Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Politics of University Budgets

Amy DePaul interviews Christopher Newfield, author of Unmaking the Public University, over at Alternet. Although I haven't read Newfield's book, I think his general thesis is correct: he argues that the ideological battles over university curriculum and the cutting and privatizing of university budgets are part of a concerted effort to undermine a more diverse and critical approach to education. While it is true that some universities have become mired in financial difficulties, the logic of their solutions follows that of a loosely neoliberal or 'business' perspective. We've already argued that student debt is political, because increased debt can reduce a graduate's inclination toward low-paying work in activism or social justice work (at the same time that it implies a consumer's model of education); following Newfield we should add that budget cuts are political insofar as they target fields that study the negative aspects of contemporary life, and that advocate a critical and diversified public life. One excerpt:
You say in the book that elites on the right began to focus on universities increasingly. What actions did they take?

They attacked every reform in the humanities that racially integrated the curriculum, including attempts to broaden ‘great books’ courses at Stanford in the late 80s. The humanities as a source of knowledge in society was gradually discredited. In the early 90s, attacks began on affirmative action in California and elsewhere.

The other flank of the culture wars is the budget wars and my argument is they are basically the same thing. The goal was to discredit fields that had studied negative aspects of American life. The second goal was to use budget pressures to de-fund disciplines that seemed too critical of the established order. History, literature studies, anthropology, sociology -- anything that isn’t econometric and efficiency oriented, anything too skeptical, all of that stuff should only be tolerated if it can pay its own way.


Clarissa said...

One of the more disturbing signs of the invasion of corporate mentality into the university is the pressure from college administrators to sacrifice quality for the sake of quantity. We are constantly pressured to raise enrollment numbers at all costs. Higher level literature courses, for example, get sacrificed in order to offer lower level courses that teach "practical skills."

At a recent meeting with the administrators of my university, the teaching faculty were told that we need to look for a new departmental chair. The ideal candidate for this position was described as "somebody with strong managerial skills and not preoccupied with scholarship." It is a disgrace that we are now looking for managers instead of scholars.

santi said...

That is to say nothing of the arts. Our art department operated on a 14,000 a year budget nearly crippling us. Entire programs had to be shut down. On the other hand we got to have Sarah Palin as a guest speaker.

David Tkach said...

I read that article too and found it very interesting and, for the most part, convincing. I think that it is entirely true that the university has been and is being remade in the image of neoliberal economic models. Adopting and following this model, consciously or not, really is the only choice available for most students who are concerned about actually being able to survive/thrive after university. The possibility of doubt of that politico-economic model, which can only arise through study of alternatives to it, is curtailed. And, in this post-2008 recession economy, it will remain curtailed for the foreseeable future.

I would argue, though, that study of the 'great books,' whatever that term may mean, is one of the best methods by which to gain knowledge of alternatives to the neoliberal model. The 'great books,' rather than representing a single political opinion, perspective, or understanding, are in reality mutually conflicting and opposed texts. It is a history of radical breaks with tradition, which is why it possesses enduring power to give ammunition for the critique of the present.

My two cents. I could go on but I need sleep, like maybe for a couple of weeks.

Devin Z. Shaw said...

The central part that I would underline is that Newfield argues that what we are witnessing is part of a concerted program. Perhaps not all the individual actors know how they are constrained within a particular model, but there are plenty of those working in think tanks, working with media groups, working as advisers and writing position papers that do. I don't know why so many people- present company excluded- seem to think that so-called mismanagement is an accident (see here Thomas Frank's The Wrecking Crew).