Can the American University Be Saved?

House of Cards

Can the American university be saved?


The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the glaring contradictions in American higher education. State research universities are preparing to decrease services in light of anticipated budget shortfalls as small liberal arts colleges teeter on the brink of financial ruin. Meanwhile, Ivy League and other rich universities have refused to dip into their massive endowments and have instead chosen to pursue austerity while increasing tuition—and increasing debt—for their students.

Across the country, universities are canceling classes and furloughing workers, leaving thousands stranded without income. Though some schools have lengthened the tenure timelines of assistant professors, the majority have refused to extend a similar courtesy to graduate students. Staff members and adjuncts have likewise been abandoned—forced to work fewer hours or unceremoniously let go. The situation is likely to get worse as students refuse to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to take subpar online courses while sitting in their living rooms. Without exaggeration, American higher education may be on the verge of a total breakdown.

To those who labor in universities, the precarious condition in which academia finds itself is no surprise. For years, the university system has been operating on borrowed time. Beginning in the 1980s, college administrators, often employing high-fee consultants, hollowed out the academic workforce, replacing full-time jobs with contingent positions that were poorly paid and benefited. At the same time, exploding tuition costs obliged students to take out enormous loans that compelled them to view higher education primarily as a precursor to employment—employment that, as the economy worsened, was rarely guaranteed. This house of cards, built on exploitation, anti-intellectualism, and massive debt, was doomed to collapse.

In the past decade and a half, many people involved in the system have begun to do something about it. Undergraduate students have formed organizations that challenge their teachers’ poor working conditions, graduate workers and adjuncts have unionized and demanded respect and compensation for their labor, and even tenure-track and tenured professors have started to unionize and recognize their contingent peers as colleagues. Throughout the United States, there is a dawning awareness that saving the university requires cross-occupation solidarity, in which people working at various jobs in the academy come together to demand transformation.

Yet in the face of administrator intransigence (the failure to recognize graduate unions, improve salaries and benefits, and abandon contingent labor), the situation remains dire.

The crisis of American higher education is central to two recent books that link the diminishment of universities to the pathologies of contemporary capitalism. The Gig Academy, by Adrianna Kezar, Tom DePaola, and Daniel T. Scott, documents how the neoliberal obsession with cost cutting and disinterest in labor rights has crept into the university, engendering the rise of a generation of precariously employed scholars teaching undergraduates burdened with titanic debt. Tracing the decline of stable university jobs, the authors insist that only radical, collective action can rescue American higher education. More than reform, they assert, what the university—and, in fact, the economy as a whole—needs is to be revolutionized.

In The Meritocracy Trap, Daniel Markovits approaches the crisis from a liberal perspective and thus offers a different set of conclusions. Instead of focusing on those who labor in universities, he highlights how the ideology of meritocratic capitalism (a system in which talent and achievement, as opposed to connections and blood ties, are supposed to lead to material benefits) has transformed the most selective colleges into the primary sites of elite reproduction. For Markovits, the crisis of higher education consists of the elite university’s role in fostering inequality between the rich and the rest—a role, he insists, that will change only if meritocratic ideology is transcended. Although he emphasizes cultural more than material reform, his analysis suggests that the deliverance of US higher education depends on directly attacking the source of its problems: capitalism.

The Gig Academy is a wonderful précis on the dire state of the modern American university. According to its authors (a tenured professor at the University of Southern California and two of her graduate students), the central cause of its demise is the combination of cutbacks and corporatization. University administrators seeking to reduce costs have replaced secure jobs with “a cheap and deprofessionalized workforce…employed on a part-time, temporary, or contingent basis.” In the process, they have taken power away from faculty members, who historically have put up little fight to defend their prerogatives. Gone are the days when one could make a stable living as a professor or a university staff member. In 2020 the lives of those who labor at American colleges are defined by a “pervasive insecurity” that makes it difficult for them to contribute to higher education’s two chief missions: to educate students and to produce original research.

