This interview was originally published as part of the Cultural Studies Colloquium at George Mason University in 2017. It is duplicated here for archival purposes.
Christopher Newfield’s recent book, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, analyzes the devolutionary cycle through which universities attempt to address budget shortfalls, undermine their core values, and diminish their status as a public good. This cycle leads to further budget cuts and a proliferation of perverse incentives.
The Great Mistake extends Newfield’s previous work in Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class, in which he developed the claim that contemporary problems in higher education have diminished the university’s role as a democratizing force in society.
These critical works built upon the insights from Newfield’s historical study, Ivy and Industry: Business and the Making of the American University, 1880-1980. Ivy and Industry looked at the role of co-dependent relationships between universities and the industrial business interests, tracing the role of these developments in the construction of modern forms of managerial subjectivity.
Richard Todd Stafford: In the current conjuncture, I think a discussion of the relationship between public universities and race relations might be a pertinent place to begin. You argue in The Great Mistake that the American Funding Model is structurally racist. Recently, we’ve seen public discussions about what constitutes racism, with some voices denying that structural racism even exists and others defining racism narrowly in terms of intentions. Why is that you say that the American Funding Model is structurally racist?
Christopher Newfield: As we privatize, we do what we can afford, as opposed to what is socially desirable for us. An excellent illustration appeared in a study from the Georgetown Center for Education and Workforce: they analyzed the type of colleges accessed by new students of different ethnicities over the last 15 years. They found that four-fifths of new white students went to selective schools, while two-thirds to three-quarters of African American and Latino students went to so-called open-access schools. Open-access schools are poorer, have fewer internal resources to help students learn—they have lower tuition and also less state money per student—and have much lower outcomes. The state in effect sends less money to “less qualified” students because, implicitly, it will get a lower return on investment on them: this is seen as a feature, rather than a bug of privatization.
We have always had educational inequality by race and income. But when we see universities as a public good, we can allocate resources to fulfill a common goal, like bringing poorer students from poorer high schools up to the academic level of middle class students from well-funded high schools. In contrast, private market forces allocate resources by ability to pay. When I looked at funding by campus in the University of Michigan system, I found that the campuses that charge lower tuition—Flint and Dearborn vs. the flagship at Ann Arbor—also get less money from the state. There are several reasons for this, but one is the culture or ethos of privatization that accepts this kind of inequality as the way money naturally flows in a market society. Unfortunately, when we unequally fund the overall public college and university system, we lock in inequalities that the students bring to the system and lock in unequal outcomes.
Richard Todd Stafford: These inequalities are reflected in various ways by the content of the education as well. In Unmaking the Public University, you suggest that the “culture wars” and critiques of “political correctness” were delegitimizing strategies used against the project of democratizing knowledge and education. Would you talk about the history of this and how we might understand its salience to our present moment?
Christopher Newfield: The charge of political correctness (PC) was used in the 1980s as a way of rejecting or delegitimizing ethnic studies, gender studies, cultural studies, early forms of queer studies, even American Studies. It positioned them as illegitimate objects of knowledge. So rather than saying, “let’s invite you all into the language game and have a big argument,” the claim was, “you don’t belong in the language game in the first place.” This built on cold war anti-communist discourses that made an interest in socialism seem like a betrayal of the national interest or that linked liberals to Soviet-sympathizing communists. It built on that kind of tradition. The culture wars offered was a way of keeping the “studies” fields (ethnic, feminist, queer, cultural, even American Studies) outside of the circle of sanctioned knowledge.
The charge of PC also weakened the university’s position socially, because, although it started years after the last anti-war protests had died out, it claimed that universities were still be being used as a platform for launching attacks on society. Within the University, the humanities seemed particularly suspicious from this perspective. We taught secular humanism, and for a political Right that depended on evangelicals, this was a body of knowledge that should not be supported, since it was seen to be competing with Christianity as an explanation of human destiny. The humanities overall were portrayed as a rabble-rousing politicized bunch of ideas that malcontents could use to oppose the status quo, oppose the American business system, and so on. So that gets going in the 1980s: over time, the culture wars got worked into internal debates about the literary canon and about theory and entrenched themselves within academic disciplines.
