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Thursday, December 8, 2016

A New Caption For an Old Cartoon

Peter Steiner's famous 1993 cartoon:

Might need to be updated with this new caption:

On The Internet Nobody Knows You're A Fake News Site

(With special thanks to my brother for reformulating it).

Friday, November 25, 2016

As Trump Privatizes Education, Dumping Identity Studies is the Worst Possible Advice

It feels a little silly to flog Mark Lilla's misinformed and retrograde attack on "identity liberalism" while Donald J. Trump appoints wrecking crews to one federal position after another. Jefferson Sessions will wreck Justice's civil rights division. Steve Bannon will wreck basic racial neutrality in White House strategy. Betsy DeVos will wreck public education across the country (network map courtesy of Veterans Today). Mr. Trump's one constructive campaign promise, to rebuild infrastructure, is structured as a privatization play in which investors will get equity for 18 cents on the dollar, with public subsidies supplying the rest. Mr. Trump is a master of other people's money, public as well as private, and the public is going to pay.

Colleges and universities are going to have to fight to keep disruption from meaning destruction. They will need to rebuild democratic higher ed to outflank Trumpian appeals to the working classes. Here's where we come to the problem with Prof. Lilla's piece: he is recycling the late 1980s color-blind critique of multiculturalism that kept the Clinton-era Democrats from thinking clearly about race or class, and from connecting race and class as they actually are.

First, there's the backward cultural politics of this Times-powered slam of alleged Identitude. Prof. Lilla attacks Hillary Clinton for excessive mentioning of various groups of people of color, and then traces the problem to schools.
The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.
Each part of this statement is wrong: that today's progressive students are more narcissistic than conservative students or than their parents (no evidence is offered, so I'll go with my contravening 30 years of experience); that diversity is a fixation that isolates students (it actually puts them in dialogue with others); that this causes racial narcissism (it actually challenges it); that college students and staff don't care about regular Americans (the vast majority at public colleges are regular Americans).

The real problem, revealed for the umpteenth time by this presidential campaign, is not diversity but its absence. Racial and cultural segregation cause the crises of understanding in national politics, not diversity programs designed to overcome it. Ethnic and gender studies requirements often bring the first shattering of the natural narcissism of early life in segregated America. Confirming this point, Dan Berrett offered a primer on existing college diversity practices that features the related themes of pre-college segregation, college-based "group dialogue," and the overcoming of "white fragility" to create stronger cross-racial bonds. One could also look up virtually any race-conscious student support service, like my campus's Equal Opportunity Program, to see functions like "holistic counseling" focused on developing the psychological resources essential to academic success. A New York Times regular like Mark Lilla might be familiar with "Who Gets to Graduate?" Paul Tough's superb account of a particularly successful diversity-based support program at the University of Texas at Austin that elevates completion rates among at-risk students. Such programs help students deal with frequent poverty, hunger, subtle as well as overt discrimination, and unfamiliar forms of competition. I could also go on about the cognitive literature that shows the direct connection between identity-conscious instruction and a student's intellectual development. I could do the same for the way breadth requirements in the standard college curriculum aim to instill the inclusive national identity that Prof. Lilla says he wants. Diversity programs are higher ed's attempt to take the country's socially segmented and unequally educated population and maximize the share that stays in college once it gets there. His attack on diversity programs as such is an attack on a core precondition of democratic higher ed.

Of course Prof. Lilla would be offended by any suggestion that he doesn't support democratic higher education. I'm sure he supports educational democracy as an abstract concept. But his whole piece argues against a crucial means of achieving it, which is a parity among social identities so that members of every group can participate on equal footing. We don't have anything close to parity among races or any other social group. The class problem is dramatic. Here is a chart of bachelors degree attainment by age 24 for dependent students, broken out by income quartile (courtesy of a Pell Institute report).