To make their case, Kezar, DePaola, and Scott point to the fact that nearly 75 percent of college instructors in the United States are contingent, non-tenure-track, or graduate students. Despite working dozens of hours a week and teaching an unconscionable number of classes (often at different schools), many faculty members “lack a living wage, benefits, pension, long-term contract, paths for career advancement, involvement in [university] governance, [and] protection[s] of academic freedom.” At nonunionized universities, which is to say most of them, the median pay for contingent faculty is $2,475 per course. A contingent faculty member would therefore have to teach an impossible 19 courses a year to earn $47,025, the median estimated income for a full-time American worker in 2018. Unsurprisingly, one analysis found that about 25 percent of contingent faculty members receive some form of government assistance.

Beyond the atrocious pay, contingent faculty members labor in awful conditions. University administrators hire around one-third of non-tenure-track faculty at the last minute, providing them with little time to prepare for class or organize their research and personal lives. Contingent faculty members are also regularly dismissed within days of a new semester’s start, which makes it incredibly challenging to find other courses to teach. Adjunct precarity has only gotten worse with the Covid-19 pandemic: In May, for instance, a memo from the City University of New York’s John Jay College revealed that the college intended to lay off 450 contingent professors. Furthermore, Kezar, DePaola, and Scott show that administrators regularly ask contingent faculty to do unpaid labor as bureaucrats or mentors. The workers usually accede to these requests because they feel it is their ethical duty and because they hope it will enable them to obtain a full-time position.

While tenured faculty members often traffic in meritocratic myths about their institutions’ just rewarding of the best and the brightest, what Kezar, DePaola, and Scott hammer home is how much of an aristocracy the modern university has become. In this, higher education mirrors other sectors of the broader gig economy. Only a small minority of professors receive the storied benefits of the vita contemplativa: control over one’s work life, light teaching loads, research support, a significant amount of vacation time, and an upper-middle-class salary. The rest put in long hours, laboring in poor conditions with little chance to earn a middle-class income.

Perversely, the gig academy’s never-ending supply of cheap labor has improved the lives of the few remaining tenured professors. As Kezar, DePaola, and Scott highlight, “faculty who are fortunate enough to work free of contingency are increasingly insulated from responsibilities thought to be central to the job of a professor, including teaching, advisement, assessment, grading, and course design.” Perhaps the most grotesque embodiment of the current academic caste system is the contingent researcher, a scholar whom wealthy tenured faculty members employ to conduct “the rudimentary work of actual research.”

The execrable conditions of the gig academy exert a disciplining effect on contingent faculty members, who are understandably wary of criticizing their institutions or teaching their students controversial subjects, for fear of blowback. And of course, very few have time to pursue research in their fields or write for general audiences, which is an enormous loss to their disciplines and the public as a whole. In the contemporary United States, one of the richest countries in world history, scholars whose work might have cured cancer or transformed our understanding of racial inequality are instead compelled to spend their time grubbing for scraps.

Predictably, the gig academy’s rise has been accompanied by a decline in student achievement. “Learning is social,” the authors rightly declare, but the university that has emerged in the past three decades does everything in its power to weaken the bonds that connect scholars and university staff members with students. Atomized, exhausted, and precarious faculty and staff simply cannot engage with students in meaningful ways. As Kezar, DePaola, and Scott underline, “Gig Academy employment conditions are negatively associated with [student] persistence, retention, graduation, academic performance, transfer from two-year to four-year institutions, early-​college experiences, and high-quality faculty-​student interactions.” In the gig academy, everyone—including students—suffers.

