This week Full Stop marks the beginning of another school year with a two-part interview with Christopher Newfield, one of the most prescient and active commenters on contemporary higher education. In a trio of books — Ivy and Industry, Unmaking the Public University, and the recently published The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them — Newfield tells one the great stories of the American democratic project, the development and undoing of the public university system. Like any great American tale it is riven with contradictions, riding a productive line between promise and tragedy, far-sighted leadership and the folly of our pettiest forms of politics.
Perhaps the most important feature of Newfield’s work is to re-embed discussions of higher education in the broader field of political contestation and to provide it with a healthy dose of historicizing. This seems like an obvious point, but the preponderance of current scholarship — whether it is the optimistic reform camp in the embrace of a techno-managerialism or the critical camp that laments a perceptible decline in campus culture — isolates the university from the ongoing project of democracy (“multi-racial mass democracy” in Newfield’s terms) and the many threats it now faces. I spent several years researching “crisis of the university” literature and when people would try and press me towards either of these poles I could often do no better than point to Newfield as providing the paradigm most appropriate to the subject.
Christopher Newfield is a professor of Literature and American Studies at the University of California–Santa Barbara. He helps run Remaking the University, one of the best forums for contemporary higher education debates, and has recently launched a Critical University Studies book series at Johns Hopkins Press with his co-editor Jeffrey J. Williams.
In this second installment we discuss the relationship between climate change and higher education policy, the challenges faced by higher education systems outside of the United States, and how an interest in Crime Fiction and Noir loops back to educational politics. The first installment can be found here.
Michael Schapira: “Wrecking” is such an apt verb to include in your subtitle. The policy decisions that you outline in great detail — on student debt, on how research is funded, on dealings with outside vendors and state legislators, on how instruction is conducted — are almost comic in how consistently poor and shortsighted they have been. After you completed Unmaking the Public University, before the 2008 economic crash, was it expected that administrators and politicians would get things so wrong, or were you surprised to see these people doubling down on what were clearly, to non-ideologues, damaging policies, even after their damage was made so apparent to the public?
Christopher Newfield: My answer isn’t going to improve on your question so I’ll keep it short.
No I wasn’t surprised they goosed the existing paradigm, because the discussions stayed so closed. During my years in the UC system-wide Senate, I saw the extent of cognitive capture at the top. There’s also undue influence coming from Big Tech and finance and other sectors that made sure they were in the front of the bailout line. There was the public university’s growing dependence on trickle-down benefits — from the student loan system, from philanthropy doped by cuts in capital gains taxes, from corporate research partnerships, whose influence is greater than their dollar amounts. Universities have increased their borrowing and are more dependent than ever on the bond markets and bond raters, who like large tuition streams. There was quite a bit of bankruptcy among tech start-ups, which are as a group close to universities, which made some university leaders feel they’d gotten off relatively easily. There was too much anxiety and pressure to enable regular executives to stop and wonder whether conventional measures would ever produce recovery.
Ten years later we’re still circling, waiting to land somewhere new. That will never happen unless tenure-track faculty get involved on a large scale in open university policy debates about everything, including the business side. Senates have been reduced to pouring buckets of water on the biggest fires: they should sponsor series of public fora grounded in academic-level research, and expand the existing consultation process to implement findings. Students and staff will need to be involved as well — faculty distance from professional staff is a huge problem for governance. All this is going to take a ton of work.
A few nights before preparing these questions I went to a talk on climate change and was thinking that it perhaps serves as an apt metaphor for the wrecking of public universities in America. Do you see any parallels or points of intersection in these discussions — of tipping points (perhaps a lost generation of debt saddled, under-employed, precarious graduates), of greater frequencies of extreme events (schools closing, faculty pay furloughs), of the necessity for change to come from the state level, of an inability to disentangle the public from the private?
Moreover, at the talk there was a real concern that whatever positive steps made under the Obama administration will be rapidly reversed in the new one with disastrous consequences. It made me think about these lines towards the end of the book: “The conceptual and ethical arguments for public good funding are being rebuilt. They are converging. And their political costs are coming down.” What was your mood after the election on this promise of public good funding, of which there were many positive signs during the campaign season? How has it changed in the early months of the Trump administration, which has had complicated consequences (e.g. encouraging more political will at the city and state level to enact progressive policies countering the direction of federal policies)?
University decline is like climate change. It has multiple causes — financial losses on STEM research and state cuts and tuition hikes and others. In addition, each cause works slowly enough to allow most people to stay in denial about their effects. “$30,000 in debt isn’t much more than they’d spend on a new car, so they should suck it up,” as one senior UC official said to me. And then you do get to tipping points in education policy where you can’t reverse the effects of previous decisions. You can’t undo the effect of a one-year 20 percent state cut, since states never add 20 percent back to your budget in one year. You can’t undo what ten years of austerity does to class size or to an institution’s ambitions.