Attainment is heavily influenced by income. The bottom half of the US population has made next to no progress in B.A. attainment over 50 years. There's a lot to say about the roots of this bipartisan failure (see for example Stage 5 of the decline cycle in The Great Mistake, or Sara Goldrick-Rab's Paying the Price), but in the end there's no excuse for policy toleration of this class bias. The obvious takeaways are, (1) working class and ex-middle class voters are right to think that the higher ed system isn't doing much for them. And (2), the de facto exclusion of lower-income students is a much bigger problem for college's reputation than are diversity programs.

Writers like Prof. Lilla have encouraged people to think that this class problem persists because the race problem is being excessively featured. In practice, this would have to mean that low-income whites aren't going to college because the government has put students of color at the head of the line. This claim also has no basis in fact. To the contrary, as college participation has increased in recent years, most of the new white students go to selective colleges with strong graduation rates, and most of the new brown and black students go to open access colleges with weak graduation rates. This was the core finding of a Georgetown University report on racial disparity in college completion. Endowed with the explicit title, "Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege," its has a graphic that summarizes the racial pattern.

Enrollment growth among students of color has largely gone to the colleges that simply don't have the per-student resources to support high levels of completion. In short, the United States does not have a class problem because it has oversolved its race problem. It has a class problem and a race problem, and we need to be able to talk about both of them, on their own terms and in their interaction.

Okay, so Prof. Lilla's guns are pointed in the wrong direction, at race-conscious higher ed rather than at segregationist and class-biased public policy. But the ideas he recycles aren't responsible for re-segregation and inequality, are they? Yes, historically they actually are. This is where we have to return to the dawn of Clintonism in the late 1980s. Prof. Lilla has just rehashed a critique of multiculturalism that, to repeat, made New Democrats incapable of dealing with either racism or the economic inequality that non-college voters are rightly upset about.

The basic stakes were whether whites were going to demand that post-1960s ethnic groups assimilate to a common culture that whites defined, or, on the other hand, move toward a polycentric society in which fundamental values would be achieved through negotiation within shared legal ground rules. For figures like Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump, this wasn't even a legitimate question: of course the American core was European and all cultural groups would automatically conform. Civil rights movements famously dissented from this kind of white ethno-nationalism. Less famously, so did many educators who worked in racially diverse classrooms. For example, in 1974, Manuel Ramirez III and Alfredo Casa�eda published Cultural Democracy, Bicognitive Development, and Education, in which they argued for pluralist overlap and communication rather than white-core assimilation. Writing in the Journal of Teacher Education three years later, Arturo Pacheco, in "Cultural Pluralism: A Philosophical Analysis," argued for a notion of cultural pluralism in which social groups remained independent and at the same time interdependent segments of society. The practical motivation was that students whose social worlds were not seen as legitimate by their school culture did not do well in school. In the anti-assimilationist pluralism that later came to be associated with multiculturalism, a group like Mexican Americans could retain cultural autonomy within a politically-unified nation-state. The benefit was that Americanness would no longer be defined as whiteness (though Toni Morrison just pointed out that it still is). The result would be a rough cultural equality that would allow people from every ethnic or racial group to live with others on equal footing.

Enter Clintonism, which came to power in the midst of a backlash against multicultural equality. It formed itself as a third way on racial and economic policy. It rested on liberal white nationalism. Democratic centrist godfather Arthur Schlesinger Jr. had written The Disuniting of America (1991) to demand minority-group assimilation to a culturally superior white European core. A modified position appeared in the work of the historian Gary Nash and of eduction scholar Diane Ravitch, among others, who rejected white cultural supremacism but demanded a strong common framework that generated assimilation lite. Writing a few years later, Avery Gordon and I called the Schlesinger position "cultural supremacism" and the Nash-Ravitch position "cultural unionism." The crucial compromise of the latter was that it offered flexible tolerance while still rejecting cultural parity or equality, and insisting instead on unity and shared foundations. The unionists trained their fire on calls for cultural autonomy (like Afrocentrism) that seemed to them to reject their kinder, gentler version of assimilation to an implicitly rather than aggressively white common culture.

