Destroying Higher Education in America

(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.

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7 thoughts on “Destroying Higher Education in America

  1. John
    Thank you so much for an interesting summary of this fabulous essay. Unfortunately , I can think of at least three other factors. It’s been gone for a long time and we must either face that reality , (and its awful consequences -witness Trump presidency) or be prepared to BEGIN the long process of educating our young citizens for the commo good.

  2. thanks Diane for your thoughts. I used to love teaching, and still love the idea of it, but at this point I can’t even go in the classroom. John

  3. Many of the negative changes described in the post are a consequence of an industry needing to educate a steadily increasing percentage of Americans. Here are a few statistics (from

    Percentages of Americans who have completed at least four years of college
    Year: male %, female %
    1940: 5.5, 3.8
    1950: 7.3, 5.2
    1959: 10.3, 6.0
    1970: 14.1, 8.2
    1980: 20.9, 13.6
    1990: 24.4, 18.4
    2000: 27.8, 23.6
    2010: 30.3, 29.6
    2017: 33.7, 34.6

    Three things are striking: (1) the percentages have steadily risen since 1940 (and are still rising), (2) the gender gap has been closed (and actually reversed since 2014) and (3) fully one third of American adults currently have at least 4 years of college (that’s roughly 83 million people).

    Rather than heading toward a “catastrophe”, one could argue that the American college educational system has been very successful.

    Oh, wait. I forgot about the result of the 2016 election. Bummer. Maybe Scott is right. We’re all going to college but not learning anything.

  4. This development can only be described by a conspiracy theory. But wait! I don’t mean the usual conspiracy people have in mind. Let me explain. I shall define two main types of conspiracies. They are;

    1- Conspiracy by Design (CD) which is what we usually think of as a conspiracy where a group of people agree to do something immediately or over a short or long time. There is a centre of operation where the conspirators would meet to plan and operate, allocation of resources and the establishment of lines of communications.

    2- Conspiracy by Evolution (SE), hitherto undefined before to the best of my knowledge, which is best explained by analogy to the evolution of organism or an animal to best fit its living and non-living environment. Before Darwin came up with the idea of natural selection the theory of ‘Divine Conspiracy’ (creation by design) was the most powerful theory for explaining the existence of all the intricately designed species which looked as though each was made to fit perfectly into a given environment.

    This kind of process or CE has been going on in societies for thousands of years and has produced all the complex organisations (e.g. governments, schools, religious institutions, etc.) which have evolved to be what they are without being designed by any group who has conspired to fabricate or fashion them.

    When such a process or CE starts to create or change institutes and organisations there would be no centre where plans are developed and put into actions with resources and lines of communications. There would be no whistle blowers if the CE has evil intents, because the participants in the CE just do their incremental bits in whatever way without a master plan or a centre of command; they do it almost unconsciously, but the integration of all the little actions coming from a large distribution of such individuals, of more or less similar interests, makes great pressure which drives changes and transformations. This is what gives the impression that surely there is a conspiracy to create what has been created because it serves the interests of a certain group against the interests of other groups. But to announce such an opinion would expose one to ridicule and accusations of being a conspiracy theorist. However, I think the conspiracy is there, bright and clear, if we only think of it as a Conspiracy by Evolution and not, as people usually think of it as a Conspiracy by Design.

    In modern times it may start with a book or a few books and reports expressing some beliefs, ideologies and philosophies (analogous to genetic mutations but is not random because it is intelligent and purposeful) that serve the interests of some group or category of people. Such ideologies will be adopted by this same group whose members, each according to his/her own capacity and field of influence tries to actualise it and thus they become the selective pressures (analogous to natural selection) which will begin to redesign the organisations or society at large to produce entities which suit their requirements. If these selective pressures meet no counter balancing pressures from the other groups who would be affected adversely, then they will grow in power with time as they gradually transform the entire environment to produce even more and more selective pressures which push in the same direction. More mutations in the ideas and beliefs will occur. But unlike the biological mutations which are random, those mutations are not. In fact, they tend to be improvements upon what was there because they may be creative and happen purposefully.

