by Deborah Mutnick
On June 28, Western Illinois University announced it will be sending layoff notices this summer to 24 faculty, including seven with tenure. For many of us in higher education, this grim news is not surprising as the sword hovers above our heads, too. Such trends recently led Adam Harris, writing in the Atlantic, to suggest that higher education will die not as a bubble that pops but as “a long slow slide.”
Falling enrollments, budget cuts, high tuition costs, adjunctification, student debt, concerns about the worth of a degree: each of these factors alone is worrisome but together, as some of us know firsthand, they are driving nonelite schools to consolidate, merge, close, and/or otherwise contract. The cause of this “death spiral,” as Harris calls it, citing self-proclaimed education futurist Bryan Alexander on industries that decline after “peaking,” is a business model that subsumes all other values to marketplace exigencies. Rationalizations for the commodification of education—changing demographics, increased costs, bond ratings, federal scrutiny of metrics like graduate rates—more or less preclude its function as a “public good” in favor of “value-added” measures of “returns on investment” (ROI). It is no longer education per se that is valued but rather its profitability.
The political economy of higher education should be a major concern not only for those immediately involved in it—teachers, staff, students, parents, campus workers—but also for society as a whole, a bellwether for our collective future. As early as 1997, Bill Readings saw signs of the impact of transnational capitalism on higher education, distinguishing between its function as a “microcosm of the nation state” (166) and a new model that would be reinvented in “the ruins of the university.” According to Readings, the ruined university, at best, can be put to new uses as a “détournement of the spaces willed to us by a history whose temporality we no longer inhabit” (129).
But some twenty years later, in their rush to reinvent higher education as a corporate enterprise, it seems that federal and state legislators and university trustees and presidents are obliterating even the remnants of the ruins in which Readings thought we could dwell. As I have suggested elsewhere, just as it calls into question Readings’ cautious appeal to reimagine its contours, this new university makes David Bartholomae’s view in 1986 that students need to “‘appropriate (or be appropriated by) a specialized discourse’” in order to reinvent it—which at the time drew some criticism—seem “almost quaint” (Mutnick 377).
By now, the critique of austerity in higher education and other public programs—and parts of the private sector that traditionally served the “public good”—is well known (see, e.g., Welch and Scott). We are in the midst of a transformation of higher education achieved through technology, corporate partnerships, adjunctification, and other practices mostly antithetical to actual missions of teaching and research to awaken and enlighten minds and discover, create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge. For the more than 70 percent of all U.S. faculty in the contingent labor force, these austere conditions mean on average an annual salary of $20,000, if not homelessness, hunger, or worse. For those lucky enough to have tenure or tenure track jobs, there is a loss of dignity, autonomy, and job security as programs are eliminated, tenure and promotion more frequently denied, and colleagues pitted against one another in competition for scarce resources. Though careful not to idealize the past, several authors writing about intensifying attacks on higher education perhaps not surprisingly voice concern about the loss of its soul (e.g., Schrecker; Fabricant and Brier).
For students hammered by debt from public disinvestment and rising tuition costs, going to college in the ruins of higher education means racking up as many AP and pre-college credits as possible before their first class, deciding on careers as high school seniors, choosing a course of study based on market demands and salary potential, and racing through those pesky general education requirements in the liberal arts and sciences as fast as possible. Some, typically more affluent students face fierce competition for spaces in elite schools or programs along with rising rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide. Others, many from working-class families, who may struggle academically and/or financially are increasingly advised to skip college altogether, further contributing to the gaping class divide.
While commitments to democracy, justice, and equality can obviously be found across the disciplines, those of us remanded to the academic “basement” of writing studies and forged by the consciousness of new rhetoric, writing, and English studies as they were remade in the politically charged 1960s and ’70s like to place ourselves, rightly or wrongly, at the forefront of change. What we see is a ripple effect from federal and state disinvestment—the “austerity blues” as Fabricant and Brier call it—to endless justifications by college trustees and presidents of their ruthless pursuit of better returns on investment. Nancy Welch has called such rationalizations “la langue de coton,” or the woolen language of official calls like those at my university to participate in a strategic planning process defined by the empty rhetoric of “prominence in academic excellence” and recognition “as a ‘best value’ institution.”
