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Monday, February 27, 2017

Monday, February 27, 2017

Higher Education after the Inauguration

The month since the inauguration has made it crystal clear that universities and colleges are going to face a wide range of challenges and attacks in the next few years.  President Trumps's appointment of Betsy Devos (known for her contempt both for public institutions and for the faculty within them) as Secretary of Education and Jerry Fallwell Jr. (a major recipient of federal funds through student loans) to chair a task-force on higher education both signal hostility to public higher education.  More generally, President Trump has made clear his opposition to some of the most important core principles of colleges and universities: open intellectual inquiry, the internationalism of knowledge and the free movement of ideas and researchers, and the idea that knowledge is best used when it is public and not subordinated to the interest of the state or political parties.  The Trump Administration and its allies have attacked the legitimacy of scientific research, imposed a gag order on the EPA and other government agencies, threatened the elimination of the NEA and the NEH along with the privatization of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, issued an executive order refusing to admit people coming "from" a set of Muslim majority countries that, among other things, threatened the ability of students from those countries to continue their education.  Faced with a strong judicial rejection the administration is now preparing a new order.   But while it is likely to seek to meet the courts' objections, it is unlikely to veer from either its attack on the free movement of peoples or its false claims about the weaknesses in the refugee resettlement process.

Republican legislators have been equally eager to attack higher education.  From Arizona, to Iowa, to Tennessee, to North Carolina and beyond, legislatures have sought to intervene in the internal organization of public higher education by attacking unions, prescribing the ideological balance of faculties, stripping universities governance of autonomy, and placing limits on what can be taught. Not all these efforts will succeed, but they have marked an intensification of actions against higher education that built on precedents in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

These attacks suggest two, only apparently contradictory, conclusions.  The first is that the ascension of President Trump marks a distinctly new phase in American politics.  The second is that his victory has only made more obvious a pre-existing situation--the well-established domination by right-wing republicans of most of the levers of state government across the country.  Republican control became more extreme under President Obama, though it predated him.   Donald Trump's presidency has released whatever restraints there have been over the most revanchist elements in the Republican Party.  These parallel lines of attack--federal and state--present a set of challenges that higher education cannot ignore.

Although it is true that colleges and universities should not go out of their way to provoke the administration, it is a mistake to think that higher education will fly under the radar if it avoids confrontation.  Higher ed has been far too willing to reshape itself in the image of contemporary business and political culture and in doing so has made itself more of a target for the angers and passions that President Trump has helped consolidate. As Chris has noted, universities were all too eager to identify themselves with the high-tech financialized world that has left so many people behind.  Higher education is already a prime target in the new round of culture wars: its vulnerability has been heightened by a a highly selective misrepresentation of students that denigrates the important social issues they raise while ignoring the realities of their lives in the age of the debt crisis. Secretary Devos' recent comments about faculty indoctrination reveal nothing so much as her distance from real classrooms. There is no way to avoid confronting this hostility without taking a collective vow of silence.  To do that, would be to betray higher education at its core. It would in effect avoid the university's obligations to provide commentary and reflection on society itself.

It is important to recognize one thing as we contend with this new era:  the now traditional tendency of colleges and universities to mirror and incorporate the leading trends of the contemporary business and financial order will not protect its core functions of teaching and research. The notion of an entrepreneurial university whose greatest research value lies in start-ups and patents and whose benefits accrue primarily to individuals has only served to draw attention from the core actions of colleges and universities--teaching and open scholarship.  It has also bound them more tightly to a business culture transfixed by the endless search for monetization and market growth..

But it must be admitted that if administrators have not offered a vision that could meet the challenges of the current moment, neither have the faculty. We have too often accepted the benefits that accrue to us individually from the current system of labor and funding and failed to offer a coherent alternative for the future.  It is a task that can no longer be avoided.

I cannot go into all the areas that need to be rethought and reconstructed here. But an initial if incomplete list would have to include the following:

Colleges and universities will have to confront more directly their own role in the increasing inequality of American society.  It should hardly be controversial to note that in an age of trillion dollar student debt, and with the increasingly unequal distribution of resources across the range of higher education institutions, colleges and universities now are as likely to intensify social and economic inequality as they are to lessen it.  There are numerous reasons for this of course. But the incessant drive for distinction among institutions and their faculties highlights the contradiction between selectivity and access that has made the number of students applicants you reject a sign of quality and price a sign of desirability.  A new social contract that preserves access, funds quality, and ensures academic and intellectual autonomy must be developed and fought for.

