The Left Defends Universities

When the real Terry Eagleton stood up on Sweep this week — that is, in the video Steve linked in — he explained how one of the most important political causes of our day is the Left’s defense of universities.

Noam Chomsky spoke on this subject before the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh. For Chomsky, the problem is a “business model” that comes with simultaneously hiring more and more expensive administrators while also hiring more and more cheap adjunct faculty:

It’s the same as hiring temps in industry or what they call “associates” at Walmart, employees that aren’t owed benefits. It’s a part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility. When universities become corporatized, as has been happening quite systematically over the last generation as part of the general neoliberal assault on the population, their business model means that what matters is the bottom line.

The effective owners are the trustees (or the legislature, in the case of state universities), and they want to keep costs down and make sure that labor is docile and obedient. The way to do that is, essentially, temps.

Beyond elite universities, there is federal government support for-profit universities that operate even more explicitly on the “business model”. Suzanne Mettler offers a critique in the New York Times roundtable on inequality moderated by Joseph Stiglitz. For-profit universities like the University of Phoenix leave students indebted, using debt — in Chomsky’s parlance — as “a disciplinary technique”. Across the United States, students are saddled with more and more debt. The massive cost of university — a wider than just student debt — is a major driver of inequality.

Solutions to this crisis can be drawn from both Mettler’s proposals and Chomsky’s more radical governance program. But conservatives — we saw Roger Scruton agree with Eagleton — might have a coherent vision of education that make them allies against neoliberal managerialism.

The substantial public investment in higher education needs to be be diverted away from corporations and the non-profit universities that are modeled after corporations. Quality public education should be given back to those most committed to its goals: alumni trustees and the tenured faculty of public universities.

Why is state investment in public universities decreasing?

Figure 4: Changes in Tuition & Per-Student Funding

From Demos yesterday.

What public institutions are more efficient investments than public universities? The governance crisis at the University of Virginia in September 2012 highlighted how little state support UVa receives. The exact numbers can be disputed, public universities attract support from alumni and other benefactors (not to mention out-of-state students’ tuition payments) that significantly offsets operations costs.

Besides, when one considers how “smart cities” agglomerate around them (with university hospitals, tech firms, droves of retirees, etc.), public education becomes a valuable long-term investment in economic development. A more visionary approach to the 21st information economy, and more importantly to its proper ends of an educated and cultured democratic citizenry, would be to follow the path that Iowa State has blazed.


One response to “The Left Defends Universities

  1. Pingback: Who Should Reform Education? | sweep·

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