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Public Colleges and Universities and the Nation’s Governance Crisis

Note to Readers: This is the 50th Tidings column in this quarterly series, which began more than a dozen years ago, in July 2008. As I reflect on this milestone, I want to thank all those who have encouraged me to write these essays across these years and to thank the many of you who have read and commented on them. Writing these columns continues to be a great personal and professional privilege. MOS

Public Colleges and Universities and the Nation’s Governance Crisis

In principle and at their core, colleges and universities exist to pursue truth and to provide the fruits of that effort to the societies of which they are a part. As he worked to establish the University of Virginia, for example, Thomas Jefferson wrote the English historian William Roscoe:

[T]his institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. for here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.[1]

Jefferson’s comments exhibited his Enlightenment-informed, life-long belief in the power of reason to guide a democratic people and to permit it to make choices that would ensure that population’s probity, peace and freedom. He nonetheless worried that fear, selfishness and the individual or mob tyranny often aligned with these human proclivities could impede the exercise of reason and quest for truth and undermine popular sovereignty and democracy.

For Jefferson, then, the great challenge democratic countries posed for universities’ role within them was dialectical in character. Higher education institutions at once had the enormous responsibility to provide the necessary knowledge for self-governing citizens to advance their society and to understand their role as sovereigns within it and, at the same time, to ensure that those citizens so highly regarded universities as persistently to grant them sufficient legitimacy to address those challenges in a largely unfettered way. For Jefferson, that space was essential for the free exercise of reason, whose workings should and could serve as bulwarks against error.

I want to sketch briefly two interrelated major trends in American society that are now working to undermine the role Jefferson envisioned for public colleges and universities in the project of self-governance. Both trends have joined to undermine the legitimacy and social trust accorded higher education institutions and to narrow the space available to them to respond to the social strictures imposed on them.

Before embarking on that analysis, however, I should make clear that I believe that the Institute for Policy and Governance is no less vulnerable to these strategic trends than its parent institution, Virginia Tech. As the latter has been reshaped from without and within in past decades by these changes in its social and political environment, the same pressures have confronted the Institute. Indeed, no U.S. academic institution has been immune from these societal shifts in recent decades.

The first trend I wish to discuss is the rise, and now dominance, of neoliberalism as the nation’s guiding public philosophy since the 1970s. This ideology has not only directed American political and policy actions in recent decades, it has also come to prevail, or to colonize, how officials and citizens alike imagine those possibilities.[2] More generally, it has recast how citizens envision the ordering of their society. Its assumptions now guide a broad share of popular understanding of what is possible and appropriate in governance and what to expect of all social institutions, including public colleges and universities.

Harvey has succinctly captured the major tenets of neoliberal thinking:

Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practice that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade. … State interventions in markets (once created) must be kept to a bare minimum because, according to the theory, the state cannot possibly possess enough information to second-guess market signals (prices) and because powerful interest groups will inevitably distort and bias state interventions.[3]

To ensure the acceptance of these dicta, leaders from both parties, but the GOP especially, launched during the Ronald Reagan administration, and sustained thereafter through Republican Party leaders’ efforts, attacks on governance as innately distorting and untrustworthy.[4] In this view, only markets, and by extension, market elites, should be popularly entrusted to rule. The nation’s citizenry has thus been subjected to five decades of arguments that markets and corporate actors can and should govern to the maximum extent feasible. The consequence, as Harvey has noted, has been extreme income inequality and nearly wholesale destruction and reorientation of social ways of life and thought, divisions of labor and social relations. Neoliberal thinking has spawned these results by unrelentingly emphasizing “the significance of contractual relations in the marketplace” as the template for all social actions.[5]

The widespread adoption of this view has sharply affected higher education institutions, especially public ones, which have seen their state support drop in real terms for decades on the view that college and university education should be regarded as a private good and tuitions should cover the largest share of its provision.[6] This turn has required that those institutions orient themselves to ensuring that students matriculate to secure the revenue they represent, and has created pressures to provide a wide range of amenities for those students and to orient curricula and offerings to prevailing popular views. Since those have taken on a decided consumption preference and market cast during recent decades as neoliberal thinking has come to dominate the popular imagination, universities have found themselves persistently being asked to justify their offerings in light of perceived market demands.

That pressure, arising from lawmakers, families and students, has pressed leaders and faculty alike to rethink and reorient curricula. Many such actions have sought to show subject matter relevance as one would justify a consumer commodity, e.g., principally via its perceived vocational utility and instrumental character. In practice, and as social norms and ways of knowing have shifted under the sway of neoliberal thinking, students and officials have demanded that universities demonstrate how almost all they do accords with the perceived requirements of the market, turning public higher education for many into a forum for specific vocational preparation for an occupation. I employed the term, “perceived” in the previous sentence to emphasize that such views are often not factually accurate, but that has not diminished their powerful influence. Many traditionally important disciplines, including English, philosophy and others in the arts and humanities, have fallen into relative popular disfavor with the development of this vocational and instrumentally fueled perception and preoccupation, and their enrollments have fallen accordingly.