Because of these three features — causes that work slowly, and in complicated relations with each other, while pushing universities past points where they can sustain particular high-end goals — we spend a lot of time arguing about whether this or that cause is really as important as critics say. This distracts us from the overall damage.
Rob Nixon’s term for climate change, “slow violence,” also applies to what has happened to higher ed. We spend most of our time trying to show there is damage that should be undone — do more bad tornadoes north of the historic Tornado Alley mean something? We debate the basics again and again — does student debt really delay home purchases? — which allows us to ignore how bad things really are, which is comforting. Facing facts is unpleasant and leads to painful choices. The old paradigm is the opium of the people.
Speaking of which, I wasn’t surprised that Trump won. American politics was taken over by entertainment and marketing years ago and he is a pro at both.
He slathered anger politics onto a well established Republican script, which is that popular public goods — unemployment benefits, health coverage, state universities — favor undeserving minorities who are protected by liberal elites. The anger had a genuine material base: Obama didn’t deliver the majority economic progress that is the only thing in American history to neutralize, for a limited time, our baseline white ethno-nationalism. Obama couldn’t cure American ethnocentrism and racism, obviously, but he needed to restore the widespread upward mobility that weakens scapegoating, and he and his party did not.
From the point of view of Republican-Trumpian politics, the university is a sitting duck. First, it no longer offers obvious mass benefits to regular people and, thereby, to society as a whole. Second, it openly, rightly serves multiracial America: while the White-Black attainment gap hasn’t budged in decades, the White-Latino gap has narrowed and Asian Americans qualify for university at rates higher than whites — three times higher in California. Third, it serves today’s country during a new wave of culture wars directed by well-organized and well-funded right-wing groups (Campus Reform, Young America Foundation, Professor Watchlist), which are yet again casting college campuses as opposed to mainstream American values. Since Trump took office, various groups have escalated the culture wars strategy, partly to crush the moral authority universities were about to acquire after Trump’s election by resisting the Muslim ban, “Dream Act” student expulsions or deportations, and other Trumpian regressions.
Universities are in a position similar to climate scientists and activists: they can’t just try to scare people into doing the right thing with data (if you don’t go to college you definitely won’t get a job), but need to build their own complete, coherent framework.
On the second point above, universities need to bring everyone in on the project of just, egalitarian education for American society as it actually is in all its diversity. That’s going to mean a tougher discourse about concepts like structural racism and its effects, as well as open enthusiasm for non-college populations.
On the third point, university officials are going to have to stop appeasing right-wing networks that hystericize controversial statements from professors and students. They will need to explain what academic freedom is — that it is tied to the scholarly pursuit of truth and to professional standards for teaching and not directly to the First Amendment. University officials will need to stand by their people and openly insist on the autonomy of their institutions from axe-grinders. Splitting the difference, like Trinity College suspending a professor for a Facebook post and then exonerating him in the midst of further criticism (of both sides), just insures that the attacks will continue.
The first point is the most difficult, because to fix it will require changing the current business model. Public universities reduced their obvious mass benefit by charging high tuition. When university was free, it was all good — you didn’t have to add up your costs and net out the present value of a speculative personal future benefit, which is what the private-good university forces people to do. Free college allows the student to benefit just by showing up. The other great thing about the public-good university is that it is generally easy to get into. You don’t have to be special before you even arrive.
When public universities were free there were many visible benefits to society. Some of the benefit consisted was sheer numbers — lots and lots of people were getting college degrees. This was becoming more true in the 1980s for marginalized communities.
The benefit to society also came in the form of the university’s support for non-pecuniary behavior. Lots of ideas, improvements, and discoveries take place when people pick up a second major, or take a bunch of courses in something for personal interest, or spend a lot of time working in political clubs that teach organizational skills, build social networks, link campuses to communities, and so on. New knowledge comes from semi-structured hanging out — study clubs, cafeteria arguments, dorm debates, and the rest. The university has been such boon to society because it encourages the nonlinear activities that generate non-market, indirect, and social benefits. On the other hand, funneling all this through the private-good pipeline reduces outcomes and lowers support.
Of course the university does still offer obvious wage benefits compared to stopping at high school or dropping out, so the child of farm workers and truck drivers will still do better than her parents. But a key constituency, the current middle class, isn’t seeing the old gains for its children. Many of their children are worse off than they are, which tends to lock them into the tax revolt mode that helped defund public universities. College debt — including parental PLUS loans — is the repeated kick in the shins of middle class support. They still think their kids have to go to college, but they don’t love universities and won’t mobilize to increase public funding or block cuts.
Most importantly, the university that offered general betterment has been replaced by the university that offers status superiority. It is as hard to get into UC Berkeley today as it was to get into Harvard a generation ago. So people associate admission with private advancement and not the general welfare. The point becomes that you can help your career by going to UC Berkeley rather than a less prestigious UC or Cal State, not that all the campuses are together cranking out quasi-geniuses by the tens of thousands.