How did this happen? How did the neoliberal logics of cost cutting, corporatization, and contingency infect US higher education? There are many causes of this transformation—decreased government support, the mass entrance of racial minorities and women into colleges, the collapse of American unions—but Kezar, DePaola, and Scott point to an obvious and important one: the ascent of an administrative class that has taken over universities. In 1990, “there were at least three [full-time] faculty and staff for every [university] administrator”; by 2012, “this figure had declined” precipitously. Instead of building communities that promoted teaching and research, universities instituted a new regime of top-heavy administration. Buoyed by the neoliberal insistence that all organizations must abide by corporatist and consumerist principles, administrators cut costs, increased tuition, and reallocated funds to amenities like fancy gyms and dining halls to better their university’s ranking in U.S. News & World Report. In the gig academy, a business ethic, in which managers insist that the university’s purpose is to increase revenue and improve the customer (i.e., student) experience, came to dominate.

Kezar, DePaola, and Scott’s book is primarily diagnostic: It seeks to elucidate the dreadful working conditions of one peculiar industry. But the authors also offer a solution to the gig academy’s problems: Like workers in all sectors, professors and other university laborers must concentrate their power. Indeed, in the last 15 years, college campuses have witnessed a rise in contingent and graduate student unionization, with unions forming at the University of Chicago, Columbia, Yale, and other schools.

Unfortunately, tenure-track and tenured faculty members have often remained aloof from these struggles; occasionally, they have actively opposed them. Throughout the country, innumerable faculty members have crossed picket lines or graded papers while graduate students were on strike. At many universities—including mine—the permanent faculty members have rejected unionization efforts. As this suggests, much remains to be done to persuade those with stable jobs that they share interests with their contingent colleagues. But if tenure-​track and tenured faculty members remain disconnected from the fight for labor rights, it’s likely only a matter of time before their own jobs are put on the chopping block.

Kezar, DePaola, and Scott deftly show that the conditions of the gig academy reflect those of the broader gig economy, which may make it possible to organize successfully across industries. Most workers in the contemporary United States, from the contingent professor to the Amazon warehouse stocker to the Uber driver, live similarly precarious lives. For this reason, contingent academic laborers and their tenured allies must think seriously about organizing cross-industrial groups that take on capitalism itself. Even if university workers succeed in revolutionizing higher education, this success would be short-lived if the American political economy remained unchanged. The system as a whole must be transformed.

One of the most important underpinnings of the gig academy—and one of the reasons so many tenure-track and tenured faculty members ignore their precarious colleagues—is the underlying myth that the university system rewards merit and not accidents of birth. The belief that a scholar rises and falls based solely on her or his talents is the primary intellectual justification for academic inequality. In The Meritocracy Trap, Yale Law School professor Daniel Markovits attacks meritocratic myths like this one head-on. Meritocracy, he argues, is a false ideology that has torn society asunder and created a “caste hierarchy that simultaneously excludes most people and damages the few that it admits.”

To tell his story, Markovits explores how the material realities of contemporary capitalism and the ideology of meritocracy reinforce each other. He maintains that in today’s economy, meritocracy is not only a mirage—most people don’t rise because of merit—but also the primary contributor to “the concentration and dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations.” He argues that the major way to succeed in the present political economy, which depends on highly skilled labor, is to participate in expensive educational training. But only the rich have the resources to send their children to the exclusive schools upon which admission to Harvard and Yale often relies. As a result, from the beginning of their lives the nonwealthy are excluded from the foremost mechanism of meritocratic success. Moreover, once affluent scions graduate from an elite college, they are usually able to move into careers (law, medicine, consulting, and banking) that provide them with the funds needed to guarantee that their children are educated as they were. Meritocracy, which was initially envisioned as a means to collapse social barriers, thus engenders an impenetrable aristocracy.

Markovits further notes that in a highly skilled meritocratic economy, much of the labor traditionally undertaken by the middle and working classes becomes redundant. Technologies recently invented and promoted by meritocrats—computers, robotics, the Internet, novel methods of administration, sophisticated financial techniques, and so forth—dispense with the need for medium- and low-skilled labor, creating widespread unemployment and underemployment. To add insult to injury, meritocrats declare that this joblessness is not the result of peculiar economic structures and decisions; rather, they insist it is the collective fault of those who failed, because they simply lacked the industry and talent required to succeed. By means of this reasoning, meritocratic inequality justifies itself.

