• October 25, 2014

The Crisis of the Public University

The Crisis of the Public University 1

Noah Berger

Students and campus police officers clashed on the Berkeley campus of U. of California in November. The incident was one of several high-profile confrontations between students and authorities on public-university campuses this fall.

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close The Crisis of the Public University 1

Noah Berger

Students and campus police officers clashed on the Berkeley campus of U. of California in November. The incident was one of several high-profile confrontations between students and authorities on public-university campuses this fall.

The normally docile faculty and well-behaved students who gathered at Sproul Plaza to observe a general strike in November were taken by surprise by the thwack of police clubs on flesh and bone. So was our former poet laureate, Robert Hass, whose soulful response to having been bludgeoned in the belly with a University of California policeman's truncheon tells part of the tragic story. But why were faculty and students being knocked around and dragged by the hair by the campus police?

The crisis at the University of California is not about faculty and staff pay cuts (which we have had to swallow), faculty bonuses (they don't exist), or academic perks (if they ever existed). Faculty at large public institutions like the University of California at Berkeley buy their own notebooks, pencils, and pens. Those who still use chalk steal it from their toddlers' cubbies and bring it to class in their pockets. We use our own cellphones for business calls.

University professors (unless they have a large research grant) have no secretaries to prepare their manuscripts for publication or the hundreds of letters of recommendation, the purgatorial price professors pay for the opportunity to teach and shape the next generation of scholars. We no longer write those letters on embossed university letterhead, also a thing of the past. Despite what you might think, professors at public universities grade most of their undergraduate student papers and all of their graduate student theses and dissertations without assistance.

University professors are dedicated, hard-working people, with largely old-time values. Most are not on the make or "on the market" for higher salaries and better perks. We're there for the long haul, seeing graduate students through seven or eight years of specialized training.

The crisis at Berkeley is about the failed promise of reasonably attainable higher education. It is about the escalating costs of college that are turning a younger generation into debt-peons, and about the difficulty of obtaining jobs after graduation.

The current crisis is fundamentally about privatization and the dismantling of a national public treasure. The students and professors who were whacked by billy clubs want to preserve a grand public university that took a century to build to its present pre-eminence and is taking just a few years to destroy.

Although public universities are under attack throughout the United States, the University of California is taking a particularly hard beating, metaphorically and literally. In California, the public university (the 10 campuses of UC, the state-college system, and the community colleges)—like public libraries and day-care centers—is being held hostage to citizens who have waged tax rebellions since 1978 and whose heirs still refuse to support any civic institution that doesn't directly affect their private lives or needs. ("Who needs a public library?"; "Our children attend private schools"; "Public housing is a nuisance.")

Consequently, our children are less literate, and our streets are filling up with homeless warriors returned from the battlefields of the Middle East. Meanwhile, state support for the University of California is steadily shrinking, undergraduate tuition has almost doubled since 2007, and classroom spaces once reserved for California residents are being sold to affluent students from out of state and abroad. Diversity is good for any institution, but a diversity limited to those who can buy it is not diversity at all.

Outsourcing is another survival strategy. The much-heralded agreement to open a Berkeley-Shanghai campus is one solution to bankruptcy, but will it help our struggling undergraduates—most of whom work double shifts, carrying a full plate of demanding courses and working at outside jobs more than 20 hours a week—defray the expenses of room and board and Wi-Fi?

Digital, long-distance learning is another vaunted solution, but what might work for basic language, math, and science classes won't work for the give and take of face-to-face undergraduate classes, not to mention the hyperinteractiveness of science labs or the intellectually combative graduate seminars that teach students to think on their feet.

Public higher education is dying. As senior faculty retire, their positions and programs are going with them, not to be replaced. There is always talk about closing "expensive" departments: the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences in particular. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida recently declared that anthropologists were not needed in his state: "It's a great degree if people want to get it, but we don't need them here." On another occasion he said, "Do you want to use your tax money to educate more people who can't get jobs in anthropology? I don't." And there are other signs of institutional decline, at least in California. Custodial staff, cut to the bone, do their best, but university hallways, stairwells, and bathrooms are unsanitary, elevators are out of order for six months at a time, and "smart" classrooms (those with PowerPoint and video capacity) are scarcer than hen's teeth.

