How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps

This piece, by Debra Leigh Scott, originally appeared on the blog The Homeless Adjunct. It is reposted here with her permission:

A few years back, Paul E. Lingenfelter began his report on the defunding of public education by saying, “In 1920 H.G. Wells wrote, ‘History is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe.’ I think he got it right. Nothing is more important to the future of the United States and the world than the breadth and effectiveness of education, especially of higher education. I say especially higher education, but not because pre- school, elementary, and secondary education are less important. Success at every level of education obviously depends on what has gone before. But for better or worse, the quality of postsecondary education and research affects the quality and effectiveness of education at every level.”

In the last few years, conversations have been growing like gathering storm clouds about the ways in which our universities are failing. There is talk about the poor educational outcomes apparent in our graduates, the out-of-control tuitions and crippling student loan debt. Attention is finally being paid to the enormous salaries for presidents and sports coaches, and the migrant worker status of the low-wage majority faculty. There are now movements to control tuition, to forgive student debt, to create more powerful “assessment” tools, to offer “free” university materials online, to combat adjunct faculty exploitation. But each of these movements focuses on a narrow aspect of a much wider problem, and no amount of “fix” for these aspects individually will address the real reason that universities in America are dying.

To explain my perspective here, I need to go back in time. Let’s go back to post World War II, 1950s when the GI bill, and the affordability – and sometimes free access – to universities created an upsurge of college students across the country. This surge continued through the ’60s, when universities were the very heart of intense public discourse, passionate learning, and vocal citizen involvement in the issues of the times. It was during this time, too, when colleges had a thriving professoriate, and when students were given access to a variety of subject areas, and the possibility of broad learning. The Liberal Arts stood at the center of a college education, and students were exposed to philosophy, anthropology, literature, history, sociology, world religions, foreign languages and cultures. Of course, something else happened, beginning in the late fifties into the sixties — the uprisings and growing numbers of citizens taking part in popular dissent — against the Vietnam War, against racism, against destruction of the environment in a growing corporatized culture, against misogyny, against homophobia. Where did much of that revolt incubate? Where did large numbers of well-educated, intellectual, and vocal people congregate? On college campuses. Who didn’t like the outcome of the 60s? The corporations, the war-mongers, those in our society who would keep us divided based on our race, our gender, our sexual orientation.

I suspect that, given the opportunity, those groups would have liked nothing more than to shut down the universities. Destroy them outright. But a country claiming to have democratic values can’t just shut down its universities. That would reveal something about that country which would not support the image they are determined to portray – that of a country of freedom, justice, opportunity for all. So, how do you kill the universities of the country without showing your hand? As a child growing up during the Cold War, I was taught that the communist countries in the first half of the 20th Century put their scholars, intellectuals and artists into prison camps, called “re-education camps”. What I’ve come to realize as an adult is that American corporatism despises those same individuals as much as we were told communism did. But instead of doing anything so obvious as throwing them into prison, here those same people are thrown into dire poverty. The outcome is the same. Desperate poverty controls and ultimately breaks people as effectively as prison…..and some research says that it works even MORE powerfully.

So: here is the recipe for killing universities, and you tell ME if what I’m describing isn’t exactly what is at the root of all the problems of our country’s system of higher education. (Because what I’m saying has more recently been applied to K-12 public education as well.)

First, you defund public higher education.

Anna Victoria, writing in Pluck Magazine, discusses this issue in a review of Christopher Newfield’s book, Unmaking the Public University: “In 1971, Lewis Powell (before assuming his post as a Supreme Court Justice) authored a memo, now known as the Powell Memorandum, and sent it to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The title of the memo was “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System,” and in it he called on corporate America to take an increased role in shaping politics, law, and education in the United States.” How would they do that? One, by increased lobbying and pressure on legislators to change their priorities. “Funding for public universities comes from, as the term suggests, the state and federal government. Yet starting in the early 1980s, shifting state priorities forced public universities to increasingly rely on other sources of revenue. For example, in the University of Washington school system, state funding for schools decreased as a percentage of total public education budgets from 82% in 1989 to 51% in 2011.” That’s a loss of more than 1/3 of its public funding. But why this shift in priorities? U.C. Berkeley English professor, Christopher Newfield, in his new book Unmaking the Public University posits that conservative elites have worked to de-fund higher education explicitly because of its function in creating a more empowered, democratic, and multiracial middle class. His theory is one that blames explicit cultural concern, not financial woes, for the current decreases in funding. He cites the fact that California public universities were forced to reject 300,000 applicants because of lack of funding. Newfield explains that much of the motive behind conservative advocacy for de-funding of public education is racial, pro-corporate, and anti-protest in nature.

Again, from Victoria: “(The) ultimate objective, as outlined in the (Lewis Powell) memo, was to purge respectable institutions such as the media, arts, sciences, as well as college campus themselves of left-wing thoughts. At the time, college campuses were seen as “springboards for dissent,” as Newfield terms it, and were therefore viewed as publicly funded sources of opposition to the interests of the establishment. While it is impossible to know the extent to which this memo influenced the conservative political strategy over the coming decades, it is extraordinary to see how far the principles outlined in his memo have been adopted.”

Under the guise of many “conflicts”, such as budget struggles, or quotas, de-funding was consistently the result. This funding argument also was used to re-shape the kind of course offerings and curriculum focus found on campuses. Victoria writes, “Attacks on humanities curriculums, political correctness, and affirmative action shifted the conversation on public universities to the right, creating a climate of skepticism around state funded schools. State budget debates became platforms for conservatives to argue why certain disciplines such as sociology, history, anthropology, minority studies, language, and gender studies should be de-funded…” on one hand, through the argument that they were not offering students the “practical” skills needed for the job market — which was a powerful way to increase emphasis on what now is seen as vocational focus rather than actual higher education, and to de-value those very courses that trained and expanded the mind, developed a more complete human being, a more actively intelligent person and involved citizen. Another argument used to attack the humanities was “…their so-called promotion of anti-establishment sentiment. Gradually, these arguments translated into real- and often deep- cuts into the budgets of state university systems,” especially in those most undesirable areas that the establishment found to run counter to their ability to control the population’s thoughts and behavior. The idea of “manufactured consent” should be talked about here – because if you remove the classes and the disciplines that are the strongest in their ability to develop higher level intellectual rigor, the result is a more easily manipulated citizenry, less capable of deep interrogation and investigation of the establishment “message”.

Second, you deprofessionalize and impoverish the professors (and continue to create a surplus of underemployed and unemployed Ph.D.s)

V.P. Joe Biden, a few months back, said that the reason tuitions are out of control is because of the high price of college faculty. He has NO IDEA what he is talking about. At latest count, we have 1.5 million university professors in this country, 1 million of whom are adjuncts. One million professors in America are hired on short-term contracts, most often for one semester at a time, with no job security whatsoever – which means that they have no idea how much work they will have in any given semester, and that they are often completely unemployed over summer months when work is nearly impossible to find (and many of the unemployed adjuncts do not qualify for unemployment payments). So, one million American university professors are earning, on average, $20K a year gross, with no benefits or healthcare, no unemployment insurance when they are out of work. Keep in mind, too, that many of the more recent Ph.Ds have entered this field often with the burden of six figure student loan debt on their backs.

There was recently an article talking about the long-term mental and physical destruction caused when people are faced with poverty and “job insecurity” — precarious employment, or “under-employment”. The article says that, in just the few short years since our 2008 economic collapse, the medical problems of this group have increased exponentially. This has been the horrible state of insecurity that America’s college professors have experienced now for thirty years. It can destroy you — breaking down your physical and emotional health. As an example: the average yearly starting salary of a university professor at Temple University in 1975 was just under $10,000 a year, with full benefits – health, retirement, and educational benefits (their family’s could attend college for free.) And guess what? Average pay for Temple’s faculty is STILL about the same — because adjuncts now make up the majority of faculty, and earn between $8,000 to $14,000 a year (depending on how many courses they are assigned each semester – there is NO guarantee of continued employment) — but unlike the full-time professors of 1975, these adjunct jobs come with NO benefits, no health care, no retirement, no educational benefits, no offices. How many other professions report salaries that have remained at 1975 levels?

This is how you break the evil, wicked, leftist academic class in America — you turn them into low-wage members of the precariat – that growing number of American workers whose employment is consistently precarious. All around the country, our undergraduates are being taught by faculty living at or near the poverty line, who have little to no say in the way classes are being taught, the number of students in a class, or how curriculum is being designed. They often have no offices in which to meet their students, no professional staff support, no professional development support. One million of our college professors are struggling to continue offering the best they can in the face of this wasteland of deteriorated professional support, while living the very worst kind of economic insecurity. Unlike those communist countries, which sometimes executed their intellectuals, here we are being killed off by lack of healthcare, by stress-related illness like heart-attacks or strokes. While we’re at it, let’s add suicide to that list of killers — and readers of this blog will remember that I have written at length about adjunct faculty suicide in the past.