Cultural unionism is more or less Prof. Lilla's position today. While opposing Trumpian assumptions that immigrants and racial groups must conform to a heartland white American culture, and while hiding the exact degree of assimilation required, he and his forebears are upset about diversity first and inequality much later, if ever. He ignores actually existing racial inequality in his piece, and also the university's role in ignoring class inequality. (Prof. Ravitch changed her position years ago).

Clintonism adopted this compromise formation, one that denied it was a white racial ideology. It entrenched the post-civil rights era, where the debate was always whether equal racial opportunity had gone too far. Bill Clinton came to power with a cultural politics that included trashing rapper Sister Soulja, executing the mentally disabled African American prisoner Ricky Ray Rector, and, once in office, dumping his nominee for head of the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, Lani Guinier, when she was ludicrously labeled a "quota queen" by the Wall Street Journal, then ending welfare as we know it, dramatically increasing incarceration in all its racial disproportions, and so on. The Clintons sidelined Great Society and civil rights goals, which came back to haunt Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign.

Clintonian centrism was anti-egalitarian on race and culture--and also on class. Its soft assimilationism or liberal white nationalism would allow civil society to decide racial outcomes. In practice, this meant market forces would decide. Here is where we get to the link between racial and class inequality. The undermining of the civil rights agenda, the embrace of post-civil rights, took the heat off an economic egalitarian agenda. A good example is the work of the Clintonite political economist Robert Reich, who informed the world in his bestselling The Work of Nations (1991) that in the knowledge economy, blue collar workers are obsolete. Only cognitive workers have tradeable skills. Prof. Reich comes very close to saying that blue-collar workers, which he described as formerly valued for their ability to do the same thing over and over, have no meaningful skills at all. Stripped of craft dignity as well as economic value, industrial blue-collar workers were turned by Clintonism into an economic loser class that would need government attention but not make a contribution to the New Economy. Clintonism offered (reduced) unemployment benefits and job retraining. The latter helped spoil the reputation of further learning by offering neither actual work nor liberal-arts style respect for the student as thinker.

Clintonism interpreted industrial blue-collar America, a big chunk of Donald J. Trump's base, as economic deplorables. Their booby prize was the kind of dumbed-down adult education that would logically render them cynical about higher ed overall. Clintonism relegated the non-college population to second class status, elevating our technology lords and ladies into a new aristocracy of STEM degrees, a tiered system recently ratified yet again by the Democrat-in-chief, Barack Obama, when, in editing the November issue of Wired, he defined global challenges such that only advanced technologists are relevant to solving them.

In short, Clintonism yoked economic and racial disparity. Its commitment to both was structural--college over non-college workers, STEM over non-STEM, market over government, liberal white nationalism over multiculturalism. There's no surprise that neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama was able to break Donald J. Trump's absurd bear hug of the non-college population: 25 years later, they have no street cred to counter Mr. Trump's very direct promises to reverse deindustrialization, not with further education, but with state power.

Clintonism long ago posed a terrible challenge to colleges and universities: will colleges create and sustain deep ties to those who were being relegated to the economic ash heap, on the basis, for starters, of the old land-grant promise to provide their communities with any knowledge they needed to advance? Unfortunately for both universities and society, the answer was no. From the vantage of red-state America, they surfed the knowledge economy wave, milked the tech billionaires for donations, built stadium skyboxes for wealthy sports fans, and told the children of the non-college deplorables that they'd better get their behinds to a university, the more selective the better--that is, the more likely not to have anyone like them or their families or their whole doomed class, the better.

From the point of view of class equity, this was an epic screw-up. Dropping the public good vision of egalitarian inclusion, they raised prices, stressed return on college investment, changed and burdened the student experience, shifted expenditures to activities with possible future profits, and let the post-industrial working class play catch up--if they could somehow turn themselves into that completely different type of person known as the knowledge worker. The irony is that universities were slammed for helping students of color instead of whites when, in terms of completion and degree quality, they weren't really doing that either. The whole policy practice has been a great mistake.