Market forces in higher education, like those in other sectors such as urban real estate development, can feel inexorable. Whether orchestrated by university boards of trustees or urban development corporations, they assert a neoliberal claim to reorganize political and economic life in ways that profit a few at the expense of the many, thinly veiled by the hollow rhetoric of a democratic process in which all stakeholders have a voice. The university president asks faculty to participate in strategic planning to be able to claim that they helped author the plan and then goes ahead and does whatever the board decides in the name of fiscal exigency. The urban development corporation holds hearings about a major new real estate plan that will displace local residents and commercial tenants and then disregards the community’s strenuous objections to it. It can feel as though we can do little to stem, let alone reverse, the neoliberal tide of austerity, financialization, privatization, and deregulation in all spheres of life.
The language of “death spiral” to describe higher education resonates for us because we see and feel it happening. We see it in our own or other institutions as faculty and staff are laid off, enrollments decline, budgets are cut, and protests—petitions, faculty votes of no confidence, resolutions—seem to have no tangible effect other than to document the destruction of the educational institutions we helped build as the corporate university digs in its claws. Apart from the weapon of the strike for unionized faculty, increasingly limited by federal laws and court rulings, our power to shape higher education from within is negligible despite shared governance agreements to which trustees and administrators more or less adhered for generations. Epitomizing this trend, for example, is the erasure in the most recent edition of the Middle States Commission’s Standards for Reaccreditation and Requirements for Affiliation of the words “shared governance.”
But the bleakness is not unremitting. The wildcat strikes by public school teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona dramatically attest to the power we do hold, signaling that masses of people are ready to refuse to accept lives of duress, scarcity, and insecurity. The West Virginia teachers’ call for a severance tax on coal and natural gas industries to pay for the underfunded Public Employee Insurance Agency shines a light on the path ahead. It represents a victory for democracy in the form of a politically conscious, highly effective class revolt not seen since the 1930s. And commitments to a just, democratic educational system in writing studies, however much they may be riddled with contradictions of a two-tiered hiring system dependent on contingent labor, can form the basis for mobilization and collective action across institutions.
Fabricant and Brier put it this way: “The overarching challenge facing all of us is to protect the public university as a democratic experiment firmly planted in the public commons” (9). How do we do that? Rather than lament predictions of higher education’s “death spiral,” we can work to change the narrative. As teacher-scholar-activists, we can help build—and join—labor and other activist coalitions to push back against austerity, contraction, inequality, and precarity. We can be clear about the underlying market values undoing bourgeois democracy and the emancipatory vision contained in its own contradictions (see Brown). We can at least begin to reclaim higher education’s mission by contesting the logic of market forces, resisting what Jean Anyon long ago called the “hidden curriculum,” and demanding the right to a liberal arts education for everyone.
Deborah Mutnick is a professor of English at Long Island University Brooklyn. She is the author of Writing in an Alien World: Basic Writing and the Struggle for Equality in Higher Education (Boynton/Cook 1996) and has published widely in edited collections and journals, including College Composition and Communication and College English. She is currently co-editor with Laurie Grobman of Reflections: The Journal of Public Rhetoric, Civic Writing, and Service Learning.
Anyon, Jean. “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” The Journal of Education,Vol. 162, No. 1, 1980, pp. 67-92
Brown, Wendy. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Zone Books, 2015.
Fabricant, Michael, and Stephen Brier. Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education. Johns Hopkins UP, 2016.
Harris, Adams. “Here’s How Higher Education Dies.” The Atlantic, 5 June 2018.
Mutnick, Deborah. Pathways to Freedom: From the Archives to the Street. College Composition and Communication, vol. 69, no. 3, 2018, pp. 374-401.
Schreck, Ellen. The Lost Soul of Higher Education. The New Press, 2010.
Welch, Nancy. “La Langue de Coton: How Neoliberal Language Pulls the Wool Over Faculty Governance.” Pedagogy, vol. 11, no. 3, 2011, pp. 545-553.
Welch, Nancy, and Tony Scott, editors. Composition in the Age of Austerity. Utah State UP,2016.