The culture wars never entirely went away. Unmaking the Public University looked at David Horowitz’ role in reviving them in the mid 2000s by asking whether campuses were going to be “soft” on terrorism. At issue was and whether they were going to oppose (as many did) American intervention in the Middle East in particular, and American power in general. So a lot of those anti-PC themes got played out again.
And then Donald Trump revived the charge of political correctness as part of situating himself in a way that goes back to Nixon as on the side of a “silent majority” who had been overlooked or rejected by liberals and their fellow travelers. “Political correctness” for Trump referred to people who were trying to censor you in an America that was really yours. I think it was actually quite effective: any discourse that targeted inequality, questioned discrimination, said that your biases are not legitimate, whether it was around transgender bathroom use or around racial equality, could be ruled out in advance. That’s how Trump successfully kept most of the social and cultural changes of the last fifty years from seeming like they were something that his base had to consider at all.
Richard Todd Stafford: I would like to circle back to the students. In The Great Mistake you argue that, although more elite universities often attempt to offset higher tuition with the use of big aid packages in order to address accessibility for lower-income students, this isn’t really a tenable solution. Will you explain why that is?
Christopher Newfield: Because the aid tends not to prevent students from borrowing, even if they have low incomes and high aid packages. That’s the short answer.
This happens because there isn’t enough will to completely indemnify low income students from the cost of going to college. On average, students who come from families that make $30,000 or less borrow the same amount of money as students who come from families that make between $90,000 and $120,000 a year. Even if their tuition is paid for by Pell Grants plus local grants, they have costs of attendance – food, rent, books, transportation to the jobs that they are invariably working to pay for those things – that they have to borrow in order to cover. There’s a lot of quantitative evidence that shows that these financial aid packages are not enough to prevent borrowing, even for lower income students. There is also a lot of qualitative evidence that shows this: Sara Goldrick-Rab in Paying the Price presents a very large dataset and also analyzes a number of interviews with students who talk about how financial aid doesn’t actually end the struggle to cover the costs of college, but perpetuates it.
For example, the financial aid system assumes that the parents are going to be making a financial contribution to the student who is in school. The reality is that a lot of lower income college students are expected to continue to make contributions back to their families as they often did when they were in high school. An idealized picture of the student conceals the reality of students’ college lives.
Financial aid has been structured over decades to force most students to co-pay for college in the form of work and loans. Much of it was run through banks and other private institutions: the Obama administration ended much private banking involvement—where the government offered guarantees and other subsidies—but the Trump administration will bring it back. Financial aid is part of the larger privatization structure that has been taken for granted.
Privatization works on a literal and a cultural level. It has encouraged policymakers to replace grants with loans in the overall “aid” package, requiring students to work and borrow (and, increasingly, go hungry) to make ends meet. And it sanctions work and debt as a sign of private sector style efficiency, so society comes to see them as actually better than zero debt.
Richard Todd Stafford: In relation to that, you offer an extended critique of the way that the Arum and Roska’s Academically Adrift interprets the evidence with which they are working. One of the things you highlight is the big disparity in educational outcomes between students who are going into pre-professional programs and students who are enrolled in more traditional liberal arts programs. In my experience working with students, I see many more lower income and first generation students who feel compelled to go into these pre-professional programs.
Christopher Newfield: Absolutely.
Richard Todd Stafford: How does that connect up with the project of re-envisioning higher education as a public good? I think that students who are enrolled in pre-professional programs are very much focused on the paycheck that they’ll need to make their student loan payments. They are very interested in a private market good—for good reason. Maybe my question is: what do we do? They are faced with a real dilemma.
Christopher Newfield: Yes, they are. There are several pieces to it. What happens is that we take those students who are interested in vocational outlets because that is where they are going to get a stable paycheck and we design programs that are about instrumental knowledge. In a paper that supplemented Academically Adrift, these are shown to correlate with less learning gain. Students in programs like business or health administration often don’t get the same kind of cognitive skills that they would in majors in the liberal arts and sciences, as I read the authors’ data. And they don’t gain the same kind of content skills. Those programs are further from the traditional conceptually-oriented and content-oriented liberal arts and sciences core that the University has done very well by building itself around.
