The University in a Moment of Intersecting Crises

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 31/03/2020 - 2:45am in

Covid-19 has brutally laid bare the devastating impact of several decades of privatization and capitalist globalization.  The rapidity of the virus' traversing of the globe, its powerfully unequal impact on different countries, and on different segments of the population within countries, are all linked together by the simultaneous expansion of the movement of goods and people and the evisceration of the public welfare and public health in many countries.  In the United States, to take the case closest at hand, the absolute under-funding of public health and the refusal to prepare for pandemics adequately is now reaping havoc on the population and on the doctors and nurses who are trying to heal them.  Three decades of diverting resources to commercializing publicly-funded research has only made this situation worse.  As the LAT has reported, Jerry Brown, with his usual lack of foresight, managed to dismantle a program that Arnold Schwarzenegger had created to respond to pandemics; in this he is an odd precursor to Donald Trump even if he did oppose him on many other things.  As I watch my medical colleagues struggle with insufficient safety equipment, a lack of ICU beds, an inability to test on a mass scale, and the exhaustion of overwork, I often wish that I lived in a modern country.

In the United States, of course, the pandemic is striking at a society riven by increased inequality.  Wage stagnation and the growth in corporate profits, along with its effect, the gig economy, has left more and more people without the resources to ride out the crisis.  Unemployment claims have skyrocketed to remarkable levels.  Neoliberal policy and practice have displaced alternative forms of rationality; public goods and solidarity are devalued in favor of individual capital; they return only in their ghostly mirror image of ethno-nationalistic anger.  Knowledge, both of nature (climate change, epidemiology) and of society are denied in the name of the populist wisdom of the president's gut.

Universities, of course, are deeply embedded in these crises--both the immediate and the long-term.  Colleges and universities across the country have moved to remote learning; moving staff, students, and faculty off-campus, shutting down labs, and, where they have medical centers trying to move as many resources as possible to support them.  Despite some skepticism, this was clearly the right thing to do.  But we should acknowledge the likely damage that it will cause: not only in student learning, but in financial resources, faculty and staff careers, scholarship disrupted if not derailed, and the damage to thinking together that is, or at least should be, the hallmark of the community of scholars.

At the same time, higher education has itself been embedded in growing inequality.  If knowledge is devalued, some part of that is due to the reality that colleges and universities have themselves contributed to inequality: seeking out prestige through selectivity, eagerly participating in the games of rankings, and turning towards satisfying the demands of donors over public needs.  This latter behavior, of course, is rooted in, and reinforces, the relative decline of public funding.  The return of the private took place in the decade following the dramatic expansion in the numbers of women and people of color on campus, not to mention the decade of student revolt.  Universities have been paying for this ever since.

But if higher education faces daunting challenges, it is not to soon to think about what we want in the aftermath of the pandemic.  There is an opportunity here for new thinking.  No, I don't mean giving in to the ed-tech gurus or those administrators now circling the crisis like vultures, wishing to strip away from students their residential education, and from faculty their control over curriculum and its forms. If the forced separation that Covid-19 has taught us anything it is that certain aspects of universities and colleges are essential and that they can only be saved by rethinking that which is not.

First, rather than proof that the future is online, the present retreat into distance learning is revealing the exact opposite.  Students have made clear exactly how much they value the residential experience-- just as faculty are remembering how important the shared classroom is for education.  The problem, as Chris and I have been arguing for years, is not the reality of in-person instruction but its lack of proper funding.  Universities will need to develop a new public contract; more people--not fewer--should be enabled to have the residential experience if they choose.  This means increasing public resources to reduce price across the whole spectrum of costs.

As I suggested a few weeks back in the days before Covid, universities especially need to more effectively defend the importance of research and graduate education across all disciplines.  Although attention now is focused appropriately on the search for medical remedies and care, the pandemic shows once again how deeply important knowledge of culture, politics, history, and society are for responding to crises, as those domains largely control the development of the crises themselves.  STEM is not going to answer the questions of the costs of privatization or the effects of the emphasis on commercialized tech transfer; nor will it help us solve the problem of homelessness or housing; or provide people with the perspective to learn from previous crises; nor, even on its own, enable us to try to prevent climate catastrophe.  Those are all eminently political and social problems and need to be understood as such.  Nor will STEM help UC address the ethical issues of allowing graduate students to lose their healthcare or live in their cars in the middle of a pandemic.  We need far more natural science--both pandemics and the climate crisis demand it.  But we need social and cultural knowledge as well.

To even begin to do these things, two large shifts will be necessary, if not sufficient, conditions. The first is an end to the pretense that tuition and philanthropy can overcome the challenges facing public higher education.  The rote repetition of some UC leaders that "free college is a dangerous idea," bears more than passing resemblance to the apocryphal "let them eat cake."

The same can be said for the repeated claims of UCOP that a tuition increase is better for poorer students than having the state buy it out.  This is true from one perspective of course--but it depends on concealing the fact that this situation is a result of a policy decision at OP, not built into the nature of things.  UC could just as easily decide to spend the same percentage of the state buyout on financial aid. They simply don't. 

But even these points remain trapped in the wrong ballpark.  States do have budget limitations; the answer is going to have to come in a new national contract.  I know that at the moment, with a knowledge-despising president and a science-denying party in control of the executive, judicial, and half of the legislative branch this seems like an impossibility.  But if the 2 trillion dollar stimulus should put paid to any myth, it is that Republicans care about budgets or deficits when their own access to public money is at stake.   Covid-19 increases the credibility, by the day, to modern monetary theory's notion that the real challenge in economic life is the underused capacity of the real economy.  From the Green New Deal to a new social contract for health and education, universities must take the lead.  Or they will have failed to live up to their name.

This will mean hard choices for the community of scholars as well.  Those colleges and universities who recover from this crisis will need to think deeply about their purposes and not simply fall back into patterns formed over the last several decades.  Managers will need to reject their dependence on precarious faculty whose numbers expanded in the name of market flexibility. Faculty will need to think through what is essential in their teaching and research organizations and the hyper-individualism and localism that they can fall prey to.  Both faculty and administration will need to rethink authority so that decisions are made by those--even within the university--who are closest to practice and knowledge.  And underlying all of these decisions and debates will lie the most important one: are colleges and universities--and those who work in them--going to continue to see who can triumph in the struggle for private prestige?  Or are they going to work to help produce a revitalized, and international, public good?

It will be the struggle of the 2020s.