Status climbing is a sad substitute for the great society and really big ambitions for its students. The whole ethos changes — nobody really cares about universities like Princeton that help someone else’s kid do better than theirs, unless Princeton is part of a university ecosystem that visibly helps the whole society.
If universities can reframe higher ed as something we’re all in together, including regions that have fewer college attenders, Trump and other plutonomic austerity divas will have little impact on them. This first six months has been a summons to a full rethinking.
To do this, universities will need to overcome their allegiance to the Clinton-Obama version of the knowledge economy, which has underdeveloped large parts of the country. A new focus on wider social development will help enormously.
Looking at the acknowledgments it seems like a lot of this book was worked out in conversation with colleagues abroad. Did this international perspective put certain issues into relief for you? I think we can see a clear devolutionary cycle in Great Britain, but is it apparent elsewhere?
The short answer is only in Britain. France is holding out against university fees. A couple of German states tried them and reversed them, though I hear they always have advocates and may again be getting a hearing. Although the US all but invented the idea of free schooling and extended it first to the university level, this public good idea — its value is greatest when most widely consumed, so don’t ration it with price — is now defended better elsewhere.
I’m worried about France, where I’ve lived and worked. It has a two-track system, with universities the poorly-funded stepchild of the grandes écoles that produce the country’s political and business elites. France massified their system after World War II without ever funding it for general quality, and I don’t anticipate improvement there. Their new president, Emmanuel Macron, will probably try to introduce fees, though these won’t add enough money to fix things.
England is a sad case that I’ve followed closely. The only good news is that the privatization of funding has worked out so badly that Labour has called for scrapping tuition fees altogether. There is something of a national debate about the policy that the Coalition and Tory governments claimed to be natural and inevitable. The post-2008 period has been dominated by austerity Tories, who turned the university system upside down in 2011 by cutting public funding entirely for most disciplines, while allowing fees to triple to £9000 a year, set to rise again next year. The results have been predicable: average graduate debt (for a three-year bachelors’ degree) is now £50,000, up in five years by an order of magnitude. Though repayment starts only after £21,000 a year, the typical borrower will pay most of that back. Though universities got about 25 percent more money up front, they are now struggling financially — closures and layoffs are picking up. The government’s main response has been to replace grants with loans (for living expenses) and to increase teaching auditing and salary metrics. Professorial morale is as bad as any I’ve seen anywhere.
English public policy, like its U.S. cousin, has stumbled into a dual economy in which most growth is in lower-paid work. This is not a knowledge economy in the 1990s sense in which all workers were expected to increase their wages by increasing their productivity with higher educational levels. Andrew McGettigan has pointed out that the Tories no longer believe that a university degree as such increases productivity and helps the economy. The “new settlement” is to force students into courses (our “majors”) the government still wants — mostly business and technology — and let the other disciplines and students fend for themselves. For English universities, this will mean increased costs of competition — more for marketing and duplicated services and hence less money for instruction. It will mean more resource inequality, leading to poverty or closure for many of the institutions that serve low-income and/or immigrant communities. It’s the familiar devolutionary cycle.
One thing England has going for it is a more flexible political system than the U.S. The problems with the Tory counterrevolution are now widely registered in this system. Some pundits have already declared that the days of tuition are numbered. Raising this possibility has already started the discussion that the Tories managed to avoid during the privatization shock of 2011-12 about how much public funding is needed and to what ends.
On your faculty website it says you give courses on detective fiction and noir. What are some books on the syllabus that should be better known? Though they have roots in France and England, do you take pride in these as indigenous American, and moreover Californian (where they were perfected), contributions to literature?
I don’t know that the genre is more American than not. The US genre may rest on a sharper contradiction than elsewhere between the claim to democracy and a reality of coercion and force. That’s how I teach it at least.
Crime fiction is social fiction. Its core noir feature is that democracy is a mask for authoritarianism. It is also a model of pedagogy: if you’re a noir detective and can’t think on your own and have new ideas — a different theory, a surprising suspect — you’ll get somebody killed, or even yourself. Kludging like we see in organizational management is not an option. Detectives must learn quickly and accurately, and do a proper job of observation and inference, or death takes over.
In crime fiction, the people who run things only want domination and control, and the regular folk, who have more diverse motives, have to figure out what to do about that. Solving even one crime pushes back the darkness while also forcing people to take it with complete seriousness. Crime fiction allows the regular folk to imagine agency in relation to social power, without minimizing the latter. One of the writers who should be better known is Gary Phillips, who started to write about multiracial Los Angeles in the 1990s. It’s an amazing genre with all sorts of unorthodox thinking going on.
Noir also assumes that it’s human nature to exploit people who seek truth and reconciliation. So it calls on academics to stay rigorously devoted to their ideals, and hardcore in pursuing them.
Michael Schapira is an Interviews editor at Full Stop and teaches Philosophy at Hofstra University.