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Still Unmaking the Public University

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A paperback edition of my most recent book, Unmaking the Public University, has just been released by Harvard University Press. The original hardback appeared in mid-2008, and offered a genealogy of this pivotal institution's unsustainable financial and cultural situation. Since then, that situation has gone from bad to worse. There is some good news that I will discuss. Mostly, however, we have seen the undesired validation of the book's main claim that the public university hadn't just hit an economic rough patch in the 2000s, but was being systematically unmade. Reviewing the convergence of the cultural and financial campaigns, I also claimed that this unmaking has been intentional.

The book explains in detail that we have been witnessing a decades-old effort to give the public university a lesser place in American society, which in turn downgraded its major social creation, a racially-mixed mass middle class, one whose professional knowledge and cultural sophistication had by the 1960s entitled its members to a much larger slice of the political and economic pie. The crisis that surfaced with the collapse of Lehman brothers in the fall of 2008 has created widespread awareness of the threat to the future of the mass middle class that I described in the book.

One arm of the pincers movement I described -- the budget war -- has intensified in the wake of the financial meltdown. What we can call the Great Liability Shift from private to public debt now provides an automatic, one-size-fits-all justification of any scale of public burning of state outlays, from the nearly 20% one-year cut offered to California higher education by Democratic governor Jerry Brown, to the delirious 52% cut currently proposed by Pennsylvania's Republican governor for the state's flagship campus.

The other arm of the pincers movement -- the culture wars -- has found new life in widespread attacks on the public sector in general and on teachers in particular. Public sector workers -- teachers and also nurses, firefighters, paramedics, psychological counselors, surveyors, assessors, just for starters -- typify the skilled workforce that the post-war public university helped to make solidly middle class. The current campaign to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees is a campaign not simply to reduce the cost of the public sector but to reduce its confidence, status, and perceived value to the society as a whole. This attempt at a wholesale cultural demotion of the public sphere includes the continuing deprofessionalization of teaching through the reduction of teacher control over the classroom, but is not limited to that. We are witnessing an increasing -- and increasingly desperate -- effort to discredit a core belief of democratic culture, which is that the public sector plays a formative role in social development.

Unmaking shows how the conjunction of the American right's cultural and budgetary crusades created traps into which middle class voters and higher education officials have fallen again and again. Middle class voters found it convenient to forget that economic advancement depends on the general provision of high-quality health, educational and other services that only the public sector will provide. They have in effect been voting for the increasing mediocrity of non-elite higher education that has undermined their own ability to compete. Similarly, higher education officials still appear to believe their own claim that cuts in public funding for public universities can be replaced with private funds, if only these are pursued with sufficient entrepreneurial zeal.

In both cases, the beneficiaries of some of the strongest public investments in world history have now accepted less-effective private-sector substitutes. The budgetary result has been that the mass middle class and its public universities have steadily fallen further behind top earners and elite private universities, which increases the likelihood of further declines for the great majority. The cultural result has been just as profound: the purging from mainstream venues of the egalitarian vision that supported social development for all. A primary symptom has been the complete intellectual collapse of the Democratic Party's only truly popular program, its New Deal and Great Society commitments to inclusive public development. The United States will not be able to articulate a creative place for itself in the crisis-ridden contemporary world as long as it reverts compulsively to the ritual behaviors of budget cuts and cultural polarization that have clearly failed to advance society as a whole.

Unmaking describes how the public university is stranded in an America that has little by little become post-middle class. The limited good news is that our post-middle class status has become public knowledge. If we don't accept this fate of permanent and painful decline, what can we learn about reversing it from the story that Unmaking tells?

First, the book shows in detail that the current funding model for public universities is broken. For three decades, higher education leaders have told legislators and everyone else that they could replace public funding cuts with private funds. Unmaking shows that these claims are false, for the public university's apparent private wealth derives from restricted revenues, hidden leveraging, and masked cross-subsidies, the latter of which also impose artificial poverty on the humanities and social sciences. Budget knowledge is one area where over the past two years the situation has improved. In the summer of 2010, the University of California finally acknowledged that its $3.5 billion in research revenues translated into a $720 million net loss, once overhead was factored in. I have written a number of pieces making variations of this argument ("7 Damaging Myths" "A Teachable Crisis," "Support Research," "Ending the Budget Wars,"), and similar work by others is starting to appear. If we can end the era of pretending that private funding can replace public funding, then we will finally have a shot at rebuilding the public funding that high-quality public higher education absolutely requires.

Second, Unmaking traced the creation of the public university's mass middle class to a popular though largely tacit vision of general human development, one that was later disparaged by culture wars and curtailed by budget cuts. This vision has started to return as the Bush-era fixation on accountability has deepened into a concern about declining educational outcomes. The same is true in the domain of technology, where growing doubts about U.S. leadership have sparked new interest in the educational roots of creativity and innovation. More people know today than did three years ago that we have recently graduated the first generation in US history that is less well educated than its parents. We also know more about what being less well educated actually means.

A new approach to assessing actual college learning, presented in the book Academically Adrift, confirms Unmaking's argument about the negative impact on learning of, first, dwindling resources in the public colleges and universities with the biggest instructional job to do, and second, of the decline of attention to learning defined as the development of personal intellectual capacities--analysis, problem-solving, independent synthesis, and imagination. Like my predecessor volume, Ivy and Industry, Unmaking chronicles the university's long-term commitment to creating the cultural knowledge and broad social capabilities required by an innovative and democratic citizenry. The tide is turning in favor of deeper learning.

Third, Unmaking showed that the triumphs of public higher education rest in large part on its egalitarian imagination, which starts with the belief that intelligence is widely distributed in the population and not concentrated at the top. Research now shows that Americans want much more equality than they actually get, and the financial crisis has discredited the contrary belief that concentrated wealth means efficient development.

Over the past thirty years, U.S. policymakers have translated the boom in national wealth into more restricted and difficult lives for the vast majority. They capped this period with millions of lost jobs, millions of homeowner evictions, and now forced austerity for the public agents of redevelopment. The U.S. has no chance of creating sustainable prosperity in a finite and multilateral world without using the genius and creativity of its entire people. The good news is that a wide cross-section of that population is now in various ways fighting for this, and an egalitarian public university can play a major role in that struggle.