Markovits also argues that it’s not only the middle and working classes that suffer prodigiously under meritocracy: the wealthy do so as well. As children, meritocrats in training are forced by their ever-​anxious parents through an educational meat grinder, in which hours of homework a night is common and everyone is gunning for her or his spot at Harvard. Tragically, the “reward” for the lucky few who graduate from a prestigious university is more of the same: a work life defined by incessant, arduous, and soulless labor at a bank, law firm, or consulting agency, where mature meritocrats devote themselves to protecting the interests of the Jeffrey Epsteins of the world.

In Markovits’s telling, meritocrats comprise a “superordinate working class” that derives its wealth from labor, not capital. And similar to all working classes, this superordinate working class is alienated. According to Markovits, meritocratic elites’ alienation is a function of the fact that, under meritocratic capitalism, people are merely means to produce rents. For this reason, “the superordinate worker must comprehend herself in instrumental terms” and “must act, in effect, as an asset manager whose portfolio contains her own person.” From childhood onward, meritocrats in training obsess over accumulating human capital—the specialized skills needed to thrive in the present economy. Foreseeably, this all-consuming quest damages meritocrats’ mental health. To cite just one statistic, Markovits reports that “students at wealthy high schools…suffer clinically significant depression and anxiety at rates double or triple the national average.”

Meritocratic distress is bolstered by the reality that it’s relatively easy for would-be meritocrats to tumble down the class hierarchy. Harvard and Goldman Sachs, after all, have only so many spots. In the meritocratic economy the working, middle, and upper classes share a general experience of precarity that makes it impossible to live a fulfilled life.

The present system, in other words, works for no one, and Markovits insists that it must be transformed. Unfortunately, his suggestions for how to do so offer a compelling display of liberalism’s limits. Unlike Kezar, DePaola, and Scott, who advocate for collective action that seeks to remake the structures of an industry (and then, perhaps, the whole economy), Markovits embraces a narrower, more elitist program: He argues that to destroy meritocracy, anti-meritocrats must educate Americans from all social classes about its negative effects. This, he continues, will engender “political understanding” among the classes, which will encourage the rich and the rest to form coalitions devoted to overcoming “meritocracy’s burdens.”

Markovits’s solution demonstrates a rather naive and sanguine view of political change, one that ignores the struggles that have actually enabled subaltern groups to force social transformation. From the labor agitation of the fin de siècle to the civil rights movement to the battle for women’s and LGBTQ equality, elites have surrendered privileges not because the oppressed won an argument but because they were compelled to do so. To end meritocracy, we need collective action geared toward seizing power. The rich won’t alter their behavior or relinquish their authority out of the goodness of their hearts or because they attended a few anti-meritocracy seminars.

The wealthy, in fact, have long recognized the working and middle classes as their enemies; now the working and middle classes must identify the wealthy as theirs. As Markovits himself notes, the richest Americans have for decades employed lobbyists and influenced politicians to ensure that “law and policy respond sensitively to [their] preferences while remaining almost totally unresponsive to the preferences of everyone else.” There is a class war, and it is being waged—and won—by the rich. Only a countervailing force, consisting of working- and middle-class laborers who know their enemy, can reverse the staggering inequality that defines contemporary American life.

Markovits rejects class war because, like many liberals, he accepts the legitimacy of social stratification. As he says, “It is one thing for a person to be confined to his birth rank in a narrowly compressed economic distribution, in which the classes lead materially and socially similar lives.” A problem emerges only when people are confined to their birth rank “in a widely dispersed society, in which even adjacent [class] ranks experience material and social conditions that render their lives mutually unrecognizable.” Markovits doesn’t want to move past capitalism; instead, he desires to return to its pre-meritocratic, midcentury “golden age.”

