the word “owner” in its name won out.
If the circumstance of the university is to change, that change will not be based in advocacy, in vision, in articulating once again the mission of education. These noble ideas are a trailing index, as economists say. The change will certainly not be based on an appeal to profitability and growth; the nation’s fate in that regard is sealed. At the same time, I am not of a mind to give up and give in, to accept that the long economic decline means a world of ever-worsening schools, alongside a populace so demoralized, hateful, and vulnerable that they will seek out delusional remedies for decline, of which our current president is the most obvious example.
If there is no real economic recovery forthcoming—and there is not—and if the university cannot be restored without one, do any possibilities remain? They do. We would have to imagine a world that did not peg public funds to private profits. Our current understanding of “public” presupposes a thoroughgoing privatization of the world that shortly preceded the appearance of the modern university. There is no going back. But if there is to be something ahead, an emancipation of learning, it will not be discovered in the hearts and minds of administrators and legislators persuaded to see the error of their ways, but in a transformation of the society beyond the edges of campus.
Image of UCLA via blog.admissions.ucla.edu.