(University of Bologna is the oldest institution of higher education in the Western world.)
“History is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”
~ H.G. Wells
I just read “How the American University was Killed in Five Easy Steps” by Debra Leigh Scott on her blog Junct Rebellion. The essay outlines how countervailing forces have conspired to destroy higher education. As a lifelong educator and lover of learning, I’m heartbroken knowing that I agree with almost everything in the essay.
Scott begins with a brief history. After World War II the GI bill and the affordability or free access to college swelled the ranks of university students. By the 1960s
universities were the very heart of intense public discourse, passionate learning, and vocal citizen involvement in the issues of the times. It was during this time, too, when colleges had a thriving professoriate, and when students were given access to a variety of subject areas, and the possibility of broad learning. The Liberal Arts stood at the center of a college education, and students were exposed to philosophy, anthropology, literature, history, sociology, world religions, foreign languages and cultures. Of course, something else happened, beginning in the late fifties into the sixties — the uprisings and growing numbers of citizens taking part in popular dissent — against the Vietnam War, against racism, against destruction of the environment in a growing corporatized culture, against misogyny, against homophobia. Where did much of that revolt incubate? Where did large numbers of well-educated, intellectual, and vocal people congregate? On college campuses.
However, corporations, war-mongers, racists, misogynists and others hated those who might upset the status quo. They would have loved to shut down the universities, but such action would have been deemed too anti-democratic. So a plan was developed (or slowly emerged) to kill the universities without simply closing them or sending the scholars, intellectuals into “re-education camps”. Here is that plan in five easy steps.
STEP 1 – Defund public higher education
If universities are hotbeds of radicalism then the establishment has a reason not to support them. And, since funding for universities comes from state and federal governments, reducing that funding is crucial to undermining them. (This idea was supported by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in Attack on the American Free Enterprise System.” It is now known as the Powell Memorandum and it called for corporations to increase their role in shaping politics, law, and education in the United States.)
This defunding is now pervasive. For example, the University of California system once had free tuition supported by taxes! Today the lack of public support for colleges is pervasive throughout the United States. The lack of funds also allows conservatives to stress vocational skills and attack, among other things, the arts and science curriculum that expands the mind, develops critical thinking skills and helps create an informed citizenry.
STEP 2 – Deprofessionalize and impoverish the professors
There are about 1.5 million university professors in this country, and 1 million of them are adjuncts. Being an adjunct means that you are hired on a short-term contracts, usually one semester at a time, with no job security and no benefits whatsoever. This means that full-time work, if you can find it, will pay about $20,000 a year on average. Oftentimes you can only find a class or two a year in which case you would make much less. As Scott puts it,
All around the country, our undergraduates are being taught by faculty living at or near the poverty line, who have little to no say in the way classes are being taught, the number of students in a class, or how curriculum is being designed. They often have no offices in which to meet their students, no professional staff support, no professional development support. One million of our college professors are struggling to continue offering the best they can in the face of this wasteland of deteriorated professional support, while living the very worst kind of economic insecurity.
Even tenure-track professors make the same, adjusted for inflation, as they did almost fifty years ago. And the competition for those jobs is fierce. A single tenure-track position in a typical state university will elicit hundreds of applications.
Step 3: Move in a managerial/administrative class to govern the university
Similar to how health care in the 1970s was transformed from a non-profit to a HMO and for-profit model something similar has happened to higher education. Scott writes
From the 1970s until today, as the number of full-time faculty jobs continued to shrink, the number of full-time administrative jobs began to explode. As faculty was deprofessionalized and casualized, reduced to teaching as migrant contract workers, administrative jobs now offered good, solid salaries, benefits, offices, prestige and power. In 2012, administrators now outnumber faculty on every campus across the country.
Note too that while teachers salaries have been drastically cut, the money has been re-allocated to administrators, sports coaches, university president salaries, lawyers, and marketing firms. The funds have been redistributed away from the scholars and students’ education itself. ( College presidents salaries “went from being, in the 1970s, around $25K to 30K, to being in the hundreds of thousands to MILLIONS of dollars—salary, delayed compensation, discretionary funds, free homes, or generous housing allowances, cars and drivers, memberships to expensive country clubs.)