The mistake was clearly identified by race-conscious thinking decades ago, and could have been avoided. In The Ethnic Myth (1989), Stephen Steinberg wrote,
If there is an iron law of ethnicity, it is that when ethnic groups are found in a hierarchy of power, wealth, and status, then conflict is inescapable. However, where there is social, economic, and political parity among the constituent groups, ethnic conflict, when it occurs, tends to be at a low level and rarely spills over into violence. (170)
In a phrase: No Equity, No Peace. And this is the Clintonist legacy that Mark Lilla's piece suppresses and that Donald J. Trump exploits.

The public university will now be fighting hardcore opponents like it hasn't seen in years. It can only do this if it drops the endless self-questioning about whether diversity is racism and whether education disrespects white people. These debates are not only a distraction--they create weakness at a fatal time. The public university can either stand for racial and economic parity as a unified project, or it can continue its decline.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

After the Election

President-elect Trump did not spend much time on the question of higher education (unlike Bernie Sanders or even Hillary Clinton) during his campaign.  But some things seem clear.  As articulated by Virginia Foxx, likely to be the new Chair of the House Higher Education and Workforce Committee, there will likely be reduced oversight of for-profit colleges and universities, increased emphasis on college completion, decreased regulatory oversight, and little if any expansion of Federal funding for higher education.   We can also expect the Republicans push to give banks greater control over student loans, and to cut federal support for research.

The most immediate issue concerns the support and protection of students.  President-elect Trump has made no secret of his desire to increase deportations and is likely to attempt to eliminate the "Consideration for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" (DACA) program.  Over 1.5 Million people are presented under the DACA program, not surprisingly with a large percentage in California.  It is essential that Colleges and Universities find ways to honor their commitments to these students and work to enable them to complete their education in peace.  Faculty and students at many institutions are pushing for their colleges and universities to declare themselves sanctuary campuses.  In California CSU Chancellor Timothy White has already declared that CSU will not cooperate with Federal efforts to identify and deport undocumented students (if they occur).  At yesterday's Regents' Meeting President Napolitano indicated that she had appointed a task force to prepare the University to help protect and support undocumented students.  But unlike White she has not committed to non-participation with any Federal immigration crackdown.  This is an issue that the Faculty needs to take up.

We must also recognize that the Trump Administration will likely show little interest in supporting Title IX efforts.  Already we have seen multiple incidents of both racial and sexual harrasment on campuses since the election.  As Hank Reichman has recently observed, it is time to reconsider the debate over so-called "safe spaces."  The concept of safe spaces has been denigrated by many purporting to defend academic freedom over the last few years.  Implicit in these criticisms has been the idea that minority and female students have overstated the extent to which they have not been granted equal access to the civic and intellectual space of colleges and universities.  Critics of safe spaces have too often conjured up fantasies of a Kantian space of equals and ignored the real disparity in the situations that different sorts of students face on campuses.  It is not a denial of individual or free thought to recognize that institutions and faculty have a responsibility to create the conditions that will enable students to grow as scholars.  In that sense, as Brad DeLong has put it "a university is: first of all, a safe space for ideas. second a safe space for scholars."  I would only add that it can only be the first if it is the second and that we must explicitly recognize students as scholars.

The Trump Administration, combined with the ascendancy of Republican power in Congress and the States poses longer term challenges for the very idea of the university.  The Presidency will be held by an authoritarian populist, one house of Congress will be led by an acolyte of Ayn Rand while the other is directed by a walking embodiment of what the eighteenth century would have thought of as "Old Corruption."  Controlling the Presidency and Congress means that the Antonin Scalia's replacement on the Supreme Court will be a representative of the Right.  Given the age of both Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer it is possible the Court will move even further to the Right in the near future.  On the level of the states a similar pattern is in place.

Mr. Trump's campaign articulated a vision of a nationalist America focused on whites, in which the market was liberated from the regulation of the state,  and in which women and minorities were deferential and subordinate.  Indeed, Trump's movement combined with Brexit and the rise of authoritarian nationalist movements in Europe and elsewhere reveal a deep alienation from the universities and colleges.  It is that vision, combined with his administration's political power that must be addressed.

