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Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Prepping for Biden [Updated Nov 4]

Trump will declare victory in the presidential election this week, but he will be lying, and after a ludicrous amount of maneuvering and some high-stakes drama in our McConnell-packed Federalist Society courts, Joe Biden will assume the battered office. Trump's infantile Rightism will be out of the White House, though not off the airwaves or the streets.

A long struggle of rebuilding will (re)start next year. The function of Democrats in my lifetime has been to clean up each Republican mess (Obama did mild financial re-regulation while paying down the Bush deficit) and get the country back to the starting gate.  We've had just two Democratic presidents in the last forty years, and the Republicans treated neither of them as legitimate. There was Whitewater and impeachment for Bill, and birtherism and blockage for Barack. Joe Biden can expect the same. 

His administration will need to work on twenty issues at once, and higher education will be about 18th, if it makes the list at all. Biden has a lot of social justice to do. He will also have to deal with a model of capitalism that's at the end of its functional life.

For higher ed, there's likely to be some immediate good news in a new stimulus bill in a Democrat-majority Senate.  Last spring, colleges got $14 billion from CARES (on a $50 billion request), only $7 billion of which could go to operations.  The later House bill that the Senate ignored (the HEROES Act) had $27 billion for higher ed. The American Council on Education has estimated the base need of colleges and universities to be $120 billion (for operating losses and increased Covid costs).  Even the full amount would just get colleges and universities back to square one. But getting some large percentage of a new $120 billion would stabilize the situation for the current academic year.

On the national flashpoints of high tuition and student debt, Biden, unless there's popular pressure, will stick with damage control. (Paul Basken has a good overview.) He has campaigned on a diluted version of the Sanders-Warren positions. He proposes free community college, free 4-year college for people from families earning under $125,000, and a cap on loan repayments at 5 percent of discretionary income for 20 years, after which both balance and interest are "forgiven."  In their valuable new report on free college, Georgetown's Center for Education and the Workforce has priced Biden's plan at about $50 billion in the first year, which would be a more than 25 percent increase in government support for  higher ed.  It's a pretty good "first dollar" plan that would offer better support for poor students and students of color. Biden should actually do this, right away. (It would help him hold the Senate in 2022 . . . )

However, the university is not actually the subject of Biden's proposal. The plan is "for education beyond high school."  It is very much about workforce training for mid-skill and middle-income jobs.  Free college and debt relief are way down the webpage, requiring repeated scrolling to find.  Biden notes that his wife is a community college professor, and that there are 30 million jobs paying around $55,000 that require education beyond high school but not a college degree.  

Community colleges are great, but Biden has no vision of educational effects or transformative powers. He doesn't quite have a 1990s New Economy human capital argument about the value of complex  cognitive powers through bachelors' degrees.  Obama was the same, seeing college as workforce development, with an emphasis on the kinds of jobs New Democrats helped Republicans ship overseas.  The model is patronizing and outdated.  It will have little economic benefit. And it won't do nearly enough for today's precarious students, who need full college and not the cut-rate version.

Higher ed is clinging to its individual monetary impacts after decades of lowering it with tuition hikes and student debt, and at the moment when capitalism is facing the death of human capital as we know it. It has tried to pivot to "social mobility," but this is the same thing--private pecuniary gain--measured differently. Colleges and universities need to redefine their roles in society. The Biden Administration will offer an stage, but all the dancing and singing will have to be done by social movements and by the people in universities.

There's this problem of not yet being back in the starting gate. Colleges and universities are fairly busted up inside. Their various constituencies have been set against each other. Here are the main fractures that need to be addressed.

1. Student Debt. Present and former students have had to address this crisis with little help and much opposition from universities. The white tax-revolt backlash that started in the 1970s always required high tuition, which in turned entailed high student debt. Nothing has damaged the public status of higher ed like high tuition and high debt have done, but administrators and most faculty continue to look to tuition hikes as their main fiscal strategy. Debt Collective's Can't Pay Won't Pay has just come out, as a leading example of a movement that universities need to join if they are going to regain public credibility.

2. Funding Cuts.  This is happening again under Covid.  When all is said and done, regular public funding cuts represent the deliberate forcing into mediocrity of the popular, public side of a higher ed system so it can't increase social equality.  Cuts are a classic example of systemic racism: the halving of per-student state support in California exactly tracks the declining share of whites in UC's student population. We're facing a new round of program closures plus a number of suspended PhD programs, particularly in the social sciences and humanities.  Universities and their godawful governing boards haven't attacked this crisis systematically, made a huge fuss, named names, denounced their political enemies, and figured out how to make them lose.  Universities don't care enough, because it's the students who pick up the tab in the form of higher tuition and lowered educational quality. Colleges have supported this extractive model.

3. Social Injustice. The current funding model has made college an engine of inequality: Black and brown students are most likely to go to the colleges with the fewest resources that reliability produce the lowest graduation rates.  The same is true for first generation and working-class students. Many are now being pushed by Covid back into for-profit debt mills because these have pre-existing proficiency with fully online ed.  Governments are doing nothing. The role of highly selective colleges has become completely absurd--they function as rejection factories that are to confer special title on the survivors.  As the new wave of critiques of meritocracy shows, they are protecting stratification rather than fighting it.  Even people who don't care about racial justice hate the renewed Stanfordization of the entire college system, where exclusivity is the sign of quality.  As they embrace individual social mobility as their major social benefit, they are staked to preserve economic inequality as the backdrop.  This is a total crisis for college's social mission, and a cauldron of hatred for the sector that goes well beyond the proverbial Trump lover.

4. Dreadful Governance. There's of course UC's self-serving regents, but they are fairly typical of boards that subject universities to external forces rather than cultivating their campuses by finding them resources and supporting their independence.  An important Chronicle of Higher Education study of governing boards showed that only 1 in 5 members go through a "meaningful bipartisan check."  Republican boards try to impose their political views directly onto faculty and students, while Democratic boards try to impose permanent austerity. Neither group knows much or cares about actual research and teaching, though both are preoccupied with increasing their direct control.  Both parties reliably give Black and brown students less money than their white forebears, though they talk differently about that. In short, cultures in which authority exceeds knowledge do not thrive over time. University boards present a classic organizational problem, and the divisions among major constituencies sown by their unaccountability  has undermined the entire sector.

5. Faculty Withdrawal.  In the major conflicts of the past thirty years, most tenured faculty have been  absent. A fairly small group works on important institutional issues they know well-- police abolition, admissions equity, faculty diversification, grad student unionization, among others.  Meanwhile, the majority of tenure-track faculty are completely silent on budgeting, administrative accountability, pseud-integration, and other major policy questions. Faculty senates work hard to prevent the worst, but they are 99 percent on the defensive. The AAUP and unions have done excellent emergency work, but are generally too busy putting out fires to rebuild the garden shed, to say nothing of the actual house. Rank and file TT folks have not developed an alternative to the austerity university for colored children or fought persistently over resources.  They have not fought obsessively against the adjunctification of the majority of their own ranks. This fracturing of TT from NTT faculty, and faculty from staff and students, is at the root of higher ed's status as a political basket case.

So there are some problems. 

There are also many many signs of academic mobilization. Just to stick with faculty: there has been good organization against anti-Black racism and campus police, for a New Deal for Higher Education, development of groups like Tenure for the Common Good, not to mention union campaigns against adjunct layoffs at CUNY, Ohio University, and many other places. The disaster has galvanized a broad counter-response.

One huge thing that must happen now is the writing of new stories for higher ed. Universities desperately need narratives about who they really are and what they really do. Such narratives are usually written for them. This is the most fundamental activity today of governing boards--to capture and define the story of the university for business, society, and the university itself.

With this in mind, I was happy to find the statement that the Berkeley Faculty Association wrote a couple of weeks ago. Called The University We Are For, it insists that higher ed admin should actively endorse the campaign to re-invest in public universities, noting that the “Keep California’s Promise” Campaign (or “the $66 fix,” for the $66 it would cost the median California taxpayer annually) would restore state funding of all sectors of California public higher education to their 2000 levels." 

At a time when Black Lives Matter movements are working to challenge systemic racism, the Berkeley Faculty Association insists that public higher education should not rise in cost and fall in quality at the moment that the historically excluded are at the university gates. . . . Social justice requires a bolder approach: one that sees California public higher education as an instrument of reparations for the historically excluded; one that seeks to renew its promise now, when it is most necessary.


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