    An Aside {This view of evolution actually answers in an elegant way the creationist example of the design of the modern clock or watch. When man began to measure time, there was no blueprint for an intricate design of a watch that measured time precisely. They started with sundials and the positions of the moon and stars in the sky. But with new ideas that were not random, unlike biological mutations, the time measuring instruments gradually diversified and became more and more complex and better at measuring time. So, in reality the watch or clock has evolved due to mutations of ideas (creativity) and artificial selection depending on taste and utility. Thus, the watch is an unfortunate example for anti-Darwinists.}

    I will repeat to emphasise that once the ideology is clearly formulated and put out it will be adopted by various individuals and organisations who are sympathetic to such an ideology, and trends will be set in motion from different directions which, with not so well defined goals in mind, gradually leads to the design of situations that are conducive and favourable to the ideas and principles that have been adopted. Changes (mutations) that promote the principles are selected while changes that do not promote these principles are selected out and thus in time complex systems, rules, regulations and ways of doing things evolve gradually to satisfy the original ideas. The amazing thing is that those who promote such ideas are not necessarily conscious that they are continually helping in the design of such situations; they are just doing their things in which they believe in doing at the micro level (their little circle of influence where they can affect things) which with increasing number of believers and time begin to manifest at the macro level. This is the time when those who are affected by it negatively begin to feel that there was a conspiracy behind the whole thing but are unwilling to believe that there was a conspiracy because they think in terms of the Conspiracy by Design (CD) and not the Conspiracy by Evolution (CE).

    I believe that a Conspiracy by Evolution (CE) is present and in operation, at whatever stage, once you manage to identify the following elements in any social field of activity;

    1. Identify changes and trends that serve the interests of a specific group,
    2. Identify the group, their history and why they have such interests.
    3. Identify their philosophy or ideology and where it is spelled out (in books, reports, special news media, regular conferences, etc.) and established through habits, rituals and institutions.
    4. Identify the group’s power of influence; the financial, political and social with which the group furthers its goals.

    Now, if the CE is driving for the flourishing of man then well and good. But if it only serves the interests of a small group and is bad for the rest then, I think it would be advisable to start counter trends that work on the same principles to halt the negative evolution of institutions, rules and regulations and reverse it towards what is good and beneficial to all.

    There are many CEs operating in any given society at any given time, but what makes some of them more effective than others is how the group is tenacious in holding to its beliefs or ideology and how powerful it is financially, politically and socially.

    If you now apply this theory of CE to what has been described has happened and is happening to the American universities you will see that there is a real drive to transform the universities to serve the goals of right wing big businesses to the detriment of true democracy which can only be described as a conspiracy.

  5. Forgive me for being an optimist (and for making too many comments).

    Last month I attended a college commencement that was complete with a thousand graduates in cap and gown marching in to the music of Elgar, long speeches, cheers when each college was announced (the Nursing grads were the most enthusiastic), proud parents, smiling siblings, lots of hugs and high-fives and many tired but smiling teachers and administrators congratulating the graduates. In short – it was awesome! (And, truth be told, a little bit long …)

    The diversity among the graduates was stunning. In addition to gender equality, every ethnicity and nationality seemed to be represented. White males, once the dominant demographic in American college graduates, were a distinct minority – almost an afterthought.

    When I combine that diversity with the sheer joy on all those faces, I definitely feel optimistic about the future of this country. To be sure, things can be improved in our higher educational system. But if you haven’t been to a college commencement in a while (it had been over ten years for me), I encourage you to attend one. You’ll probably walk away humming the melody to “Pomp and Circumstance”!

  6. To add a little more context to my first comment, let’s look at some High School graduation statistics from Wikipedia:

    Year: American adults age 25 or over with HS diploma
    1940: 24%
    1950: 33%
    1960: 42%

    Comparing to the statistics I cited in my first comment, it is clear that the population of college students today is roughly similar to the population of High School students back in the 1950s (in terms of percentages of the total American population).

    In addition to the huge absolute numbers of college students today (the point of my first comment), the article by Scott needs to be viewed in terms of the changing intellectual demographics of college students. A major complaint by Scott is the dumbing down of college education. But isn’t this simply a consequence of the intellectual level of the population of students now in college? Effectively, undergraduates in college today are of a similar intellectual level as High School students in the middle of the last century. Since the population has not had time to evolve to be significantly more intelligent than it was in the 1950s, undergraduate college education today has to be “dumbed down” compared to what it was back then in order to move the larger percentage of the population through the system. Of course, the driver of all this is that the nature of our economy has changed since the middle of the last century (less manufacturing, more technology, more services).

    I’m sympathetic to most of the complaints by Scott (as my wife is a college professor who has noted some of the same problems), but on the whole, Scott seems to be nostalgic for an earlier period in America when a much smaller percentage of the population went to college and it was therefore easier to fund using public money. That’s not the reality of today. Solutions to the problems cited in the article need to accommodate the fact that a very large percentage of the population needs to attend college to fill the jobs of today and those of the future.

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