But I will turn to that in a future post.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Higher Ed Policy After the Election

It's tempting to see higher education as a sideshow in the upheaval that Donald J. Trump's election presents for every arena of national concern--literally every arena, from global warming to Middle East war, from immigration to mass surveillance, from nuclear disarmament to police reform, from Native rights to job creation, etc etc.  But this list needs to include higher ed.  The Trump victory buried Clintonism, which furnished universities' business model for the last twenty five years.  Higher ed now has to reinvent its relationship to the general public.

I'll discuss this new public relationship a separate post. Here I'll focus on some likely effects, gleaned in part from very interesting presentations and conversations with higher ed scholars, advocates, administrators and activists at the ASHE convention in Columbus this past week.

First, the promised Trump crackdown on immigration will increase disruption to undocumented students, students of color, LGBTQ students, women students, and Muslim students.  Incidents began the night of the election: see Scott Jaschik's Friday overview and his update today, the Verge's report on the adding of University of Pennsylvania students to a racist GroupMe chat based in Oklahoma, the overview of a racialized town-gown altercation in Oberlin, OH, among many others. On Sunday, Donald J. Trump asked his followers to "stop it," though he went on to blame the media, and has not issued a categorical statement like the one David Halperin wrote for him. 

Also on Sunday, Mr. Trump repeated his campaign promise to deport up to 3 million undocumented immigrants.  We've heard of several universities that are planning official statements in support of undocumented students and others who are being threatened with insults, degradation, or violence.  Universities must defend their students against these attacks.   But they will also need to plan for the fact that this puts them in stark opposition to a key strategy of the president-elect. 

Second, Mr. Trump doesn't much care about higher education.  This increases the chances that he will farm out its policy to Congress and/or to party stalwarts looking for a grudge match against the sector.  At ASHE, two people who advocate for higher ed in Washington, D.C., said he probably would not close the Department of Education.  It holds $1.3 trillion in student loan assets, for one thing, and it would cost tens of billions of dollars to unwind.  (I assume that makes it a honey pot for privatizers in an administration headed by a master of corporate access to public subsidies, but I haven't figured out how this would work.)

Assuming there will be a Secretary of Education, a few names have come up: Sen. Lamar Alexander is the dean of Republicans higher ed policymakers.  Presidential candidate Ben Carson is rumored to want the job.  The New York Times also listed Williamson M. Evers, a Hoover fellow whom I thought of more as a K-12 crank, though that may be a point in his favor.  Purdue president Mitch Daniels has denied he is being considered for a cabinet position, but has a developed higher ed model and blogosphere supporters.  The Trump Administration could give a nonpriority area like education to longtime activists to use for ideological target practice.

Third, since Donald Trump already has plenty of targets, he'll more likely just make higher ed "open for business."   I'll expand on Sara Goldrick-Rab's list of possible Trump higher ed priorities.
  • Neo-states-rights higher ed would be out of the reach of federal enforcement, which has been regulating public and private universities' responses to problems like racial hate crimes and sexual assault.  
  • Gutting Obama-era regulations on for-profit colleges.  Jonathan Fansmith of ACE noted that for the first time in years, Credit Suisse has shifted its recommendation on for-profit college stocks to "buy."  Look for more use of the for-profit sector to excuse cuts in public funding that in turn benefit for-profits (for the UK Tory precedent, see Andrew McGettigan's early overview). Expect to see more enrollments and revenues in the higher ed sector with the world record for worst degree outcomes at the highest student cost.
  • Returning a big piece of student loans to private banks.   Since new increases in the student loan burden will be unpopular in both main parties, various alt-finance schemes will be floated.  The Big 3 are 
    • Income-contingent loan repayment plans (touted for expansion under the Obama administration).  These are better than no-cap repayment. The UK experience shows they require off-book public subsidies--when students don't have to repay because they don't have high enough incomes, they effectively default and the government covers it. New loan repayment schemes also drive out the goal of no loans to pay back in the first place. 
    • Institutional risk-sharing. The idea here is that colleges help their graduates pay back loans when the graduates don't earn enough in the workforce to pay back their loans on their own.  An advocate, Sen. Alexander, says that the idea is to "ensure that colleges have some responsibility" to get students to "borrow wisely."  One practical effect would be for universities to reduce their own repayment risk by funneling students into majors with higher average future earnings.  This would, over time, mean cutting other majors.  Arts and humanities would be first in line for cuts.
    • Income-share agreements, in which an investor gives a student a portion of their college costs in exchange for a share of their future income.  Repayment periods are finite (say 9 years) and repayment amounts are capped at a multiple of the original loan (say 2.5x, in the Purdue example that the Wall Street Journal has recommended).   In addition to the indentureship element, the plan seeks to tie the value of a major to its private market return on investment.
This businessing of higher ed is not new, but the Donald J. Trump Administration (DJTA) is likely to produce a difference in kind through a massive intensification of degree. The shared theme is the completion of current trends towards marketization, with escalated privatization as the means. 