More generally, officials have demanded that public colleges and universities manage themselves as if they were market organizations. That shift has only quickened the rush to meet changing governmental and student demands by adopting more “practical” and vocationally, market-driven focused curricula. The upshot of this sea change in cultural assumptions increasingly has meant a retreat among universities from the pursuit of truths for their own sake. Instead, they move toward a harnessing of reason to whatever the marketplace is perceived to necessitate and will reward. That broad trend is now deeply institutionalized in public colleges and universities and is guiding larger and larger shares of their leaders’ actions and behavior. 

The second, interrelated development, the ongoing delegitimation of governance, has shifted the footing for higher education in our society. It was set in train and is supported by widespread adoption of neoliberal thinking, and its effects have been rapidly deepened and broadened by their acceptance by millions of Americans during the Donald Trump presidency. As I noted above, that change has arisen in good measure from wholesale attacks by GOP officials particularly, for decades, on governance institutions to cement popular belief in the innate superiority of market organizations and actors and neoliberal thinking as a dominant frame. Millions of Americans have now unquestioningly accepted neoliberalism and have come to distrust democratic institutions, and even delegitimate them as a matter of course. This long-term trend has deepened and coarsened during Trump’s presidency, as the President has called on his supporters and party officials to disregard the rule of law and to ignore the facts of his corruption, malfeasance and  incompetence as hoaxes and fake claims perpetrated by a wide range of other institutional actors and public officials. To the extent his supporters have acquiesced or accepted his arguments, they have often shown themselves to be willing to refuse to acknowledge the fruits of research and scholarship, instead declaring them a priori untrustworthy on ideological grounds. For example, Trump’s supporters have set aside massive evidence of his campaign’s collusion with the Russian government in 2016 to spread disinformation, heeded him as he attacked health precautions linked to COIVD-19, endangering themselves and countless others and otherwise routinely accepted his lies in lieu of fact-based analyses on a wide range of matters, including climate change, environmental conservation and economic change.  

To date, careful journalistic assessments have chronicled more than 20,000 publicly voiced lies on the part of the president during his tenure.[7] For Trump’s supporters and party, the truth is increasingly whatever he declares it to be, no matter how unrelated to reality his claims may be. His stances have been and are daily rationalized by GOP officials and followers and accepted even when they violate law, constitutional practice or long-standing norms of professionalism or, even, decent, not to say, ethical behavior.

Taken together, the dominance of neoliberal thinking and the official actions it has legitimated concerning providing resources for public universities, as well as the shifts in familial and student perceptions of the purposes of higher education, have created a context in which these institutions are increasingly restricting their fields of activity and orientation to those perceived to be of use to market sector organizations and elites. Those actors also provide the largest share of measures for what today passes as legitimate action for public colleges and universities. Meanwhile, the decades of neoliberal condemnations of democratic governance institutions as allegedly less-than market ones, have convinced perhaps 40 percent of Americans that they may trust only their party’s titular head as they confront ongoing social and economic change for explanations concerning how to make sense of those trends. Unfortunately, that individual (and a strong share of his party) is manifestly corrupt and incompetent, and to avoid accountability for the consequences of his actions and to maintain power, he has sought not only to continue to criticize governmental institutions, but also the rule of law and freedom of the press while also degrading and denying the civil and human rights of selected minority groups in society.

In sum, the core premises of why public universities exist and how they may serve democratic society are now under sustained assault by political partisans in pursuit of power for themselves and the minority of Americans who support them. The ideal and idea of truth itself is also under attack, as is any conception that reason should or can guide political and policy deliberation. Importantly, these serve as the foundation of our work here at the Institute. More, the understanding of universities as incubators of imaginative civic as well as market possibility has been progressively limited to a view that activities within these institutions should serve perceived corporate interests. The result is the rapid decline of public higher education institutions as seedbeds of virtue or citizen deliberative and governance capacity and of reason as a guide to democratic action and possibility.

The Institute cannot avoid these realities of its environment. What we can do, and are doing, to support self-governance is describing and labeling them for what they are. We can also exercise as best we can our faculties of reason and imagination alongside our fellow scholars and many citizens to call for a rethinking of the assumptions and behaviors that have brought this nation and higher education to its current critical pass. We hope that, with the support of many others across the academy and beyond, these efforts will prove sufficient to the challenge to sustain a vision of democratic public higher education against the assault presently under way against its fundaments.

Notes

[1] Jefferson, Thomas. “Follow Truth,” Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/follow-truth-quotation, Accessed September 25, 2020. 

[2] Pieterse, Jan Nederveen and Parekh, Bhikhu (eds.). The Decolonization of Imagination: Culture, Knowledge and Power. London: Zed Books, 1995.

[3] Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, p.2.

[4] Reagan, Ronald. “Inaugural Address,” January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/research/speeches/inaugural-address-january-20-1981, Accessed September 25, 2020.  

[5] Harvey, p.3. See also Brown, Wendy. In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019, for another excellent analysis of the implications of this ideology/public philosophy.

[6] Pace, Julie. “Analysis: GOP sends message that Trump’s actions were OK,” Associated Press News, February 1, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/4ae94b0f2f2f9d9e3e1cafa6f672fef2, Accessed September 25, 2020.

[7] Kessler, Glenn, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly. “President Trump has Made 20,000 False or Misleading Claims,” The Washington Post, July 13, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/07/13/president-trump-has-made-more-than-20000-false-or-misleading-claims/, Accessed September 25, 2020.

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