The Neoliberal University


The Neoliberal University: Illness and Contagion in American Higher Education

In previous posts, I have outlined the crisis in American higher education from a variety of perspectives, including adjunctification of the faculty, administrative bloat, the rise of for-profit colleges, abandonment of shared governance, and the loss of liberal learning in favor of professional training.

We can trace this decline in the quality and international reputation of American colleges and universities to the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980. That fact should not surprise, for as Governor of California, Reagan was among the first to initiate the entrepreneurialization of his state’s public higher education system, at that time considered a model for the nation.

As a result, tuitions began to rise—as they have done ever since. In the mid-1970s, attending the University of California at Berkeley cost $700 per year, but now the same education runs $13,000 per year.

However, after two energy crises and double-digit inflation during the 1970s, American voters moved in a different direction, and elected Reagan as President of the United States, turning their backs on the counterculture movement and embracing instead a new form of social conservatism grounded in the market-based ethos of privatization.

When these conservative forces finally banished their liberal-leaning foes in the Culture Wars of the 1990s, American colleges and universities were framed as bastions of liberalism and fomenters of social unrest, and they came under a sustained fiscal and moral assault that continues to this day.

The lynchpin of that conservative strategy was to use the levers of policy, the power of elected office, and the rhetoric of fiscal austerity to defund higher education, and to argue in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy “job creators” that would trickle down to the ordinary Joe.

Combined with unscrupulous attacks on “welfare queens” (recipients of aid portrayed as serial abusers of social programs), conservatives successfully reframed the debate around the public funding of higher education for generations. Some might argue that the conservative movement has even gutted the capacity of the American university to produce critically minded citizens who challenge the status quo.

The systematic defunding of the American university through budget cuts, and the entrepreneurialization of those functions that could generate revenue (such as technological research), quickly spread from California to other states. Collectively, state support for higher education was reduced “by anywhere from 14.8 percent to 69.4 percent between fiscal 1980 and fiscal 2011,” with the state of Colorado leading the way.

In the face of declining state and federal support, public and private colleges and universities in the United States became more utilitarian and entrepreneurial out of sheer necessity. They sought out new revenue streams from private donors (after whom buildings, programs, scholarships, or endowed chairs could be named), and forged cooperative agreements with corporate America to help fill their depleted coffers.

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 cemented the relationship between corporate America and higher education. Patents, and other forms of intellectual property, became alternate sources of funding for all kinds of colleges and universities. Academic programs in business, computer science, and biological engineering received increased funding, while the arts and humanities were deemed unprofitable and gradually marginalized.

The rush to transfer the practical innovations of academic research to the marketplace as quickly, and as profitably, as possible meant that university presidents became intent “upon accumulating money to expand the size and reputation of the institution,” and thereby forced the methods of the marketplace on a reluctant (or indifferent) faculty.

This conservative attack on higher education by way of targeted budget cuts, the rhetoric of fiscal austerity, and the transference of college costs to the “consumer” through tuition and fees, all arose out of larger global trends of privatization, corporatization, and the deregulation of industry known as “neoliberalism.”

According to the philosophers Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, the principle characteristic of neoliberal rationality is the generalization of competition as a behavioral norm and of the enterprise as a model of subjectivation. They argue that a new mode of government of human beings has arisen in accordance with the universal principle of competition, which is now embedded in the “discourses, practices, and apparatuses” of power.

The universalized logic of competition has been used to justify the restructuring of institutions of higher learning from establishments for the commonweal into business enterprises that justify inequalities among knowledge workers and administrators as a side effect of economic Darwinism (where the fittest survive and the unfit are left to fend for themselves).

Neo-liberalism is pernicious, Dardot observes, because it is not simply a mindset or ideology. It is a system of norms “profoundly inscribed in government practices, institutional policies, and managerial styles,” and it extends the logic of competition to individuals.

In the wake of this gradual neo-liberal infection of higher education, we can chart the de-evolution of American colleges and universities on the world stage, from their belle epoch between 1945 to 1980, when our institutions of higher learning were decentralized hubs of innovation–and not the quasi-businesses that they are today.

American Colleges and universities, argues Henry Giroux, “now mimic corporate structures by increasing the power of administrators at the expense of faculty,” thereby reducing professors “to a mostly temporary and low-wage workforce.” Even at institutions of higher learning where research is not a priority, faculty members increasingly report that decision-making has become “more bureaucratic, top-down, centralized, automatic, and managerial,” observes former President of Harvard University, Derek Bok.

University and college administrators are thriving, in contrast to faculty members who have been “reduced to rootless adjuncts” and their students who have been saddled with enormous debt (collectively in excess of one trillion dollars), asserts Lawrence Wittner, Emeritus Professor of History at SUNY Albany.

Forty-two American college and university presidents earned more than a million dollars per year in 2013 (in addition to generous perks that include housing and the use of luxury cars).

In light of this analysis, perhaps you are wondering if neo-liberalism has infected your own campus. If so, point your Internet browser to the IPEDS Data Center where you may compare institutions of higher education based on many factors, including: Human Resources breakdowns of full-time and part-time instructional staff, the number of management positions at a college, and the office and administrative staff needed to support them.

While IPEDS does not articulate the number of tenure track positions, or provide administrative salary information in its core revenue distributions, if your institution employs a large number of part-time faculty, it cannot be focused on providing its students with full-time professors (who are chosen in nationwide searches and survive a long period of probation leading up to tenure).

If the IPEDS data indicates that the number of executives, administrators, and managers (together with their supporting positions) outnumber full-time faculty, take that as an ominous sign that neoliberalism has infected your college or university.

Others symptoms of contagion include: the lack of meaningful shared governance, the overturning of faculty searches by deans, the appointment of administrators without national searches, and the trotting out of “strategic plans” and “best practices” as rationales for restructuring.

In combination with a sustained effort to eliminate costly university executives and administrators, and their support apparati, the conversion of existing part-time and contingent faculty positions into tenurable ones would go a long way toward stemming the spread of the neoliberal disease.

Demand more tenure-track appointments at your college or university! Make the choice to attend an institution that invests in you by investing in the faculty!

Leave a Reply