That the public university has followed a disastrous trajectory for roughly four decades is a matter of broad agreement. In The Great Mistake, Christopher Newfield traces the public university’s woes along two entangled lines: the changes wrought to the US and global economy since the 1970s, and our conception of the university’s social function in relation to these changes. Anyone who seeks a trenchant, nuanced grasp of the situation in US public universities today, and of how we got here, should read this book. They will find themselves grateful for the insight, seriousness, and virtuosity with which Newfield has conducted his investigation. But I disagree with how Newfield balances the power of vision against the power of political economy. Political economy constrains vision more powerfully than vision can influence political economics. Newfield’s book recognizes this, until it doesn’t.
As public universities have sunk into economic frailty over the last decades, attempts to restore their health have followed a script inherited from traditional enterprises. The remedy employed is always the same and so trivially simple it is a wonder they bother granting business degrees. It can be summarized in one word: productivity. The full version will fit on an index card: (1) Reduce labor costs by (2) automating where possible, (3) drawing more work from surviving employees, while (4) cheapening labor costs via wage and benefit reductions, and at the same time (5) accelerating throughput, the velocity with which goods fly through the production process. Often a final step expands the managerial layer charged with directing these newly accelerated processes. If the consumer’s price tag can be jacked up as well, all the better. Got it? Shazam, you have an MBA.
Reducing labor costs relative to output, the first measure, is the definition of productivity. In the case of the university, the remaining measures have been implemented by increasing class sizes; requiring one staffer to do the job of two; hiring more adjuncts; attacking unions; easing academic requirements; reducing time to degree; and expanding the administrative layer charged with executing these plans.
It should be worrisome that university bosses and their viziers are applying lessons an idiot could glean from a 1980s movie about the auto industry. Not because it’s unoriginal, but because it is not at all clear that it works. A public university does not sell cars, or phones, or frozen pizzas. Teaching and learning, like performing a string quartet or doing detective work, require real-time virtuosity. They resist automation in this regard, and moreover they offer no real commodity to cheapen. Despite what some mavens of the new economy might spout at a dinner party, the university does not make graduates, or degrees, or knowledge. At best, public universities prepare people to be better commodity-makers after graduation, just as top-tier private schools replicate class privilege. But the productivity fix won’t help make that process more cost-efficient.
Newfield’s book asks how to reconstruct the public university toward some semblance of its former glory.
Thus, productivity will not solve the public university’s crisis; another way out must be sought. In moving toward this, Newfield’s book assesses with remarkable care the shifts in self-conception and economic orientation that have only driven the university ever more deeply into a hole. This “devolutionary cycle” of “eight stages of decline” is summarized in Part One, while Part Two comprises detailed explorations of each stage. These stages feature three main players—the university, private investors, and the state funding apparatus—with students subject to the three’s shifting dynamics. The stages are, in order: (1) the university’s retreat from public goods; (2) the subsidizing of outside sponsors; (3) large, regular tuition hikes; (4) cuts to public funding; (5) the increasing of student debt, with college becoming burden; (6) private vendors leveraging public funds; (7) unequal funding cutting attainment; (8) post-productivity capitalism.
A feedback loop is a funny thing. We can never escape the question of how a self-perpetuating system begins. Moreover, it will inevitably prove the case that without confronting this question clearly, we can never grasp how it might end. Newfield’s book is not a merely descriptive act; it also asks how to break the cycle and reconstruct the public university toward some semblance of its former glory. Hence Part Three, “The Recovery Cycle.”
Newfield is committed to the idea that the university is a “public good,” one that makes better citizens who are more able to lead full lives and take part critically and thoughtfully in public life. At the same time, he is not unaware of the university’s modern history as a vocational project brought into being by the needs of the industrial revolution, whose divisions of labor influenced the formation of disciplines at the outset of the 19th century. The book struggles heroically to reconcile cultural savoir-faire and technical proficiency, assigning both to the ambiguous category of “social value.”
In Newfield’s canny analysis, history has managed this reconciliation for us. The transformation toward what we sometimes call the information or networked economy has left us in need of the humanistic education that flourished during the postwar boom, in the shadow of what famed University of California president and educational reformer Clark Kerr famously called “the multiversity.” The new spirit of capitalism rising from the ashes of Fordism requires “creative capabilities on a mass scale,” and the public university is poised to deliver them by helping to form well-rounded persons, flexible souls for the flexible world who are freed from the rote repetitions of Fordist manufacture. This optimistic synthesis provides the basis for the book’s pitch: for a university that can simultaneously contribute to future publics and future profits, what Newfield calls “a dual good or a double good.”
People in the ’90s liked to call this a win-win. Surely this “dual good” is a worthy investment by the state and its taxpayers. And this is the book’s own dual good: it both provides the case for, and takes the lead in, a project of advocacy seeking to escape the cycle of decline by restoring public funding of our universities to a level that Clark Kerr would have recognized; by going not backward, but forward into a new vision of the university as provider for a new world. “This is a book about changing the framework,” he declares as he launches into his conclusion, “the fundamental values, the paradigm under which we labor together.”
But here we must ask the simplest question. Why should we think advocacy would be effective? Why does reframing—reasoned suasion, the staging of ideals and justifications—present itself as a possible solution to the university’s problems in the first place, aside from the fact that this is what we humanities professors are trained to do? The rationale for advocacy and a concomitant war of ideas becomes clear if we return to the source of Newfield’s devolutionary cycle. In that telling, what went wrong in the first place was a kind of misunderstanding, a conceptual failure. “Our problem isn’t actually a lack of money. It’s that lack of confidence and vision.” This is the great mistake: the university ceased to think of itself as a public good. This retreat was engineered originally in the late ’70s by senior managers of the university, under the sway of incipient Reaganite ideology falsely passed off as popular opinion, who indulged in “willful blindness” to higher education’s nature as a public good, and instead promoted privatization even when it saved no money.
Newfield believes that the sorry results of that privatization can be rectified by returning to “a public good conception of higher education” designed to initiate a niftily formulated eight-stage “recovery cycle,” one that will reverse the eight devolutionary stages. Things will get better and better until the university is finally restored as engine and centerpiece of the good society.
It’s a happy prospect, but is it a plausible one? Newfield’s proposal holds within itself a contradiction, or perhaps a simple inconsistency: sometimes political-economic developments and forces are treated as explanatory and even fundamental, and sometimes the fundamental forces driving those same developments are dismissed until “vision” alone is adequate to reverse the decline. And so, for example, Newfield argues eloquently that deindustrialization and the rise of the new economy have restructured the nature of labor so profoundly that the very thing a cynic might find frivolous about the university—its many-sided intellectual training—now turns out to be superior job training as well. Thus the new case for that sort of education as a dual good rests on real political-economic changes, not on beliefs.
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 1947–1973.1 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.
- See Robert Brenner, “What’s Good for Goldman Sachs is Good For America,” prologue to the Spanish edition of The Economics of Global Turbulence (Akal, 2009). ↩