The problem, of course, is that for many Americans, the golden age wasn’t all that golden. To take the starkest example, throughout the mid-20th century, Black Americans were far poorer than their white counterparts; in 1966, for instance, nearly one-third of indigent Americans were Black. And though it is true that at midcentury the United States was a more equal society than it is today, this equality was substantially undergirded by Cold War militarism. For example, the 1958 National Defense Education Act, which drastically increased the federal government’s support for higher education (and which thus aided class mobility), was passed only because of fears of the Soviet Union’s perceived technological advantage after the launch of its Sputnik satellite.

If Markovits had dug a bit deeper into the history of the “golden age” to which he wants us to return, he would see that the so-called equality the United States achieved was never experienced equally and was partly a function of militaristic pressures. Moreover, the progress the country did make in moving toward racial, gender, and sexual equality was attained only through political struggle. Put simply, we shouldn’t want to return to an era plagued with its own inequalities. Instead of falling into a counterproductive nostalgia trap, we must dedicate ourselves to revolutionizing contemporary capitalism—a system that necessarily concentrates wealth in a small number of groups. To do so will require far more than a few anti-meritocratic self-criticism sessions.

Together, The Gig Academy and The Meritocracy Trap paint a dire portrait of higher education. In the former, Kezar, DePaola, and Scott reveal that the modern university is a site of extreme exploitation, in which the majority of workers, like many of their counterparts in the broader gig economy, live undignified lives. In the latter, Markovits demonstrates that the nation’s top colleges exist primarily to reproduce a miserable aristocracy. It’s clear that in 2020, universities have imbibed the worst elements of contemporary capitalism and in the process have deemphasized teaching and research.

American students, suffering under enormous debt, have recognized that college is not about learning. Many of them, Markovits notes, “approach their schooling with a compulsive fixation on the competition that they are in and the prizes that they seek.” My experience as a professor confirms this. At the beginning of each of my courses, I ask students why they attend college. For years, I have received the same answer: to get a job. It’s therefore unsurprising that grade inflation and grade grubbing have become rampant; in a winner-take-all economy, people must distinguish themselves lest they fall down the class hierarchy. Modern universities, ideally places where people explore new ideas and take intellectual risks, instead function as the finishing schools for the future workers of America. In this environment, it’s not a shock that the humanities, formerly a centerpiece of university education, have been shunted aside in favor of science, technology, engineering, and math—the fields that best prepare indebted and desperate young people for a meritocratic economy designed to reward their wealthy peers.

Humanistic thinking can’t and won’t survive in a world in which students—and their parents—must view college in instrumental terms. The facts on the ground demonstrate this. My field, history, has recently witnessed a dramatic drop in majors. As the American Historical Association has reported, “of all the major disciplines, history has seen the steepest declines in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded” since the Great Recession. The English major is in a similar free fall, experiencing a decline of 25.5 percent in the same period. It’s easy to imagine a world in which universities stop teaching these and other subjects that don’t result in immediate pecuniary benefits. Recent events in Australia, where the conservative government has announced that it will charge students pursuing degrees in the humanities more than what it charges those pursuing more “practical” degrees, suggests this might occur sooner rather than later.

The major crises of the contemporary American academy—increasing debt, administrative overreach, the casualization of labor, the instrumentalization of knowledge, the collapse of the humanities, and the growing reliance on anti-union consultancies and law firms—emerge from a broken system that overrewards the few at the expense of the many. These crises are fundamentally tied to the political economy and will not be solved by confining agitation to the university. Only an extra-university movement, connected to other anti-capitalist movements and dedicated to reallocating power to workers, can save higher education and those who have devoted their lives to it. Absent such activism, the American university will remain a site of exploitation and anxiety in which no one’s genuine interests—to learn, to earn a living, to discover new things—are truly met. As we head into the fall semester, in which the coronavirus will inevitably endanger the lives of professors, university staff members, and students, building the solidarity upon which the transformation of higher education relies remains as important as ever.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy