Books

Our Public Universities Are Not in Good Health

The future of both public higher education access and the quality of the undergraduate education that our students, now and in the future, can expect to receive is in doubt.

Photo Credit: littleny / Shutterstock.com

The following is an excerpt from the new book Austerity Blues by Fabricant & Brier (Johns Hopkins University, 2016): 

"For, while the tale of how we suffer and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness." —James Baldwin, Sonny’s Blues

Writing this book, Austerity Blues, has allowed us to reflect on a time and place that made a decisive difference in both of our lives. College was unfamiliar to both of our working-class families, one on the West Coast, the other in the East. It nevertheless fueled aspirations and hope as a portal to a different life. One of our fathers said: “You will do better than me working with your mind and not your hands.” The other said: “I didn’t work all my life in a factory so you could work in a factory, too.” What each of them did not say, but believed, was that college was a place where ideas mattered and their son’s mind would be nurtured. And so our parents imagined that there were untold opportunities, economic and intellectual, hidden behind ivory towers and that those opportunities would transport their children to places unknown. In turn, we both held the deep belief that a university experience and a college degree would prove transformative in our own lives. Our parents’ dreams and our own aspirations were not disappointed. Indeed, our university experiences altered our individual and collective experiences. It was so life-altering, both of us decided to organize our lives around university citizenship as faculty members. Needless to say, we have not been disappointed in our choices. We both entered college as white, working-class men in a remarkable, all-too-brief moment in the history of higher education when dramatic growth brought the contemporary public university into being. During the long decade of the 1960s, anything and everything seemed possible, as social movements emerged to challenge political, economic, and intellectual orthodoxies. One of the centers of turmoil was public higher education. From Berkeley to Michigan to New York City, student ferment fed the larger social justice movement taking shape outside university walls. The conflict inside the public university was no less intense. The movement from the classroom into the community; the linkage of sub-ordinated knowledge of race, gender, and class into academic discourse; and the push to actively situate student and faculty voices in a university decision-making process increasingly dominated by administrators all turned out to be significant sites of struggle. In that consequential decade we were both very much engaged in the work of redefining and remaking public higher education. We made connections as students between movement politics around the antiwar and antiracism movements and the public university as an epicenter of critical social struggles. We were shaped intellectually and politically during that era. Matters of race, class, gender, power, the public good, and the meaning of public education coursed through our academic work, our classroom teaching, and our political organizing choices. It was in the public university during that era where we learned that the external world of political economy and our own interior lives were inseparable. These worlds had to be linked to be understood. That struggle for unification has marked much of our academic work ever since.

The opportunities we had to choose lives of the mind and political agency, however, were not accidental. Our individual aspirations were linked to a political topography of intense class conflict dating back to the Great Depression. That struggle, led in large part by labor unions and leftist political parties, produced a shift in the roles and functions of the state. It was within this context that governmental institutions assumed more and more social responsibility for citizens. New programs were created and laws passed to protect working people from the negative consequences of the labor market (e.g., the National Labor Relations and Social Security acts). Substantially greater public investment was made in the postwar era, especially in education and health care, which rewarded veterans returning from World War II with a variety of benefits and, in turn, created a more productive workforce.

We have both been beneficiaries of those gains and the conflicts out of which they arose. We struggled, first as students and then as teachers and scholars, to carry forward the class politics of the 1930s by incorporating a vision of race, gender, and later, sexuality into our work. The successful progressive political struggles that preceded our entry into public higher education in the 1960s afforded us access to the full-time faculty necessary for positive classroom experiences and tuition that was affordable or even free, both made possible by substantial state subsidies. No matter the historic contributions of public higher education, it is important not to romanticize either its intellectual risk taking or its academic independence. It remains firmly embedded in the apparatus of the state and the larger market-based economy. At its best, public higher education has had goals that were often contradictory. These tensions have been grounded in historical and contemporary academic discourse, employment opportunities, democratic participation, centralized administrative prerogatives, and finally, the scope and nature of dissent. What makes the public university unique is that such contradictions have been tolerated, if not always nurtured. The light shed by the contemporary public university on contentious issues—often defined by unpopular discourse, contradiction, political struggle, and dissent—is a flickering candle.