Mitch Daniels, the former Eli Lilly executive and Indiana governor who is now president of Purdue University, has put together the common sense version of the model, called "Purdue Moves."  I encourage you to read the short post about it at the conservative blog The American Thinker.  The model mixes a populist concern with affordability via tuition freezes together with budget cuts, continuous assessment, return on investment (ROI) metrics, incentives to force students and universities to maximize ROI, a general critique of universities as delivering little, and a dogwhistled neo-culture war on faculty and students who are said to criticize injustice because they won't perform. In the DJTA, the service populism of Michael Crow's New American University will lose out to the corporate populism of Mitch Daniels.  This may be the best-case DJTA scenario.

In short, educational and research goals will be more fully subordinated to financial ones than any time in modern history.  This will mean a massive curbing of the academic freedom of students and faculty, with tenure-track faculty experiencing the pressures non-tenure-track faculty have known from the start. This will include curbing the freedom of students, even as they pay more than ever, to pursue a major suited to their individual needs, wants, and academic strengths. Forcing the nation's brilliant future poets, journalists, sociologists, and historians into biology and mech E is the height of human inefficiency, and universities will accept it at their peril.

The likely default plan is for senior managers to up the ROI focus they already have.  One example comes from Ohio State University, which I discovered while preparing to lecture there last week. The university reports on research showing that the ROI of a college degree is higher now than it was in previous decades. The page states that total financial benefits exceed total individual costs. They (the PR authors, not the scholars who did the research) then draw these conclusions:

This list teaches students and their parents to look down on less selective colleges (their problem is poverty not open access), avoid non-STEM majors, and to define college study in employment terms. It obliterates over half of the calculable value of the university, which is non-market, indirect, and social, and ignores the sociocultural, psychological, and regional contributions that universities make to public life. And yet the reponse to the DJTA could be the multiplication of outreach to the public that reduces the value of the higher education they are trying to defend.

Universities that respond to the new situation by doubling down on private market and ROI justifications will also intensify rather than redirecting the negative pressures I've described.  That is to repeat The Great Mistake.

I'll say more about the better, pro-public justifications in a subsequent post.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Biting the Populist Bullet

The Great Mistake is out! And I have a related piece in today's Inside Higher Ed about the choice facing the public university after the election.  Regardless of the vote today, the 2/3rds of the U.S. population without a college degree will still be treated like second-class citizens by the political establishment. Most of those will still feel that public universities aren't on their side.  In this common case, they don't see what difference public funding for universities makes or why regular people should pay for it.

My article asks what we can do about this, and the answer starts with universities working directly with "red-state" regions rather than helping their college population escape them.  Have a look and tell me what you think.
I encountered a version of the problem preparing my lecture at Ohio State, where the campus website features research by one of their distinguished higher ed scholars into why college is still worth it.  The page focuses only on the private market value of finishing college, meaning the graduate's higher future earnings.  It turns out that college offers a 12-14 percent return on investment.