Step #3: You move in a managerial/administrative class who take over governance of the university.

This new class takes control of much of the university’s functioning, including funding allocation, curriculum design, course offerings. If you are old enough to remember when medicine was forever changed by the appearance of the ‘HMO’ model of managed medicine, you will have an idea of what has happened to academia. If you are not old enough – let me tell you that Once Upon a Time, doctors ran hospitals, doctors made decisions on what treatment their patients needed. In the 1970s, during the infamous Nixon Administration, HMOs were an idea sold to the American public, said to help reign in medical costs. But once Nixon secured passage of the HMO Act in 1973, the organizations went quickly from operating on a non-profit organization model, focused on high quality health care for controlled costs, to being for-profit organizations, with lots of corporate money funding them – and suddenly the idea of high-quality health care was sacrificed in favor of profits – which meant taking in higher and higher premiums and offering less and less service, more denied claims, more limitations placed on doctors, who became a “managed profession”. You see the state of healthcare in this country, and how disastrous it is. Well, during this same time, there was a similar kind of development — something akin to the HMO — let’s call it an “EMO”, Educational Management Organization, began to take hold in American academia. From the 1970s until today, as the number of full-time faculty jobs continued to shrink, the number of full-time administrative jobs began to explode. As faculty was deprofessionalized and casualized, reduced to teaching as migrant contract workers, administrative jobs now offered good, solid salaries, benefits, offices, prestige and power. In 2012, administrators now outnumber faculty on every campus across the country. And just as disastrous as the HMO was to the practice of medicine in America, so is the EMO model disastrous to the practice of academia in America, and to the quality of our students’ education. Benjamin Ginsburg writes about this in great detail in his book The Fall of the Faculty.

I’d like to mention here, too, that universities often defend their use of adjuncts – which are now 75% of all professors in the country — claiming that they have no choice but to hire adjuncts, as a “cost saving measure” in an increasingly defunded university. What they don’t say, and without demand of transparency will NEVER say, is that they have not saved money by hiring adjuncts — they have reduced faculty salaries, security and power. The money wasn’t saved, because it was simply re-allocated to administrative salaries, coach salaries and outrageous university president salaries. There has been a redistribution of funds away from those who actually teach, the scholars – and therefore away from the students’ education itself — and into these administrative and executive salaries, sports costs — and the expanded use of “consultants”, PR and marketing firms, law firms. We have to add here, too, that president salaries went from being, in the 1970s, around $25K to 30K, to being in the hundreds of thousands to MILLIONS of dollars – salary, delayed compensation, discretionary funds, free homes, or generous housing allowances, cars and drivers, memberships to expensive country clubs.

Step Four: You move in corporate culture and corporate money

To further control and dominate how the university is ‘used” -a flood of corporate money results in changing the value and mission of the university from a place where an educated citizenry is seen as a social good, where intellect and reasoning is developed and heightened for the value of the individual and for society, to a place of vocational training, focused on profit. Corporate culture hijacked the narrative – university was no longer attended for the development of your mind. It was where you went so you could get a “good job”. Anything not immediately and directly related to job preparation or hiring was denigrated and seen as worthless — philosophy, literature, art, history.

Anna Victoria writes, on Corporate Culture: “Many universities have relied on private sector methods of revenue generation such as the formation of private corporations, patents, increased marketing strategies, corporate partnerships, campus rentals, and for-profit e-learning enterprises. To cut costs, public universities have employed non-state employee service contractors and have streamlined their financial operations.”

So what is the problem with corporate money, you might ask? A lot. When corporate money floods the universities, corporate values replace academic values. As we said before, humanities get defunded and the business school gets tons of money. Serious issues of ethics begin to develop when corporate money begins to make donations and form partnerships with science departments – where that money buys influence regarding not only the kinds of research being done but the outcomes of that research. Corporations donate to departments, and get the use of university researchers in the bargain — AND the ability to deduct the money as donation while using the labor, controlling and owning the research. Suddenly, the university laboratory is not a place of objective research anymore. As one example, corporations who don’t like “climate change” warnings will donate money and control research at universities, which then publish refutations of global warning proofs. OR, universities labs will be corporate-controlled in cases of FDA-approval research. This is especially dangerous when pharmaceutical companies take control of university labs to test efficacy or safety and then push approval through the governmental agencies. Another example is in economics departments — and movies like “The Inside Job” have done a great job of showing how Wall Street has bought off high-profile economists from Harvard, or Yale, or Stanford, or MIT, to talk about the state of the stock market and the country’s financial stability. Papers were being presented and published that were blatantly false, by well-respected economists who were on the payroll of Goldman Sachs or Merrill Lynch.