The tragedy is that worried students with fewer financial resources are often shunted into arguably lesser programs. They get training that is, theoretically at least, closer to what they are going to need in an actual job situation, but even if that is true in the beginning, it is less likely to be true over the earning years that they are going to need to pay back all of the expenses. So it’s potentially a downward spiral for them that no one intended them to be in, but that this focus on vocationality seems to have produced.
We need more research on this. Is “limited learning” caused in large part by orienting college around a return on investment, judging it by metrics like the salary of graduates at age 30, thus encouraging students to go into less challenging majors where they get less personal and cognitive development? The Great Mistake says yes. Policymakers should investigate how another price of privatization is lowered learning.
The cure for this problem is to redefine the University as a public good that seeks to give everyone a wide range of cognitive abilities, some of which will never help their actual paycheck: some of which will help their personal life, some of which will help their neighbor’s life, some of which will benefit their overall society in complex ways that no one is ever going to do accounting on. Some of these abilities will even help their paycheck. The public-good requirement is to take low income kids and give them the same liberal arts and sciences education that we give to rich kids.
By pushing poor students away from the liberal arts and sciences, we are discriminating against people with lower resources while lowering the public value of the University itself. As I read the data, we could fix the problem if we mixed the liberal arts into vocational majors, or replaced low-performing majors with liberal arts and sciences that have vocational bridges out of the bachelors’ programs that are funded by employers There is political and financial resistance to that. But, intellectually and educationally, it is the right thing to do.
Richard Todd Stafford: You said that no one is ever going to measure these sort of public goods and these “positive externalities” (as an economist might call them). But there are some times in your book when you seem to be saying that what we really need are alternative metrics, measures, and means of evaluation. What does that look like? When I go interact with a University Provost or President, what kind of measures should I be demanding at the institutional level? And, at the level of my state legislator, what should I be demanding?
Christopher Newfield: The place to start is Walter MacMahon’s Higher Learning, Greater Good. He’s actually done the quantification of the non-market, indirect, and social benefits of Universities. So, start with him.
But some of it is not going to be about metrics: some of it is going to be telling better stories about the kinds of problem-solving and the kinds of social integration we are trying to achieve. We need to describe the kinds of progress we are going to have and the kinds of pleasure that we can have with a qualitatively better education population than we have now.
Richard Todd Stafford: In the book, you suggest that privatization is an “ideology” in two different senses. First there is the mundane sense that it is the conceptual “water in which we swim” in higher education. And, also in a more Marxist sense: it is a kind of “false consciousness” that naturalizes a state of affairs that isn’t in fact natural, but is the result of political choices that favor some class fractions over others. It strikes me that there is a third form of ideology in operation throughout your book: “ideology” is knowing that this is the case and then either acting as if there is nothing that can be done or just going on with the way it “always was” – even though you know it hasn’t always been.
Christopher Newfield: In the 80s, it was called “TINA” in England.
Richard Todd Stafford: Right.
Christopher Newfield: It was associated with Margaret Thatcher: “There Is No Alternative.” Some awareness appears in each fiscal crisis: in the US we’re talking about 1992 and 1993, there’s the first big round of cuts for public universities. Then from 2002 to 2005, there’s a lot of concern and agitation about another multi-year round of state cuts. Then in 2008 and 2009, as the financial crisis was managed by shifting private to public debt, faculty and staff were put on furloughs in public universities like mine, so we got 8% pay cuts for that year. Though these cuts created agitation, the crisis was smoothed over: administrators learned that they really shouldn’t do furloughs unless they are about to go under. Nationally, we have had a lost decade in funding increases, which has hurt the quality of the overall public system. Folks naturally just want to get back to work and have their normal lives and make it seem like it’s normal. Normalcy is something most administrators and policy makers want because it makes their own work lives easier. But it makes all the alternatives politically impossible, even when they would be better than what we are doing now.
