In a recent interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Drew Gilpin Faust, former Harvard University president and author of a new memoir, Necessary Trouble: Growing Up at Midcentury, talked about her idea of the university, an idea that first found flower in the Port Huron Statement, authored by the Students for a Democratic Society in 1962, when Faust was a college student.
Of the statement, she said, “I found it inspiring at the time. I was in college and imagining what I might do from that perspective. But I’ve always felt, in the years that have followed, that universities are about change. Education is about making people different, making them greater versions of themselves, providing them with capacity. Universities are also about discovering new knowledge, sharing new knowledge. How do we make the world better? We want to make people better through education. We want to make the world better through research. That’s what universities are about. And so how can they spread that message in the most effective way?”
I find this framing of education inspiring myself. I’ve always aspired to something similar as an instructor and in my writing about higher education. If I start thinking really big, I can convince myself that universities play a central role in the entire democratic project of the United States of America in its unfulfilled but undoubtedly worthy quest to provide a path to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness for all.
In fact, much of what I have had to say on these subjects is trying to identify and then remedy areas of disconnection between this ideal and the conditions under which that ideal is meant to be carried out.
While I know there’s a wide variety of beliefs about what higher education is “for,” I believe that this animating spirit of colleges and universities being places where people discover and enhance their capacities is probably widely shared.
It is a shame, then, that it is a myth. It’s a double shame that belief in the myth among people like me makes it easier for those who do not believe in these values to move institutions in a different direction entirely, as we true believers provide cover for these shifts. Faculty and staff willing to sacrifice themselves to make something like what Faust envisions possible—even as the corporatized university drains the life from them, ultimately flushing us out as what Marc Bousquet has called academia’s “waste products”—has allowed the structural undermining of these principles to continue apace.
I have never operated at the high administrative levels of Faust, but I’m guessing that the need to preserve these ideals is at least sometimes invoked as a reason why something else that actively undermines those ideals is enacted.
If you believe your cause to be inherently just and necessary, you might find any number of rationales to keep the enterprise afloat in the short term that may have long-term negative consequences.
I mean, that’s just basic human impulse.
But in the wake of what can only be described as the deliberate dismantling of the university ideal at West Virginia University, I’ve been thinking about how these big-picture sentiments that we dearly wish to attach to the higher educational enterprise may be making it easier for more of these dismantlings to continue.
As reported at the independent student newspaper at the University of Florida, The Alligator, UF president Ben Sasse has received preliminary plans courtesy of McKinsey and Company consultants to reduce the number of academic departments by nearly one-third.
Armed with data on lack of productivity (as measured by outside grants) by some faculty and a belief that UF should “definitely be charging ability-to-pay for children of the wealthiest,” Sasse seems poised to do something similar to what is happening (also under consultant recommendations) at WVU.
Last weekend, at my Substack newsletter, instead of writing from my positioning (somewhat) outside of higher ed for those who are further inside of it, as I do in this space, I wrote from my positioning of being (somewhat) inside higher ed for those entirely outside it. I wanted to express my frustration over the lack of discussion about the deep ailments of higher education, namely that making institutions compete with each other for tuition dollars is a drain and distraction from the work we claim we want them to do. (See Drew Gilpin Faust’s quote above.)
Given that this is the case, shouldn’t we at least consider changing these structures, rather than engaging in the millionth round of handwringing about these issues?
In the case of WVU, the answer is no. They are going to lean into a different set of values, the full corporatization of public higher education. In a lot of ways they have a smaller distance to travel than if there was a sudden upswell of belief in realizing postsecondary education as a public good.
The newsletter is ostensibly about books and reading, so I always try to point my audience toward titles that are dispositive to the subject matter. Among the more than a dozen I shared were these three:
- The University in a Corporate Culture by Eric Gould
- University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education by Jennifer Washburn
- Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education by Derek Bok
While each of these books has a somewhat different point of emphasis, each of them discusses how the trend toward corporatization, the principles that have been explicitly embraced in the remaking (or rather unmaking) of WVU, are a betrayal of the mission of higher education.
The Bok and Gould books were published in 2003. Washburn in 2005. These are only three examples of numerous others sounding a similar alarm even somewhat earlier than this.
I’m certain that Drew Gilpin Faust is familiar with Derek Bok’s book, at least, given that he was the acting president of Harvard for a year prior to her taking the helm. And of course, one of the longest-serving Harvard presidents of the 20th century (1971–1991) prior to that.
In listening to the interview with Terry Gross, I was moved by Faust’s apparent sincerity about not just the potential of higher education, but her personal and academic lives centered around understanding our history as a racial caste system and the necessity of the civil rights movement.
I also know that she presided over an institution in Harvard University that does perhaps more than any other when it comes to reifying the advantages of the already privileged, an institution that now holds $50 billion in wealth in the form of its endowment, enough money to fund West Virginia University as is for 50 years, all by itself.
I’m not entirely sure what I want to say about these things, or perhaps it’s that I don’t want to say what I don’t want to acknowledge must be true.
Maybe it’s time to admit that higher education is not this thing many of us believe it to be, or even that it never was this thing. I’d have to think more about that second part.
I believe that what’s going on at West Virginia University is a tragedy, but what if I’m the one who’s wrong, who has been wrong this whole time, that the democratic ideals I believe are meant to be infused into the experiences of education are for suckers who ultimately get steamrolled by a bunch of consultants?
Where is the evidence that what Drew Gilpin Faust (and I) believe in has ever been true?