Academia should not be the whore of corporatism, but that’s what it has become. Academia once celebrated itself as an independent institution. Academia is a culture, one that offers a long-standing worldview which values on-going, rigorous intellectual, emotional, psychological, creative development of the individual citizen. It respects and values the contributions of the scholar, the intellectual, to society. It treasures the promise of each student, and strives to offer the fullest possible support to the development of that promise. It does this not only for the good of the scholar and the student, but for the social good. Like medicine, academia existed for the social good. Neither should be a purely for-profit endeavor. And yet, in both the case of the HMO and the EMO, we have been taken over by an alien for-profit culture, our sovereignty over our own profession, our own institutions, stripped from us.

A corporate model, where profit depends on 1) maintaining a low-wage work force and 2) charging continually higher pricers for their “services” is what now controls our colleges . Faculty is being squeezed from one end and our students are being squeezed from the other.

Step Five – Destroy the Students

While claiming to offer them hope of a better life, our corporatized universities are ruining the lives of our students. This is accomplished through a two-prong tactic: you dumb down and destroy the quality of the education so that no one on campus is really learning to think, to question, to reason. Instead, they are learning to obey, to withstand “tests” and “exams”, to follow rules, to endure absurdity and abuse. Our students have been denied full-time available faculty, the ability to develop mentors and advisors, faculty-designed syllabi which changes each semester, a wide variety of courses and options. Instead, more and more universities have core curriculum which dictates a large portion of the course of study, in which the majority of classes are administrative-designed “common syllabi” courses, taught by an army of underpaid, part-time faculty in a model that more closely resembles a factory or the industrial kitchen of a fast food restaurant than an institution of higher learning.

The Second Prong: You make college so insanely unaffordable that only the wealthiest students from the wealthiest of families can afford to go to the school debt free. Younger people may not know that for much of the 20th Century many universities in the U.S. were free – including the CA state system – you could establish residency in six months and go to Berkeley for free, or at very low cost. When I was an undergraduate student in the mid to late 1970s, tuition at Temple University was around $700 a year. Today, tuition is nearly $15,000 a year. Tuitions have increased, using CA as an example again, over 2000% since the 1970s. 2000%! This is the most directly dangerous situation for our students: pulling them into crippling debt that will follow them to the grave.

Another dangerous aspect of what is happening can be found in the shady partnership that has formed between the lending institutions and the Financial Aid Departments of universities. This is an unholy alliance. I have had students in my classes who work for Financial Aid. They tell me that they are trained to say NOT “This is what you need to borrow,” but to say “This is what you can get,” and to always entice the student with the highest possible number. There have been plenty of kick-back scandals between colleges and lenders — and I’m sure there is plenty undiscovered shady business going on. So, tuition costs are out of control because of administrative, executive and coach salaries, and the loan numbers keep growing, risking a life of indebtedness for most of our students. Further, there is absolutely no incentive on the part of this corporatized university to care.

The propaganda machine here has been powerful. Students, through the belief of their parents, their K-12 teachers, their high school counselors, are convinced by constant repetition that they HAVE to go to college to have a promising, middle class life, they are convinced that this tuition debt is “worth it” — and learn too late that it will indenture them. Let’s be clear: this is not the fault of the parents, or K-12 teachers or counselors. This is an intentional message that has been repeated year in and year out that aims to convince us all about the essential quality of a college education.

So, there you have it.

Within one generation, in five easy steps, not only have the scholars and intellectuals of the country been silenced and nearly wiped out, but the entire institution has been hijacked, and recreated as a machine through which future generations will ALL be impoverished, indebted and silenced. Now, low wage migrant professors teach repetitive courses they did not design to students who travel through on a kind of conveyor belt, only to be spit out, indebted and desperate into a jobless economy. The only people immediately benefitting inside this system are the administrative class – whores to the corporatized colonizers, earning money in this system in order to oversee this travesty. But the most important thing to keep in mind is this: The real winners, the only people truly benefitting from the big-picture meltdown of the American university are those people who, in the 1960s, saw those vibrant college campuses as a threat to their established power. They are the same people now working feverishly to dismantle other social structures, everything from Medicare and Social Security to the Post Office.