For example, one of the things that I am particularly worried about is the impoverishment of sociocultural qualitative research. There is no problem in the world that can be solved with technology alone. Whether it is climate change, lead in the water supply, an Ebola pandemic, police killings, whatever it is, all of the disciplines – STEM and non-STEM – need to work together. Yet, half of that family is getting cut to the bone. There really are no institutional resources that are available at most universities to fund significant collaborative work in sociocultural fields, to take research and push it out in a narrative-friendly way to the outside world. All of the things that we are always being called on to do, we simply don’t have the money to do. Who in senior administration is trying to fix the research funding model?
Richard Todd Stafford: So it seems like one of your core strategies is to make it visible that it is not natural, that there’s nothing normal about it, and that it could be otherwise. Frequently in the book, your strategy is sort of a “debunking strategy.” One of the things you’ve just mentioned is the research funding model. You debunk the argument that applied STEM fields bring in the grant money and that, therefore, it is only natural that we focus our attention on those revenue-generating kinds of research. You point out that, although they might bring in gross revenues, the picture when you look at net revenues is more ambiguous. Will you expand on this argument?
Christopher Newfield: There are two problems with the basic understanding we have now. The first is that it’s okay for money to drive research decisions.
That is wrong.
We shouldn’t just do whatever we are paid to do. Time is very limited. We need independent research judgement to determine what the most important problems are and what the most likely methods are. So the first problem appears when the University is a research client. It’s the professional researchers who should be setting the research agenda because they are the ones who know how the field is evolving. If it’s a conversation with the funding body or donor, okay. But universities are financially weak now and funding is scarce enough that academic researchers, especially the less orthodox, are at a permanent disadvantage. And so that’s the first problem.
The second problem is financial.
The outside funders are never paying 100% of the research costs. Ever. So the best scenario is those federal agencies that provide grants on which maybe you only lose $0.07 or $0.10 on the dollar, but when you roll all of the extramural sources together – foundations, corporations, states, private donors – when you include all of the indirect costs and then deduct what you are getting paid, the shortfalls grow to something like $0.25 on the dollar for public universities, which is about twice the loss at private universities. What that means is, in order to fund a dollar of research at a place like George Mason, the university will have to come up with $0.25 of its own money to make that dollar whole. Effectively, at a public university, only $0.75 is coming from the outside funder.
You may ask yourself, well why is this happening? One reason is because outside funders think like business people: they want to get more out of the relationship than they are putting in. They want the university to share in the costs, which in effect gives a research discount to the outside sponsor. Universities use their own money to pay for “facilities and administration” beyond what the sponsor funds. This means staff who do research grant accounting for a whole department. This means buildings where a bunch of different research operations are going on. It means paying for power. It means paying for publicity and reporting. There are many things that are going on that are put into this category called “indirect costs” that are only partially recovered by the institution.
Universities are tacitly expected to lose money on research by the people that pay for the research. The historical origins of the deal is that when a public university got federal research money, it was expected to use some of the state money that it was getting for students to cover the shortfall. The employment was happening in the state, and the state university was getting something out of it in terms of stature and the ability to hire good researchers, so it was fair for the state to be paying some of the unreimbursed costs. So why not? Why shouldn’t the university use state money to pay for some of that? The students were getting something out of being taught by researchers. So why shouldn’t the student pay some of that? This made a lot of sense—until half of the state money started to come from students, most of whom were going into debt in part to pay for research without being told. What are called “cross-subsidies”—enrollment money also subsidizing research—are necessary for the whole, and are justifiable on a public-good basis. My book doesn’t say we shouldn’t be doing this research. What I’m saying is that we should admit that it is losing money, acknowledge that the traditional deal isn’t working because states aren’t paying enough to cover it, and ask the people who are now paying for it, starting with students, how they feel about this. Is it alright? Is it something that they are comfortable with paying for—if we explain the public benefits? Depending on the answer, maybe we need to adjust the funding system. So basically, what the book is calling for is candor about how we really pay for the whole operation. Candor about how it affects various constituencies differently. We need to have a discussion and invite the public into the political life of the institution so that we can figure out together how we are going to solve it.
Senior managers are reluctant to get into this because in the private good framework, the university looks bad by losing money on research. We need to change the framework. The situation now, which is keeping it secret, has meant that the budgetary hole keeps growing. It has gotten bigger since 2008, not smaller. Over the fifteen years I’ve been looking at this, research shortfalls have gotten worse and worse. Ironically, as long as universities won’t talk about their bad deal, outside sponsors can keep their advantage.
