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I’ve spent a couple of weeks trying to work out a blog post that dug into some of the current challenges facing higher education (particularly public higher education) with a desire to cut through the examples and perhaps provide a glimmer of insight to help interested people think about them more productively.

I’ve been thinking about the looming program cuts at West Virginia University as the combination of state-level underfunding and administrative failure has the flagship school in crisis mode, with faculty facing “devastation,” even as they are apparently kept in the dark.

I’ve been thinking about what Kevin McClure and Barrett Taylor call the “hollowing out” of universities as faculty and staff are winnowed away, leaving those remaining to do more and more.

I’ve been thinking about how the Wisconsin Legislature wants to cut the budget at the University of Wisconsin as a kind of performative political theater, even as the state is running a $7 billion surplus.

I’ve been thinking about Ron DeSantis’s attacks on higher education accreditation as he seeks to do to a national landscape what he has done to the New College of Florida, putting a public institution entirely under the thumb of the state’s chief executive.

I kept accruing more and more sources of worry, failing to find any thread to tie them together, and then I read Tressie McMillan Cottom’s recent piece in The New York Times in which she asked professors what it’s like at Florida universities as DeSantis seeks to undo their institutions.

She put her finger on something that seems important to me: “Academics are playing a weird shell game of denial. We know government attacks are happening all around us. Even in presumably safely Democratic-controlled states, what friendly governor wouldn’t mind a little more direct control over faculty hiring? No public profession is safe.”

McClure and Taylor describe the current process of outside control of what happens inside institutions as “deinstitutionalization,” the erosion of freedom of institutions to govern themselves. As I think through these issues, I believe we are past the inflection point on this reality—well past it, in fact.

Does it make any sense to locate blame for the state of things? I’m certain some will point to what they call the “ideological capture” of institutions, which has left large swaths of Americans alienated from and distrustful of higher education. While I would not hold higher ed faultless in this regard, surely anyone who has spent much time on the ground at a typical, nonelite higher ed institution knows that these charges are hugely trumped up, having little resemblance to what’s happening on the ground.

Nonetheless, the attacks have sown a level of distrust, undermining faith in the institutions.

For my money, though, the far bigger culprit is the long process of the privatization of a public good. Why should we think of higher education institutions as institutions when they do not appear to act like them? As I’ve argued previously here, our actual system of higher education writ large doesn’t make any sense if the goal is to provide educational, social and economic opportunities to as many people as possible.

It is poorly structured, poorly organized and in some cases (see: WVU) poorly managed at the institutional level in ways that engender little faith in the institutions themselves.

I count myself among this group. While I maintain a strong belief in the ideals of higher education, as one of the system’s waste products, I know firsthand that those ideals are often not in evidence when it comes to how the organizations operate. The origins of these disconnects between the purported mission and values and the actual operations are so far in the rearview mirror that they come before I even attended college, let alone began working in higher ed.

For years, many have been anticipating, and in some cases rooting for, “the end of college,” having identified the institutions themselves as inefficient, unequal, ineffective, sclerotic. MOOCs were the original meteor that would wipe out the dinosaurs. Now it is ChatGPT.

I do think that the experience of the pandemic gave many a new appreciation for the sorts of places where we are allowed to gather in community, and for sure colleges and universities are still good for those kinds of activities, but this good is often undercut by larger structural problems around cost and access, entrenched issues of inequality.

So, after decades of erosion, folks like Ron DeSantis see an edifice ready to be knocked over, wielding his culture war cudgel, and he is succeeding, making Florida an entirely hostile space to anyone who does not share his ideology.

My first thought after the election of Donald Trump was that we were going to need our institutions to act as institutions in order to protect the values we claim to hold dear. I said as much in a post back in November 2016.

The record of the institutional response to the threat of someone with no belief in institutions has been decidedly mixed, leaning toward negative. Yes, occasional spasms of conscience among elected officials and the judiciary prevented an election from being stolen and a subsequent insurrection, but a healthy space would not have Donald Trump as the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination.

The Supreme Court recently defused the most dangerous potential weapon for subverting democracy by striking down the theory of independent state legislatures, but as I write, they’ve also turned the 14th Amendment upside down in their ruling against directly considering race in college admissions. Somehow, an amendment passed to explicitly address the history of racial inequality has been made into a commandment to make admissions decisions colorblind. And I thought these cats were supposed to be originalists. With this novel interpretation of the 14th Amendment, who knows what else they could get up to?

So, what is an institution to do in the face of these things? The leaders of Florida’s universities have been silent, either because they agree with DeSantis and like the idea of greater administrative control or because they fear additional backlash if they speak up.

I agree with those who believe that public higher ed institutions should not be places that are rooted in specific ideologies. This is a dead end and a failure of a core responsibility to be responsive to the whole public.

At the same time, these institutions must be rooted in values like democracy, pluralism, opportunity, fairness, equity. To the extent that these values are being attacked—and they are being attacked—institutions should be prepared to hold the fort.

Cottom again puts her finger on a key tension: “For some Americans, DeSantis’s crackdown is an overdue comeuppance for a group of workers who have grown fat and lazy from easy jobs that do not contribute to the real world. I always struggle with the contradictions here. I know empirically that most people want their children to go to college. I know that most people value their state universities.”

Somehow, someway, we must make it clear that these attacks on institutions are not attacks against the elite, the spoiled, the entitled, but are instead doing damage to the foundations that the citizenry relies on to help advance the values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

At the same time, institutional leadership must come to grips with all the ways that institutions are out of sync with those values. Individuals working inside the institutions who believe in these values and the institutional mission have been propping up the edifice for a long time. They’re tired, under siege and too few to resist.

A savior from outside isn’t coming, either.

Either leaders step up, or it’s over. Honestly, it might already be over, but I think everyone will feel better if we go down fighting.

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