The same calculus of politics, public investment, and transformative opportunities is shaping and reshaping the public university today. We are increasingly troubled by the present policy drift that has rapidly become a strong undercurrent of disinvestment, growing student indebtedness, and fiscal starvation of public higher education. We fear for the future of public higher education, both nationally and close to home at the City University of New York (CUNY). Year after year, we witness the steady withdrawal of state funds and, in turn, restricted access for “the children of the whole people” (CUNY’s original mission, as stated in the mid-nineteenth century) to a quality public higher education. Conversely, we have seen tuition at CUNY increase by 25 percent at the same time that about $500 million of public money has been withdrawn. Over the past forty years at CUNY, the ratio of tuition paid by full-time students to public funding has shifted from zero to about 50 percent for students, many of whose annual family incomes are below $30,000. Within that same time frame the proportion of classes taught by full-time faculty has diminished from almost 100 percent to less than 50 percent. We also see the continuing disappearance of young males of color, especially African Americans, in undergraduate education, with black women outnumbering black men in CUNY’s community and senior colleges by a ratio of 2 to 1. These are not merely local but rather national trends.

The future of both public higher education access and the quality of the undergraduate education that our students, now and in the future, can expect to receive is in doubt. Even as we admit undergraduates in record numbers at CUNY (274,000 as of the 2014–15 academic year), we are concerned because their experience is ever more compromised by sharply diminished public fiscal underpinnings.

We are hearing a language of crisis, with concepts like “austerity” and “efficiency,” what economist Paul Krugman has correctly termed “austerity ideology,” applied to every public institution. As faculty members we believe the language of crisis is used at CUNY to legitimate bad policies of diminished public support; increased tuition; growing use of part-time faculty paid impoverished wages; and decaying physical facilities. The human toll of these policies is masked by declarations that efficiencies need to be extracted from available public resources because new or increased public resources are simply not available. Furthermore, we are told that only through such efficiencies can quality be achieved. We are indeed at a crossroads in public higher education. The choices are clear. Our personal experiences as undergraduates almost half a century ago offer a stark counterpoint to present policies as well as a reminder that increased and targeted public investment, not efficiencies driven by austerity, remain the best, most responsible way to increase the quality of public higher education, now and in the future.

The fiscal landscape of continuing disinvestment is neither preordained nor natural. It is a consequence of a politics of austerity that disproportionately denies the poorest students, especially those of color, quality higher education. We are faced with a series of political, economic, and structural choices regarding the future of public higher education.

In contrast to the austerity policies undermining public higher education and much else in the public sphere in the United States, China, with global economic and political ambitions, has significantly increased its investments, spending $250 billion to expand its human capital capacities. “Just as the United States helped build a white collar middle class in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s by using the G.I. Bill to help educate millions of World War 11 veterans,” Keith Bradsher reports in the New York Times Business Section, “the Chinese government is using large subsidies to educate tens of millions of young people." China is specifically targeting its investments in building new higher education institutions. These investments recently yielded a rise in the global rankings of seven of China’s universities, each of which is now ranked internationally in the top two hundred. While the United States continues to disinvest in public higher education, China has significantly ramped up its investment. The reasoning for China’s increased expenditures is summarized by Keith Bradsher: “Increasingly, college graduates all over the world (in a globalized economy) compete for similar work, and the boom in higher education in China is starting to put pressure on employment opportunities for college graduates elsewhere—including in the United States. Importantly the objectives of the Chinese investment are largely economic.” What is rarely discussed beyond higher education’s economic impact, are the ways public higher education in China and the United States choose or not to reconceive the nature of citizenship roles or to foster innovation. Those critical functions are essential not only in resisting austerity policies but also in creating a more robust academic experience that deepens students’ critical relationships to the world and enlarges their potential contributions to society.

Levels and kinds of public investment are therefore not merely technical or fiscal exercises but rather the consequence of human and political choices. Those choices will be determined in the United States, as in the past, by the kind of struggles we are prepared to wage for a redistributive and emancipatory public higher education. The success of these struggles will be determined by linking public higher education’s fate to other progressive campaigns for social justice in health care, policing, subsistence wages, the environment, and housing. Without a doubt, there must be independent advocacy for more fiscal support for public higher education. But that independent work, as in the 1930s and 1960s, must be linked to larger social movements for broad, redistributive justice and equity. Only the power and success of such social movements can provide the necessary corrective to forces presently pushing for policies of radical disinvestment, restructuring, and resource reallocation in public higher education.

Stephen Brier is a professor of urban education and the coordinator of the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy program at the CUNY Graduate Center. 

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