Richard Todd Stafford: Another one of the narratives you debunk is quite common: universities face austerity, therefore they seek to raise tuition and court philanthropic donors. You turn that on its head. How is that?
Christopher Newfield: People assume that the state cuts public funding and then the administrators must turn to tuition hikes and more fundraising. That may happen in a given year of cuts. But I’m saying that overall the causality is the reverse: legislatures know universities will raise tuition and chase donors, so they don’t feel pressure not to cut. State legislators say, “It’s not like students are going to get rejected because we’re giving you less. So you just made my job painless: I’m going to cut you, you are going to raise tuition, everything is fine.”
That’s terrible because this strategy of tuition-raising privatizes the core revenue streams and teaches legislators and the public that public funding is optional. The idea of the university as a public good is lost and the public funding shrinks. At public universities, you raise tuition and you also move to philanthropy. Philanthropists do very nice things for specific programs, but they are also are leveraging university funds. They aren’t paying 100% for whatever activity it is that they want to sponsor. One example I discuss in The Great Mistake is the Luskin Conference and Guest Center at UCLA, where there was an initial donation made by a very well-intentioned guy who loved political science and wanted to help politics be better than it was. The money was going to fund a research and conference program. Somewhere in the development relationship, the program’s ambitions grew, and it needed a facility, and “Luskin” became an academic building. Then it was academic building-conference center. Pretty soon, it turned into a conference-hotel. So, more money comes from the donor, but a lot of the money comes from other places like university operating funds and campus borrowing, which is going to be paid back on the basis of the activities within the hotel-conference center. Ultimately, the university is going to be made whole only by making a profit off of this conference center. UCLA has the tax benefits of a non-profit that are really irritating to the rest of the hospitality industry in the area, which sees this a de facto commercial competitor, and that causes political problems which can end up reducing the public’s interest in paying taxes to subsidize what looks like a business.
This is a really benign gift by someone who actually wasn’t trying to steer the academic content, but it nonetheless produced a whole series of costs for the university, which is now in a position of not being able to fund some other things because it is supporting a gift. That’s a standard situation, where a portion of the total cost was paid by the person whose name goes on the project and the rest comes from public money, tuition, and people whose opinions are not considered in a project that they end up subsidizing.
There are worse cases, where the donor is trying to control the intellectual content because, for instance, they think that free markets are much better than mixed economies. They want to control who is hired for the program that they funded, so they put a name on the program that suggests that certain kinds of intellectual inquiry will not be welcome there. As public universities get more desperate, more of that kind of gift giving is going to take place.
Richard Todd Stafford: One of the very conspicuous actions taken out of this desperation is the privatization of core functions at the university, for instance by hiring outside contractors to run the international center, the new distance education program, or to manage something more narrow like a MOOC-based master’s degree. How does this affect the image of the university as a public good that you seek to rehabilitate?
Christopher Newfield: It makes a lot of people think that the university really doesn’t have to be a public good, because everything is going along fine. So why wouldn’t you have these partnerships? And that’s just not true—it’s not going fine.
But these relationships are not a new thing: in Ivy and Industry I wrote about the 1880 to 1980 period, where by 1900, for example, MIT engineering is being shaped by partnerships with firms like Edison. These are intellectually often very valuable. I would always say that partnerships are good for offering connection to world issues, social issues, and technical issues that occur during the use of a technology. I am never arguing for the isolation of the University. What I am arguing for is the self-determination of the University, in relation to people who are richer and more powerful than we are.
I’m opposed to the undemocratic nature of private influence over public goods. It is getting neofeudal when a closely held private corporation funds knowledge that is made in its image, while potential critics, like members of the academic senate, are not allowed to review it. This exclusion of faculty has become increasingly common. So it is bad democracy.
It is also bad science, because science requires open contestation of principles, of data, of everything that is involved with producing knowledge. Where the process of producing knowledge is sheltered from that kind of criticism, it slows it, warps it, or even destroys valuable lines of inquiry in the long run.
