The Crisis of Higher Education and the Future of American Democracy: Presidential Politics, Academic Freedom and Neoliberalism

This is a talk delivered by Sanford Schram of Hunter College, CUNY, at an event held on October 20 2015 at UW-Madison. The event was hosted by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab. Schram is the editors of a recent volume of New Political Science and forthcoming book on higher education and democracy. He also spoke in my Scholar Activism class on October 19, about his recent memoir. You can find him on twitter @sanfordschram

I want to begin by thanking everyone who arranged this presentation today, especially Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, who invited me to come and talk to you and who, personally, in my mind, represents the best of the “Wisconsin Idea” (for reasons that go well beyond the fact that she asked me to speak here today). Sara is a real activist scholar who has dedicated her scholarship to making a difference in the ongoing struggle to enhance educational opportunities for students not just in Wisconsin but throughout the country. It takes courage and skill to do what she does, especially in the current political climate, most especially here in Wisconsin, ground zero for the continuing political assault on public education that is being financed and conducted in the name of serving highly selective corporate interests. Sometimes you have to bite the hand that feeds you, especially when it has decided to make feeding conditional and to begin rationing.

Biting the hand that feeds us when necessary, however, is only possible when there is real academic freedom. That academic freedom allows us to combine scholarship and activism to address critical public problems and it is what is at the heart of the “Wisconsin Idea.” The Wisconsin Idea has been central to the University’s mission since it was first put in place during the era of progressive ferment in the State in 1904, when an optimistic belief in progress suggested that academics could use their knowledge to help speak truth to power and make the world a better place.

The Wisconsin Idea made the mission of the University not mere idle contemplation as an end itself but one focused on solving public problems so as to improve the lives of all the citizens of the State. It states explicitly that “the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.” Not always in the news, it recently got flagged when there were reports that Governor Scott Walker was evidently not content to continue the democratic commitment of the Wisconsin Idea that it serve public concerns and promote the citizens’ collective well-being. He evidently wanted to change that wording to make the mission to be about something far more instrumental focusing it narrowly on the more quotidian goal of “meeting the state’s workforce needs.”

The Governor quickly back-tracked (as would become a standard practice for him) when reaction was swift, claiming that the proposed change was actually a “drafting era.” Yet, I would argue that this kerfuffle is not so incidental an event but symptomatic of the struggle over the ongoing transformation of higher education nationwide. In other words, the Wisconsin Idea is now under assault not just here in Wisconsin but across higher education nationally.

Here in Wisconsin, more than the current budget cuts or changes in the policies governing tenure for the faculty or even the proposals to eliminate duplication across campuses according to a business logic of bottom-line efficiency, the suggestion that there needs to be movement away from the Wisconsin Idea suggests a fundamental transformation is being contemplated in ways that I would argue would pose real risks to the academic freedom and the ability to conduct research that is politically relevant (and perhaps at times controversial), but also puts at risk the idea that the university more generally is there to serve the best interests of the public broadly construed rather than the narrow selective interests of the corporate funders of politicians’ campaigns who seem to be keen to refocus the university most narrowly as a site for creating an appropriately trained workforce. It is this kind of thinking that is pervasive today in our politics nationwide and it poses a real threat to the mission of the university to help create a not just a new generation of workers but also more educated, informed and active democratic citizenry.

It is for this reason I want to focus my talk today on why the Wisconsin Idea should be seen as still under assault now that the dust of recent conflicts has settled. Simply successfully resisting a rewriting of the mission statement of the University does not ensure its ability to stay committed to pursuing that mission. Other mechanisms are available to undermine a mission statement which in process can become an empty gesture. Those other mechanisms include those budget cuts, changes in faculty tenure policies, plans structure campuses according a business logic that eliminates duplicating departments, and other changes and these kinds of changes are associated with a broader agenda to transform the university to make it more consistent with business models.

The assault on the Wisconsin Idea is inseparable from the other mechanisms of the business model agenda to transform the university. My argument is that these are all of a piece of an effort to transform the university in ways that cannot but lead it away from its democratic mission that is the core of the Wisconsin Idea. Given the pervasiveness of efforts to follow this business logic nationally, I am concerned about the implications ongoing changes via these kinds of mechanisms not just for the vitality of the University here in Wisconsin, but how this current assault is indicative of nationwide transformation of higher education that poses a threat to the relationship of higher education, particularly public higher education, and its relationship to promoting democracy in the U.S.

There is ample evidence that what is happening here in Wisconsin is symptomatic of national changes related to the ongoing corporatization of the university that is currently unfolding right before our very eyes in an age of what is best referred to as neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has been variously defined, but for me it is the most recent incarnation of a hyper-capitalist approach to combining politics and economics, that involves blurring the boundaries of the state and the market, marketizing the state to run more along market lines in the name of not countering the market but buttressing it so the state acts in ways to better serve markets. Marketizing education, the university in particular, involves transforming it so it runs more like a business to better serve business interests. In the process the Wisconsin Idea that the university should serve the public interest or just the very basic idea of a public university as a public university in that very public sense is now at stake as its ability to serve democracy.

The neoliberalization of higher education is in fact currently unfolding in real time often behind our backs as we deliberate about what to do next, and in the process risking the end of the public university as a viable entity in our society. Now, when I proposed my talk originally to Sara I had particular events and people in mind who have been central to this process of neoliberalizing the University here in Wisconsin. (Part of what it means to be an activist scholar, as opposed to being a disconnected theorist or detached researcher, is to be willing to be specific about who is doing what, and why they and what they are doing should be called into account.) But today, who and what I had in mind now all seems like yesterday’s news. Back then Governor Walker was running for President like several other current or former Republican governors, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Chris Christie of New Jersey, Jeb! Bush of Florida, George Pataki of my state New York, and John Kasich of Ohio. Governors have proven in recent decades to be successful presidential candidates (and that sometimes makes them mistakenly think they are viable presidential candidates when nothing could be further from the truth). Like Jindal, Christie and Kasich, Walker was a sitting governor who sought to run on his record as a proven chief executive. Like Jindal and Christie, Walker had a distinctive approach to running for the Republican nomination that involved taking dramatic actions as governor which seemed to be self-consciously crafted as much to promote their presidential candidacies at least as much as doing what they thought was best for their respective states. It is a hard competition to decide which of these three did more damage to the well-being of their states and their citizens in the process of getting almost nowhere in the presidential campaign.

Nonetheless, we can say there is strong empirical evidence that Scott Walker has not been good for Wisconsin in many different ways, whether it is about the treatment of workers, unionization, the schools, the university, jobs, taxes and the overall economy. Wisconsin once was very similar to Minnesota on all these fronts. Under Walker the gap that has grown between the two states has now accelerated, to the detriment of Wisconsin. Wisconsin is not what it once was politically as well as economically. And it’s all been for naught for Walker on the presidential front, whose boasts fell on deaf ears that his success in surviving a recall because he crushed unions and teachers shows he can get tough with adversaries abroad as well as at home. Those kinds of statements made him seem less than credible for the job of being the world’s leader. Walker is now long gone from the campaign trail, having withdrawn after tail-spinning in the polls as he backed-tracked from other gaffes one after, revealing himself to be the latest emperor who wore no clothes, and proving the Koch brothers and other big money donors wrong for tapping him as the guy who could deliver them the White House in 2016. Walker’s campaign implosion was undoubtedly stunning in its speed if not unprecedented in its self-inflicted wounds.

Yet, it is a mistake to think that campaign incompetence suggests political impotence. The powerful do not always get what they want, but they can wreak a lot of havoc in the process of flexing their muscles. Scott Walker has changed Wisconsin in ways that undermine the relationship of its great university to its traditions of promoting democratic politics. His explicit efforts to undermine the Wisconsin Idea and related attacks on the University’s funding and governance have weakened protections for academic freedom and the pursuit of scholarship that serves the public interest broadly pursued. How can faculty feel secure to tackle controversial public problems with their research if they are supposed to be focused on creating trained workforce for the State’s changing economy? How can students get classes they need to become more informed, critical-minded citizens if they are supposed to be taking courses that make them a better fit for that workforce?

Neoliberalizing the university so that it runs more along business lines to better serve business interests inevitably means de-democratizing the university and undermining its ability to serve democracy. It poses the threat of nothing less than the end of the Wisconsin Idea and the creation of a more neoliberalized university that helps reproduce the inequalities associated with the market at the expense of the inclusion associated with a democratic system. The fact of the matter is that this has already happened, admittedly in some states more than others. In Florida, the Koch brothers have sought to endow professorships that teach economics according their understanding of how it should be taught uncritical of U.S. capitalism and by professors they get to choose. While their efforts are distinctive, and have been not entirely successful, negotiations continue with them in Florida and with others in other states. Further, we need to note that private, and even corporate funding like this is actually increasingly an important source of revenue in higher education for years now, if not always in such an intrusive way that undermines faculty autonomy and university integrity to serve the public interest.