True enough.  But justifying public universities in private-good terms is what we might call . . . the great mistake.  It's a political mistake because we can't ask people to subsidize higher ed if all it does is raise individual graduate's future salaries. Milton Friedman made this point in 1955: yes we should subsidize "general education for citizenship" (though not, according to him, with direct funding to colleges); no we should not subsidize "specialized vocational training" that benefits only that individual.  We don't tax people to support horseback riding academies because we don't think riding skills are a public good (though that could always change).  So the ROI argument that is supposed to inspire the taxpayer with the public university's utility actually gives them a reason to force the student to front the costs.

The ROI argument is also an economic mistake because, in contrast to the case for riding academies, 2/3rds of the total value of universities is nonmarket and/or indirect and/or social. So universities--and OSU has plenty of company--alienate a huge percentage of voters who aren't associated with college and then guarantee public underinvestment by ignoring the university's public value, all with our supposedly pragmatic "here's what's in it for you" argument.  There's a lot more on this and related issues in the book, where I use the work of the economist Walter McMahon among others to talk about our colossally foolish abandoning of the public good understanding of higher ed.  For starters, university publicists need to change their strategy radically to include the public-good value.

After my lecture yesterday, my host took me to see a movie I've been trying to find for months. It's Starving the Beast, about the Republican war on public university funding in six states. It interviews  pro-public and anti-public activists and intellectuals about the state of the public university, with the former group including fairly conservative senior managers, and the latter largely funded by right-wing think tanks.

A member of the pro-public camp, a former president of UT Austin, laid out the stakes correctly when he said that the current trend is towards excellent higher ed for an elite and lower quality for everyone else.  Yes indeed, that is the plan.  UNC-Chapel Hill's Gene Nichol said that the idea of the public university was, in contrast, to provide the best that American higher education had to offer to everyone who was willing to undertake it.  The University of Virginia's Siva Vaidhyanathan gave the best short take-down of Clayton Christensen's notion of disruptive innovation that you will see, and also ended the film with a glowing vision of what places like Iowa State did to change the lives of the everyday people in their regions.

The anti-public people, including Jeff Sandefer in Texas, were focused on undermining the alleged power of liberal professors and putting higher ed on a pay-to-play basis.  You would study 14th century painting only if you were willing to pay for it. The public would effectively pay for nothing, presumably because the paying of taxes does not allow consent for any specific expenditure, which violates the definition of personal freedom of the anti-public folks.  (A version of the hardcore anti-public plan has actually been implemented in the United Kingdom by the Tory government.)  The anti-public people were fairly happy with the obvious effect on public universities (it was an all-research-flagship film), which is that they are losing their independence both intellectually and financially from the political arena.

There's much more to say about the whole debate and I'm sorry Starving the Beast isn't for sale for $5 on the Internet--it should have been all over the place in election season. It has some lovely idealism about the enlightened society, and it stages a major battle between free development and political control.  But the film didn't feature students except in atmosphere shots, or professors in action in teaching in research.  This means that it retained the public university as an abstract ideal, one that won't be as important as food, shelter, basic employment, and related core goods that so much of the population is struggling with. 

The only thing to do in this situation is to double down on the public vision.  The great mistake is that we aren't allowing public universities to deliver a fully educated society.  What we're wrecking is the institutional and financial means to deliver that--better quality and much more broadly than we are doing now.  The recovery will come when we make the vision of free development a populist cause.  Higher learning needs to be funded and implemented at regional colleges as well as at the venerable and monumental and overly-selective flagships.  The university's democracy project can beat the goal of political control, but only if it enlists the non-college population by giving them what we know changes lives.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Technological Stagnation and Science Fiction

The following two videos pair well together.  In the first, Tyler Cowen argues (in a TEDx talk) that we are in a period of technological stagnation.  In the second,  Neal Stephenson (in an interview at MIT) suggests that a new more utopian type of science fiction might help to shake us out of this malaise.

Tyler Cowen  - The Great Stagnation

Neal Stephenson -- The Hieroglyph Project