Looking at this wreckage of American academia, we have to acknowledge: They have won.

BUT these are victors who will never declare victory — because the carefully-maintained capitalist illusion of the “university education” still benefits them. Never, ever, admit that the university is dead. No, no. Quite the opposite. Instead, continue to insist that the university is the ONLY way to gain a successful, middle class life. Say that the university is mandatory for happiness in adulthood. All the while, maintain this low-wage precariate class of edu-migrants, continually mis-educate and indebt in the students to ensure their docility, pimp the institution out to corporate interests. It’s a win-win for those right wingers – they’ve crippled those in the country who would push back against them, and have so carefully and cleverly hijacked the educational institutions that they can now be turned into part of the neoliberal/neocon machinery, further benefitting the right-wing agenda.

So now what?

This ruination has taken about a generation. Will we be able to undo this damage? Can we force refunding of our public educational system? Can we professionalize faculty, drive out the administrative glut and corporate hijackers? Can we provide free or low-cost tuition and high-quality education to our students in a way that does NOT focus only on job training, but on high-level personal and intellectual development? I believe we can. But only if we understand this as a big picture issue, and refuse to allow those in government, or those corporate-owned media mouthpieces to divide and conquer us further. This ruinous rampage is part of the much larger attack on progressive values, on the institutions of social good. The battle isn’t only to reclaim the professoriate, to wipe out student debt, to raise educational outcomes — although each of those goals deserve to be fought for. But we will win a Pyrrhic victory at best unless we understand the nature of the larger war, and fight back in a much, much bigger way to reclaim the country’s values for the betterment of our citizens.

I am eager to hear from those of you who have been involved in this battle, or are about to enter it. We have a big job ahead of us, and are facing a very powerful foe in a kind of David and Goliath battle. I’m open to hearing ideas about how to build a much, much better slingshot.

4 thoughts on “How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps

  1. Like you, I believe we can reverse the trend leading to what will certainly be the demise of the American university as it was during the 20th century. But, as you say, it has to be “us,” the faculty, who make this happen. We can’t just wring our hands and complain.

  2. I disagree that we’re witnessing the “ruination” of university or the absurd notion that “scholars and intellectuals of the country been silenced and nearly wiped out.” I think you’re buying in to the right-wing nostalgia for the past and the notion that higher education today is terrible. Yes, there are a lot of negative trends, but overall today’s colleges are vastly superior to what we had for nearly all of American history. Compare higher education to nearly any other institution in our society–business, K-12 schools, government, media–and it’s still the best thing America has to offer.

    • I think what is being addressed is the attack on higher education personified by the likes of David Horowitz but that goes far beyond his silly attacks on professors. There’s an attempt going on to bring higher education in line with the models of business and market economies–so maybe “attempted ruination” would be the better phrase than “ruination.”

  3. I think the whole institution of tenure needs to be re examined among other things. That so many classes are taught by adjuncts (and this is true in Canada too — I am one) is one of the ways universities cut costs and still keep grad students, recent graduates or just career-sessionals working. I’ve been told the thing to do is get rid of adjuncts and keep faculty but make them work harder. As an adjunct, I disagree (of course). I think there needs to be a realisation at a fundamental level that universities have become, especially in the liberal arts, primarily teaching institutions and not either exclusively or even mostly, research ones. Since so many people need degrees, at least at the undergrad level, to be job worthy, then universities need to adjust to this mandate to promote teachers, as opposed to simply scholars or scientists. Were that paradigm shift (and it has already happened, just not consciously) acknowledged then adjunct faculty who do a lot of the teaching full time faculty do not want to do because a) it interferes with scholarly or scientific research or b) because it doesn’t need a PhD and 9 publications to do well, could earn more than subsistence wages and be seen openly as part of the university system. As it is, there is something consistently hidden about adjuncts. Their treatment and use is an open secret in some quarters and a real secret in others — usually the public. There is a reason most students don’t know there are different ‘types’ of profs teaching them. The university doesn’t want the public to know how they exploit a third of their teachers. The solution rests, I think, in recognising that teaching is the job of universities as much as research and while not paying undergraduate teachers as much as tenured profs, maybe not paying tenured profs as much either. But getting rid of the privilege of tenure will be, I think, almost impossible. Were adjuncts paid, with benefits, at least as much as highschool teachers, and fulltime profs not paid exorbitantly more, than the system would benefit in innumerable ways. Most importantly, the universities would be discontinuing a practise it should be ashamed of.

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.