Many flagship public university campuses now get most of their funding from sources other than their state governments furthering a reduction in the role that democratic politics has in affecting what goes on in the university and further removing the university from focusing on serving democratic ends. The public universities are increasingly confronting budget cuts as states fail to support them at prior levels. The anti-tax movement and the hollowing out of the welfare state have over time forced state universities to seek alternative sources of funding. Among public colleges and universities, state and local funding per student decreased only 2–4 percent in 2011 — substantially lower than the 6 percent to 15 percent declines observed during the Great Recession. Nonetheless, state and local support reached a decade low in 2011, averaging about $6–8,000 per student at public four-year colleges and universities.

As a result, students at public colleges and universities now pay 50–60 percent of the cost of their education — an 18–22 percentage point increase for 2001–2011. For the same period, at community colleges, student costs rose by 15 percentage points amounting to 38 percent of their total educational costs. Overall, increases in the student share of costs at public institutions grew for the decade between 54–62 percent on average. Increases in tuition have led students to borrow more money but also work at paid employment more while attending school and the results indicate declining performance. Neoliberalization results in more students learning less while shouldering more of the costs and at the same time increasing inequality of access between students based on income. This is a scenario where growing inequities among students arise based on their ability to shoulder these growing costs. As Suzanne Mettler suggests, higher education increasingly is in the business of generating “degrees of inequality.”

Educational debt among current students continues to mount as we speak reaching $68 billion in 2015, at an average of $35,051 per student, more than double what it was 20 years ago. Outstanding student debt among the population overall now totals over $1.2 trillion as of 2015 is increasingly becoming the major threat undermining commitment across the generations to a public university focused on liberal arts education, with the result making a growing number of students more than others less prepared to become active democratic citizens interested and able to participate in the important deliberations of the public sphere. Those students weighed down by debt are more likely to be focused on studying in those areas that will improve their employment prospects and are less likely to learn what it takes to become critical-minded citizens. An increasing proportion of that debt is concentrated among students attending for-profit schools in hopes of gaining a credential that leads to employment. Yet, many of these students never graduate and many who do do not get jobs that required the credential they acquired. These are most often low-income students. These students and all the others weighed down by debt are less likely to become active democratic citizens once they leave school. Andrew Ross has written about student debt:

[T]he larger threat is to the workings of an operational democracy. A crushing debt burden stifles our capacity to think freely, act conscientiously and fulfill our democratic responsibilities. Too many young people now feel their future has been foreclosed before they have entered full adulthood. And, given the creditors’ goal of prolonging debt service to the grave, the burden of repayment is shifting disproportionately toward the elderly (many of whom now are routinely asked to cosign student loans). Democracies don’t survive well without a functional middle class or a citizenry endowed with an optional political imagination, and the test of a humane one is how it treats seniors when they outlast their capacity to earn a living wage.

Inequalities are intensified when public universities decide to rely more on out-of-state students paying higher tuition thereby compounding the process of further detaching the public university from the public it serves. Wisconsin-Madison is but one of a number so-called flagship public university campuses that have periodically sought new revenue from increasing the number of out-of-state students thereby reducing seats in classes for in-state students.

Even when the concern is to educate the students from in-state, the solution increasingly is to turn to away from traditional academic leaders and recruit a business executive who is adept at repurposing staff and resources to attract alternative sources of funding, as recently was the case with the University of Iowa. Faculty research, in part owned by the university under intellectual property arrangements, can facilitate this commodification process by contracting with business in developing profitable uses from that research, as can faculty instruction commodified in online courses sold via the internet. Marketizing the university can intensify when business executives are brought in to think about re-deploying university resources in revenue-producing ways.

With the shift away from government support for public universities, increasingly state funding is seen as “seed money” that helps finance neoliberal efforts to attract financing from investors via bond markets (sometimes more successfully than others).The degrees of inequality continue to mount under neoliberalism’s marketization of education. With declines in public support, inequalities emerge not just between public and private schools but also among the public universities in the rates at which they can attract private funding. Universities increasingly enter in public-private partnerships with business, retrofitting their curriculum to facilitate economic development projects, often with incentive grants from the state governments as is the case with units of the State University of New York.

