in the edufactory


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on the neoliberalization of higher education in the USA

A briefer version of this appears on the February 3, 2013 Old Mole Variety Hour.

You may already know that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and Common Core have been detrimental to K through 12 education. You may know that the Portland Association of Teachers has been negotiating their contract with the Portland Public Schools district, that tax giveaways to corporations have meant cuts to public education in the state, and the district seems reluctant to spend the money that it does have on hiring more teachers and reducing class sizes, instead of on high-priced consultants. You may know that Portland teachers are headed for a strike vote on Wednesday. The bus drivers who deliver students to and from their homes, and the member unions of the District Council of Trade Unions (DCTU) are also looking at a possible strike.

But so are faculty at Portland State University. According to Jose Padin of the PSU faculty union (of the American Association of University Professors, the PSUAAUP) the yearly payroll of PSU’s president and top management has increased by $5 million, while the average faculty salary is $38,000 per year.

This is not unique to PSU. As Ron Cox argues in a review essay on the corporatization of higher education,

The administrative bureaucracies of U.S. universities have enlarged their ranks, their staff and their embedded dependency on the marketplace and the corporate sector over the past forty years. At the same time, full-time faculty positions have steadily declined, while universities are relying much more on adjuncts and instructors to teach undergraduate students. A precipitous reduction in public financing has driven these trends, but the political economy of neoliberalism offers a broader conceptual framework.... The university culture increasingly privileges those disciplines that can patent, brand and market products through corporate partnerships over disciplines that encourage critical thinking designed to engage democratic citizenship and to challenge the status quo.

As Universities maneuver to replace the steady decline in public funding from the 1990s to the present, the disproportionate shift of grants to rich students is only one part of the equation. ... others are tuition hikes and greater reliance on wealthy donors and corporate partnerships. ...The costs of tuition and fees at public universities have risen by 300 percent versus the Consumer Price Index from 1990 to the present, exceeding the costs of health care, energy and housing. Meanwhile the Department of Education projects that the U.S. government stands to make about $185 billion on student debt over the next decade.

The cost burdens of higher education have been transferred from the rich to the middle and working class, eviscerating the very concept of the “public university” in favor of market-based practices and incentives.

[We can see this as an outcome of] a forty-year political assault from conservative intellectuals, right-wing think-tanks and foundations—financed with corporate money, and supported by politicians from both political parties who have accepted and promoted the marketization of the university. [We can see] roots of the attack on public universities within a business-led critique of the costs of financing a public sector that has increasingly constrained the private sector’s pursuit of profit.

As early as 1971, Lewis Powell began to frame this critique of the public university in the context of a long memo written for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce titled,"Attack of the American Free Enterprise System.” Here Powell expressed concern about the decline of business influence in politics, and frustration that “leaders in the system of free enterprise were unable to control universities even though they ran university board of trustees and funded universities with their tax dollars.”

The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development's 1987 report [on education recommended] that the “university administration would need to dismantle strong forms of collegial control that made universities less manageable and replace them with strong, corporate style administrators.” According to the report, only ‘radical groups’, some of which were housed in universities, were delusional enough to ‘embrace the image of a society in which economic considerations take second place to quality of life.’ Such ‘nostalgic’ considerations led these radicals to not pay attention to ‘the realities of economic competition’ (OECD, 1987: 23).

In the 1980s, the New Right launched a sustained attack on multiculturalism and “political correctness” on university campuses. This meant in practice a propaganda exercise in demonizing public universities as institutions catering to racial minorities in both curriculum and admissions practices, especially affirmative action, which the New Right equated with “reverse racism” against white applicants for university admissions. That this critique could co-exist with overwhelming evidence that racial bias had long been institutionalized to exclude and marginalize people of color and women in the admissions and hiring processes of the academy was of no interest to right-wing critics of multiculturalism.

A key tactic of the movement ... was to rely on a long American tradition of anti-intellectualism to critique humanities and the social sciences as being feeding grounds for un-American attitudes and critiques of American society....the essence of this project was to create a context in which critical thinking essential to democratic participation in the polity and the economy has been eviscerated in favor of a market-based approach to knowledge. If knowledge acquisition cannot help a student find a job—what good is it?
In the 1980s and 1990s with the rise of new public management, theorists... critiqued the growth of public sector spending on “education, welfare and infrastructure” that had become “a serious impediment to the expansion of markets, corporate profit, shareholder value and general economic growth” (Ward, 51). A major objective of public choice theory, and by extension the new public management theory, was to measure the performance of public sector organizations by using entrepreneurial and consumer metrics borrowed from economic principles such as rational choice. ....

In a sense, this transition to a university system with more narrow market calculations is nothing new. The growth of the public university system, much like the K-12 system in general, was always located in the particular parameters of capitalist power relationships and designed to serve elite interests in the broader economy and polity. The public university system at its height of grandeur in the 1960s was a system made possible by an infusion of cold war military spending . . . . [but] the cold war structure of the public university at times enabled a wider dissemination of public knowledge into the broader society.

As Steven Ward points out, the older, liberal model, of governance largely left public universities alone to run their own affairs. In this model, universities were indirectly steered through funding mechanism, however, they were generally allowed to organize themselves and disciplines and professors were allowed to set their own epistemic agendas.

But no longer. As Cox summarizes,

The implications of this expanded administrative hierarchy have been apparent in the creation of a multi-tiered set of power relationships that have relegated two-thirds of the nation’s faculty to adjunct status. The number of full-time, tenure track college and university professors have fallen from 67 percent of the faculty in the 1970s to 30 percent of the professoriate today. This trend has served to further enhance the power of administrators within the university system, as faculty are more divided than they were forty-years ago across categories of permanent, semi-permanent and temporary labor.

So, we see middle-aged, PhDs working as adjunct faculty and surviving only with the help of food stamps and other public assistance. We see the growth in student debt that can never be erased even by declaring bankruptcy. We see cuts that eliminate entire programs—not just in Women's Studies or Ethnic Studies, not even just in Philosophy or French, but in Computer Science and Physics. We see the proletarianization of faculty, the rise in for-profit colleges, and the introduction of impoverished versions of pseudo-education promised by Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs. As Cox puts it,

Universities, like other institutions of neoliberal capitalism, have adopted more rigid corporate structures that have enhanced the authority and power of administrators, reduced the voices of the faculty, and imposed greater costs on middle and working class students, whose debts have helped finance those that have benefitted most from the system. The hollowing out of professional autonomy has been aided by a multi-tiered structure of full-time faculty, instructors and adjuncts. Parttimers are asked to work much more for much less in teaching the growing student populations whose rising tuition has become key to maintaining the system. This is no way to carry out genuine education.

Workers and middle class citizens used to be able to receive an education at affordable rates, but when that education clashed with corporate profit-making and wealth generation for a privileged elite, the cost burdens have been drawn out of the public sphere and forced downward on the masses. What is needed is a vigorous political movement that defends the concept of the public university as a vital right of an informed citizenry, and a necessary tool to help reverse the widening gap between rich and poor.