Richard Todd Stafford: This connects with questions around academic labor conditions, especially the labor conditions of the contingent faculty who are making up increasing proportions of the workforce. The way you have just framed this suggests that both the tenured faculty and contingent faculty belong to this same class, which is increasingly losing the ability to autonomously direct what they do in the work process. They are losing this autonomy to these outside funders and private partners. Is that how you’re seeing this?
Christopher Newfield: Yes, it can happen to tenured faculty who need research money and can only work on what can be funded. That’s an old story that deserves new philosophical attention.
Regarding contingent faculty, what has happened is that, between 1975 and 2005 or so, colleges went from one third contingent faculty to two thirds contingent faculty. Now we are headed towards 75%. So you have a “New Faculty Majority,” as the contingent faculty organization is quite accurately called.
Academia is now an industry in which most of the instruction is being done by people with no job security and therefore no traditional academic freedom. If you offend your students, you can just not be renewed the next term. Period. It is not a “firing”: no one needs to be consulted. It’s just: “sorry, we don’t have anything for you next term,” and you are gone.
That makes us a degraded industry. It is a direct effect of the cuts but also of the funding model that we have been working with for 30 or 35 years, where the revenue generation from teaching is used to subsidize research and a bunch of other activities. Therefore you need fat margins from the teaching, which you get by having low wages in the aggregate. So you have some faculty that are paid a lot and others that are paid almost nothing. This possibility—that you can be a university with a majority of contingent instructors paid say $3000 per course—constantly presses you towards increasing the percentage of lecturers or contingent people who are working in any given program. This is the result of budget austerity working through a privatization logic. This logic is unable to justify funding a public good activity like teaching with the correct equity that its social value deserves.
When you don’t have the larger goal in mind, you cut corners in a way that ends up damaging the status of your own workforce. There is a set of moral issues that this inequality raises. But, just from an operational point of view, it is damaging the total productivity of your operation. It is less efficient, it is less effective, and there is less learning going on. There is less research going on. Your social respect is also damaged when the public gets the creepy feeling that you are not a high-quality employer and that you don’t stand for something great. How does this look to teachers? How does it look to parents of kids who are going to George Mason or who are going to Cal State Northridge when they find out that their kid’s English grading is late because their “Professor” actually has jobs at three other Universities at the same time?
Contingent employment started out as a “Band Aid.” And I am old enough to have actually talked to people who were using that analogy and assumed it would be reversed when public cuts were reversed: “don’t worry: we’ll just dial this up for a while during the cuts, then when the money comes back, we’ll dial it back and return to full time faculty.” But the “dialing back” never happened.
Richard Todd Stafford: That is a recurrent theme: at the time, it looks like the University is following the business cycle, but there is never really a bounce back. So, how do we get out of the devolutionary cycle where that happens?
Christopher Newfield: We have to admit it is broken. My favorite sentence in the whole book is the Sun Ra lyric at the beginning: “What do you do when you know that you know / That you know that you’re wrong?” For him, it’s “Face the music.” He’s right. We need to face the music.
Secondly, we have to redefine the university as a public good that spends lots of money that it never gets back. Most of its effects are spillover effects that society appreciates: we are doing transformative work with the people who are the future of the country. We need to develop a much more uplifting explanation of what it is that we are doing here. It is not just that we are creating startups that are going to make the next Mark Zuckerberg, because basically no one wants to use tax funds to subsidize the next Mark Zuckerberg. Instead, they want neighborhood impacts, family impacts, public impacts for regular people.
There is a huge constituency in the United States of first generation and immigrant and low-income people who want to get on the ladder, who still see the university that way, but who, contrary to all of this discourse about vocational training, also have expansive intellectual goals for themselves. Our public face must be the excitement and the energy and the unaccountable insight and interaction that comes out of universities on an everyday basis.
There are three core principles for public universities in the United States. First, we educate the entire society and not just an elite. Second, we get the public to pay for it, because the public has the responsibility for its children and its future and it gets ownership of the benefits of our work. And, third that higher education is higher learning: it is liberal learning and not just vocationality.
That’s really what Universities have been about in the US since they were invented and since they were reshaped in the nineteenth century. We need to recall people to a core democratic and egalitarian vision and then update that for the challenges that we are now facing.