It is also past time to address the obscene and immoral system of balancing the finances of colleges and universities on the backs of adjuncts and other precarious workers.  It is time for colleges and universities--including tenured and tenure-track faculty--to recognize that in a system where most faculty work under conditions of precarity, there is no real system of academic freedom (after all the purpose of tenure was to provide the security to do one's intellectual work without fear).  Beyond this, the internal inequity of our labor practices gives the lie to the notion that we function as community of scholars.  This problem will not be easy to fix.  After years of chipping away at tenure--Wisconsin's #faketenure is the most obvious example--legislature are subjecting it to explicit challenge.   Under emboldened Republican governments, unions are likely to face their most concerted attacks in years, thereby throwing into question the gains made by adjuncts and graduate students through their own organizing and collective bargaining struggles.  These problems occur on a national scale.

The faculty will need to take up anew the issues of academic freedom and faculty governance.  The recent series of controversies around Milo Yiannopoulos's appearances on college campuses have, if nothing else, pointed out the confusions that exist around notions of academic freedom and freedom of expression. In part, academic freedom and shared governance are in such confused states because of the widespread precarity of university employment. But faculty (and not boards or managers) need to renew both academic freedom and shared governance.  We need to move beyond thinking of academic freedom solely as a negative liberty that is fundamentally individualist in nature (where the issue revolves around censorship), and think seriously about the responsible exercise of the right as a form of shared governance in higher education.  I hope to discuss this further but for now I can only note that until we are able to articulate a notion of academic freedom as a reasoned if passionate right of argument rooted in a notion of the university as a self-governing community we will find ourselves trapped within the economy of the troll.

To return to where I began, I don't think that it is a coincidence that the Trump administration's most immediate challenges to colleges and universities have come from his travel ban and his threats against undocumented students and workers.  In the Trumpist imagination that spoke to a sizable proportion of the American people, refugees and undocumented workers condense a wider set of issues relating both to the demands of women and internal minorities for greater equality and to international organizations that displaced the power of the traditional nation.  Colleges and universities, despite their failure to achieve many of their proclaimed goals of inclusion and access do represent institutions that exist as much in relation to international communities as local ones.  There is no avoiding that particular status.  Colleges will need to figure out new ways to serve both communities far better than they have done in the past.  The first step in that, though, is confronting the ways that social and economic inequalities as well as a loss of common social purpose have rendered colleges and universities far too much like the dominant culture.   Until, and unless, higher education can reclaim a social purpose beyond return on investment it will be blow in the wind in the face of the challenges of the present moment.


Shawn Warren said...

Hi Michael,

I wonder, what is the disposition of Conservatives and Liberals toward professions? Equally inimical, I suppose? Trump can treat HE the way he does – as can any government – because the current HE model substantially depends on public money. I gather you would like to increase this dependence, since you would like to see increased public funding for this model.

You say, “A new social contract that preserves access, funds quality, and ensures academic and intellectual autonomy must be developed and fought for.” I have developed such a social contract. And as I can, I have fought for it.

It does not necessarily preserve the colleges and universities I believe you think are either required or desired, but it also avoids many of the problems endemic to these institutions – an important one of which is substantial dependence on public (and increasingly, private) funding.

You want the college and university system to remain public and so do I. But what stares you clear in the face at the moment is the vulnerability of this institutional model. Public, political and economic vagary will always be there to challenge the ideals and functions you (and I) envision for HE.

People, including yourself, are suspicious of professions and with good historical reason. But the professional model I suggest be formed for HE need not be like those we feel have failed to meet expectations. The professional social contract can be written with whatever clauses we think will ensure a public existence for HE. We just need a little imagination and will.

And anyway, I would much rather be having this fight for HE within my professional model, among academics and students, than the arena in which we now battle. Among properly compensated academics in professional association – not union represented employees of publicly (under)funded institutions – HE can evolve with fewer confounding variables such as Trump-like governments or Madoff-like criminals.

If you are interested, I have written a fuller response to your call-to-action on the PSA blog (http://bit.ly/LUNqyK).

Tony M. said...

Good post.

Isabel Bent said...

Hi I really appreciate your all efforts which is specially for the education.
well done.

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