The growing reliance on temporary adjuncts for instruction further undermines the integrity of an autonomous faculty who are less dependent on student approval and can rely on job protections to exercise the academic freedom to pursue research topics critical to addressing democratic concerns. This is a well-documented, growing threat to the integrity of the academy, and to academic freedom and the ability of the university to serve democracy. A recent report from Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2014 noted:

The post-secondary academic workforce has undergone a remarkable change over the last several decades. The tenure-track college professor with a stable salary, firmly grounded in the middle or upper-middle class, is becoming rare. Taking her place is the contingent faculty: non-tenure-track teachers, such as part-time adjuncts or graduate instructors, with no job security from one semester to the next, working at a piece rate with few or no benefits across multiple workplaces, and far too often struggling to make ends meet. In 1970, adjuncts made up 20 percent of all higher education faculty. Today, they represent half.

Some studies put the percentage of faculty who adjunct even higher and the proportion of all courses taught by adjuncts surpassing three-quarters. This kind of temporary faculty are not likely to be prepared to challenge students in the classroom, let alone administrators as they corporatize the university and they are less likely to tackle controversial topics in their research. The consequences for democratic governance of the university and the implications for the university serving democracy more broadly are profound.

Still other changes are at work undermining the quality of instruction and increasing the inequality of access to courses that best serve students. The continuing proliferation of online instruction disconnects students from each other and de-sensitizes them from the interactions essential for democratic deliberation. Yet, even as criticism of reliance on online instruction grows, it is proving to be an irresistible way to cut costs. All these changes come with the ongoing neoliberal marketization of higher education, to restructure the university along business lines so as to better buttress business interests in ways that are profoundly de-democratizing. Minerva’s Owl flies at dusk and only now after the fact do we see neoliberalization assault on democracy in full form.

Nonetheless, there is no denying that things have changed in ways that need immediate attention. Many parents and their children worry that the liberal arts are increasingly not able to deliver on the promise of a middle-class lifestyle that academic administrators long championed as almost a guarantee from investing in a college education. While the economic returns for that investment still are proven in economic studies, they increasingly are only robust when students attend the best schools. More and more students who attend public universities, especially when it is not at the best campuses, face diminishing returns that even turn negative in many instances. Growing student debt simply intensifies these concerns. Under these conditions, we cannot simply drift along thoughtlessly with the neoliberal tide that is swamping higher education today. In particular, there is the pressing need to think harder first and foremost about what can realistically be done to help students reduce their debt burdens and improve their prospects of not only get educated to effectively participate in democratic political process but to be able to thrive in the increasingly unequal, neoliberalized economic system.

In this sense, Scott Walker is just the latest personal embodiment of the thoughtlessness of today’s neoliberalism. Walker is not a fascist, an authoritarian dictator or even a mere corporate shill. He is perhaps however a willing servant of neoliberalism and his major casualty is the university and its relationship to democracy. He is undoubtedly less explicit about this than he could be. He works under the radar, dog-whistling to his supporters in implicitly highlighting what interests he serves for fear of stating so publicly. Part of the reason however may be that he also could be practicing what many do today in enacting what Jamie Peck has brilliantly labeled “zombie neoliberalism” that pretty much now goes of its own accord as the default political-economic logic of our time. You do not really have to be a self-conscious neoliberal to help propagate it. It’s just what you do today when seeking public policy change. Without critical reflection we are all at risk of becoming neoliberals or at least helping to further embed it into our society. Like zombies, we stumble along helping neoliberalism rework institutions across the board. What makes the neoliberalization of the university so incredibly fraught is that it means neoliberalizing the main institution where we can learn the capacity for the critical reflection necessary to resisting enacting zombie neoliberalism. By neoliberalizing the university we undermine our ability as a democratic citizenry to stand up for democracy and the public interest over which it deliberates. By neoliberalizing the university, we make neoliberalizing an accomplished fact.

Yet, by standing up now against the university’s neoliberalization, in thoughtful ways consistent with the Wisconsin Idea, we can push back against this assault on our democracy while working to facilitate more opportunities for students to go on to thrive economically. As concerned citizens, as engaged students, and as scholar-activists, as thoughtful participants in institutions to dedicated to educating the next generation, we need not simply go along with neoliberalism as a fait accompli. We need not be its uncritical, willing servants. It may be dusk, Minerva’s Owl has flown, but it is not dark yet. If we dare to look, we can envision a better future and work democratically to get beyond neoliberalism to make higher education more inclusive than the politically and economically exclusionary system that is emerging now with the help of its all too uncritical-minded zombies (some of whom are governors).

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