Step Four: Move in corporate culture and corporate money
To control how the university is
… a flood of corporate money results in changing the value and mission of the university from a place where an educated citizenry is seen as a social good, where intellect and reasoning is developed and heightened for the value of the individual and for society, to a place of vocational training, focused on profit. Corporate culture hijacked the narrative— university was no longer attended for the development of your mind. It was where you went so you could get a “good job”. Anything not immediately and directly related to job preparation or hiring was denigrated and seen as worthless — philosophy, literature, art, history.
As universities increasingly rely on the private sector for funds corporate money buys influence in both the type of research and the outcome of that research. The result?
Suddenly, the university laboratory is not a place of objective research anymore. As one example, corporations who don’t like “climate change” warnings will donate money and control research at universities, which then publish refutations of global warning proofs. OR, universities labs will be corporate-controlled in cases of FDA-approval research. This is especially dangerous when pharmaceutical companies take control of university labs to test efficacy or safety and then push approval through the governmental agencies. Another example is in economics departments — and movies like “The Inside Job” have done a great job of showing how Wall Street has bought off high-profile economists from Harvard, or Yale, or Stanford, or MIT, to talk about the state of the stock market and the country’s financial stability. Papers were being presented and published that were blatantly false, by well-respected economists who were on the payroll of Goldman Sachs or Merrill Lynch.
The result of all the corporate money is that academia is no longer an independent institution. It can no longer value the intellectual, emotional, and psychological, creative development of its students, and the contributions of the scholar to society. It is now like the corporation; it is almost exclusively concerned with profit which “depends on 1) maintaining a low-wage workforce and 2) charging continually higher prices for their “services” is what now controls our colleges. Faculty is being squeezed from one end and our students are being squeezed from the other.”
Step Five – Destroy the Students
This is done in two ways. First
you dumb down and destroy the quality of the education so that no one on campus is really learning to think, to question, to reason. Instead, they are learning to obey, to withstand “tests” and “exams”, to follow rules, to endure absurdity and abuse. Our students have been denied full-time available faculty, the ability to develop mentors and advisors, faculty-designed syllabi which changes each semester, a wide variety of courses and options. Instead, more and more universities have core curriculum which dictates a large portion of the course of study, in which the majority of classes are administrative-designed “common syllabi” courses, taught by an army of underpaid, part-time faculty in a model that more closely resembles a factory or the industrial kitchen of a fast food restaurant than an institution of higher learning.
The second thing you do is make college unaffordable to all but the wealthiest students from the wealthiest of families. Anyone else who attends will be saddled with monstrous debt that will follow them for a good part of their lives. Borrowing is actually encouraged as part of the alliance between lending institutions and the Financial Aid Departments of universities. Scott’s reflections on all this are particularly chilling:
Within one generation, in five easy steps, not only have the scholars and intellectuals of the country been silenced and nearly wiped out, but the entire institution has been hijacked, and recreated as a machine through which future generations will ALL be impoverished, indebted and silenced. Now, low wage migrant professors teach repetitive courses they did not design to students who travel through on a kind of conveyor belt, only to be spit out, indebted and desperate into a jobless economy. The only people immediately benefitting inside this system are the administrative class – whores to the corporatized colonizers, earning money in this system in order to oversee this travesty. But the most important thing to keep in mind is this: The real winners, the only people truly benefitting from the big-picture meltdown of the American university are those people who, in the 1960s, saw those vibrant college campuses as a threat to their established power. They are the same people now working feverishly to dismantle other social structures, everything from Medicare and Social Security to the Post Office.
Unfortunately, Scott believes the opponents of higher education have won. Of course, they won’t declare victory. Instead, they perpetuate the myth that college is necessary for happiness and a middle-class life. In the meantime, their intellectual opposition remains impoverished, and students remain uneducated, indebted and docile.
It’s a win-win for those right wingers – they’ve crippled those in the country who would push back against them, and have so carefully and cleverly hijacked the educational institutions that they can now be turned into part of the neoliberal/neocon machinery, further benefitting the right-wing agenda.
Can anything be done about all this? Perhaps Scott says,
But only if we understand this as a big picture issue, and refuse to allow those in government, or those corporate-owned media mouthpieces to divide and conquer us further. This ruinous rampage is part of the much larger attack on progressive values, on the institutions of social good. The battle isn’t only to reclaim the professoriate, to wipe out student debt, to raise educational outcomes—although each of those goals deserve to be fought for. But we will win a Pyrrhic victory at best unless we understand the nature of the larger war, and fight back in a much, much bigger way to reclaim the country’s values for the betterment of our citizens.
Scott’s essay exemplifies the good critical thinking that results from a quality higher education.