Against the backdrop of a deep recession, a failing war in Afghanistan, stalled efforts to overhaul American health care, the sudden appearance of the "new" working-class poor in shelters and food kitchens, why should anyone give a hoot about a crisis in public higher education?

There are two views of the university. One is the university as a critical institution engaged in the political and social transformation of the society of which it is a part. The second sees the university as a cloister, a secular monastery of reclusive scribes and writers, safely removed from the influence of the larger society and the world. That view has been advanced most forcefully by President John Sexton of New York University, who has referred to the university as a "sacred space," drawing on Cardinal Newman's essay "The Idea of the University," published in 1852. Newman described the university as a place for preserving and teaching "universal knowledge."

But in truth the university has never been isolated. It always responds to external interests—sometimes for patronage and gain, sometimes for power and political clout.

Higher education also has the responsibility to support and drive economic growth, as it did so forcefully in California throughout most of the 20th century. During World War II, for example, UC served the war effort in ways that today would make many progressive professors cringe. After the war, the U.S. Department of State and the California legislature considered the public university a weapon—hence the tense and often faculty-contested incorporation of federally financed nuclear research at UC—as well as an engine for fueling economic and political prowess, through advancing technological dominance. Area-studies programs focusing on Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa were developed to protect American interests and to keep our educated citizens informed of foreign affairs.

But the public university is hamstrung if state government and its citizens won't support it. Its once proud and powerful influence is shrinking partly through lack of financial support and partly through threats to academic freedom. For example, the legal Catch-22s within "homeland security" expose visiting professors and scholars from other countries to invasive screening and background checks. Many are denied entry without just cause. Others receive their visas so late that they cannot attend the conferences at which they were scheduled to speak or accept the postdoctoral research fellowships offered to them. Thus we lose the contributions of some of the world's most gifted students and scholars, diminishing our capacity to understand other societies and cultures and to see ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. Global intellectual exchange on our campuses is in grave danger.

Meanwhile, the infiltration of corporate business models into every aspect of academic life has led to the devaluation of the arts, humanities, and social sciences, which are seen either as luxuries or intellectual enemies of the global economy. Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust noted in 2009 the growing dominance of economic justifications for the existence of universities, to the exclusion of its other missions, such as fostering a broad, liberal education, disinterested scholarship, and social citizenship. Higher education, she wrote, is not about delivering a commodity—a university degree—but about fostering public good. Universities are meant to produce skepticism as well as knowledge. They should afflict the comfortable but unexamined notions that often undermine democratic societies. Universities, said Faust, should be "creative and unruly places, safe spaces for dissent, allowing for a polyphony of disparate voices."

The prospects are grim, but Berkeley faculty and students are struggling to keep their promise—of an open, free, independent, and diverse public institution—to the people of California, even while the public has not kept its promises to them. It took a faculty rebellion in 1919-20 to force the California legislature and UC regents to recognize the Academic Senate and its role in shared governance of the university. Clark Kerr, Berkeley's chancellor from 1952 to 1958, fought against the firing of faculty who refused to sign the anti-communist loyalty oath the regents required employees to sign during the McCarthy era. And Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien fought against the regents' 1995 ban on affirmative action in undergraduate admissions by raising more than a billion dollars, part of which was used to recruit and prepare disadvantaged minorities for admission to the Berkeley campus.

Berkeley students started the free-speech movement in 1964, and students and faculty fought against military recruitment on campus during the Vietnam War, held anti-apartheid divestment strikes, and fought for affirmative action. Not all these struggles were successful, but all of them were worthy fights.

Today faculty and students are trying to prevent tuition increases that would erode a public university and change it into a public-private enterprise. They are also committed to preventing further police brutality against demonstrators and protecting their constitutional right of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Nonviolent resistance has lost some of its luster in recent decades, overshadowed by the "war against terror" and a resurgence of what used to be called authoritarianism. Faculty members tend to embrace a decorous civility. Civil disobedience doesn't come easily to most people of good conscience. We are raised to be accommodating. But now is not the time for accommodation.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes is a professor of medical anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley and a member of the Institute for Advanced Study's School of Social Science, in Princeton, N.J.

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