Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education
And what exactly are you supposed to do at that point if you’ve spent your career becoming an expert in, say, Etruscan history? Academia exists in part to support research the private sector won’t pay for, knowledge that can’t be converted into a quick buck or even a slow one, but that adds value to society in other ways. Who’s going to pursue that kind of inquiry if they know there’s a good chance they’re going to get thrown out in the snow when they’re 50 (having only started to earn a salary when they were 30, to boot)? Doctors and lawyers can set up their own practice, but a professor can’t start his own university. This kind of thing is appalling enough when it happens to blue-collar workers. In an industry that requires a dozen years of postsecondary education just to gain an entry-level position, it is unthinkable.
Nor should we pooh-pooh the threat the abolition of tenure would pose to academic freedom, as Hacker and Dreifus do. “We have scoured all the sources we could find,” they write, “yet we could not find any academic research whose findings led to terminating the jobs of college faculty members.” Yes, because of tenure. If deans and trustees and alumni and politicians rarely even try to have professors fired, that is precisely because they know they have so little chance of making it happen. Before tenure existed, arbitrary dismissals were common. Can you imagine what the current gang of newly elected state legislators would do if they could get their hands on the people who teach at public universities? (Just look at what happened to William Cronon, the University of Wisconsin historian whose e-mails were demanded by the state Republican Party after he exposed the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council in Governor Scott Walker’s attack on public employee unions.) Hacker and Dreifus, who recognize the importance of academic freedom, call instead of tenure for presidents and trustees with “backbone” (a species as wonderful as the unicorn, and almost as numerous). Sure, and as long as the king is a good man, we don’t need democracy. Academics play a special role in society: they tell us things we don’t want to hear—about global warming, or the historical Jesus, or the way we raise our children. That’s why they need to have special protections.
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But the tenure system, which is already being eroded by the growth of contingent labor, is not the only thing that is under assault in the top-down, corporatized academy. As Cary Nelson explains in No University Is an Island (2010), shared governance—the principle that universities should be controlled by their faculties, which protects academic values against the encroachments of the spreadsheet brigade—is also threatened by the changing structure of academic work. Contingent labor undermines it both directly—no one asks an adjunct what he thinks of how things run—and indirectly. More people chasing fewer jobs means that everyone is squeezed for extra productivity, just like at Wal-Mart. As of 1998, faculty at four-year schools worked an average of about seven hours more per week than they had in 1972 (for a total of more than forty-nine hours a week; the stereotype of the lazy academic is, like that of the welfare queen, a politically useful myth). Not surprisingly, they also reported a shrinking sense of influence over campus affairs. Who’s got the time? Academic labor is becoming like every other part of the American workforce: cowed, harried, docile, disempowered.
In macropolitical terms, the erosion of tenure and shared governance undermines the power of a large body of liberal professionals. In this it resembles the campaign against teachers unions. Tenure, in fact, is a lot like unionization: imperfect, open to corruption and abuse, but incomparably better than the alternative. Indeed, tenure is what professors have instead of unions (at least at private universities, where they’re banned by law from organizing). As for shared governance, it is nothing other than one of the longest-standing goals of the left: employee control of the workplace. Yes, professors have it better than a lot of other workers, including a lot of others in the academy. But the answer, for the less advantaged, is to organize against the employers who’ve created the situation, not drag down the relatively privileged workers who aren’t yet suffering as badly: to level up, in other words, not down.
Of course, some sectors of the academy—the ones that educate the children of the wealthy and the upper middle class—continue to maintain their privilege. The class gradient is getting steeper, not only between contingent labor and the tenure track, and junior and senior faculty within the latter, but between institutions as well. Professors at doctoral-granting universities not only get paid a lot more than their colleagues at other four-year schools; the difference is growing, from 17 percent in 1984 to 28 percent in 2003. (Their advantage over professors at community colleges increased during the same period from 33 percent to 49 percent.) The rich are getting richer. In 1970 (it seems like an alternative universe now) faculty at public colleges and universities actually made about 10 percent more than those at private schools. By 1999 the lines had crossed, and public salaries stood about 5 percent lower. The aggregate student-faculty ratio at private colleges and universities is 10.8 to 1; at public schools, it is 15.9 to 1—almost 50 percent higher.
Here we come to the most important issue facing American higher education. Public institutions enroll about three-quarters of the nation’s college students, and public institutions are everywhere under financial attack. As Nancy Folbre explains in Saving State U (2010), a short, sharp, lucid account, spending on higher education has been falling as a percentage of state budgets for more than twenty years, to about two-thirds of what it was in 1980. The average six-year graduation rate at state schools is now a dismal 60 percent, a function of class size and availability, faculty accessibility, the use of contingent instructors and other budget-related issues. Private universities actually lobby against public funding for state schools, which they see as competitors. In any case, a large portion of state scholarship aid goes to students at private colleges (in some cases, more than half)—a kind of voucher system for higher education.
Meanwhile, public universities have been shifting their financial aid criteria from need to merit to attract applicants with higher scores (good old U.S. News again), who tend to come from wealthier families. Per-family costs at state schools have soared in recent years, from 18 percent of income for those in the middle of the income distribution in 1999 to 25 percent in 2007. Estimates are that over the past decade, between 1.4 million and 2.4 million students have been prevented from going to college for financial reasons—about 50 percent more than during the 1990s. And of course, in the present climate of universal fiscal crisis, it is all about to get a lot worse.
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Our system of public higher education is one of the great achievements of American civilization. In its breadth and excellence, it has no peer. It embodies some of our nation’s highest ideals: democracy, equality, opportunity, self-improvement, useful knowledge and collective public purpose. The same president who emancipated the slaves and funded the transcontinental railroad signed the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, which set the system on its feet. Public higher education is a bulwark against hereditary privilege and an engine of social mobility. It is altogether to the point that the strongest state systems are not to be found in the Northeast, the domain of the old WASP aristocracy and its elite private colleges and universities, but in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Virginia, North Carolina and, above all, California.
Now the system is in danger of falling into ruin. Public higher education was essential to creating the mass middle class of the postwar decades—and with it, a new birth of political empowerment and human flourishing. The defunding of public higher education has been essential to its slow destruction. In Unmaking the Public University, Newfield argues that the process has been deliberate, a campaign by the economic elite against the class that threatened to supplant it as the leading power in society. Social mobility is now lower in the United States than it is in Northern Europe, Australia, Canada and even France and Spain, a fact that ought to be tattooed on the foreheads of every member of Congress, so directly does it strike at America’s identity as the land of opportunity.