How has higher education changed in the age of lockdowns—and what happens next? There’s no easy answer to these questions, and your perspective will vary depending on what you thought of academia before the pandemic. Were you a tenured professor trying to improve the system from within? A journalist watching from the outside? An adjunct fighting for your job? In late summer, I spoke with a group whose experience reflected the diverse character of the challenges facing the university today. The following transcript of that discussion has been edited for clarity and length. —Timothy Shenk
Timothy Shenk: Students across the country are coming back to college this fall for the first time in eighteen months. How has the university system changed since the last time they set foot on campus?
Tressie McMillan Cottom: At the start of COVID-19, I remember trying to figure out what we already knew about what external shocks and crises do to an institutional system like U.S. higher education. And we didn’t know a lot. We knew about shocks hitting a subsector of higher education, like during Hurricane Katrina; we knew about limited geographical events, like when a hurricane forces schools to scramble. But we didn’t actually know what would happen. And I remember thinking, it was precisely because we didn’t know that we were going to mismanage the whole thing.
But there isn’t a universal experience in U.S. higher education. What’s happening at a small, tuition-dependent, liberal arts college in the South that is the major employer for a small or mid-sized town is vastly different from what’s happening in a place with a cluster of five prestigious schools with a robust, diverse employment sector. Overall, most college leaders saw COVID-19 as an opportunity to do more of what they had already been doing. Schools that had wanted to respond to inequality doubled down on that. Schools that had been trending toward profit-seeking, especially under the guise of a public institution—like Purdue and Arizona State—doubled down. So students are coming back to accelerated versions of the institutions they left.
Higher education leaders have learned two things: One, there is more appetite for certain types of degrees and credentials than they probably thought pre-COVID-19. A lot of people are willing to expand into what we, a few years ago, would have thought of as experimental degrees: job-oriented, market-oriented, mostly in partnerships with for-profit companies. Two, there is very limited consumer appetite for online education. The bulk of higher education really saw online education as an opportunity to respond to political crises and funding crises. But students want to be back on campus. A lot of higher education leaders tell me that their response to COVID-19 was really driven by customer demand, which shows how far the customer model of higher education has expanded. It was students and their families who wanted the “college experience” and the “on-campus experience.”
We’re not going to close again, even if it is the right thing to do. A lot of institutions say they couldn’t survive if they did.
Christopher Newfield: One of the things that has really concerned me is there’s no real discussion of learning quality, and how to equalize it. One or two percent of the country’s students go to the boutique universities that the world associates with the quality of U.S. schools, and everybody else is more or less fending for themselves. And we haven’t broached that issue at all.
There are two other things that I’m worried about now. First is the crazy increase in selectivity. UCLA rejected 90 percent of its applicants. Berkeley rejected 86 percent of its applicants. The famous privates are rejecting 95, 96, 97 percent of applicants. It’s going to turn higher ed into even more of a hysterical positional good than it already is, further eclipsing the educational issues around teaching and research.
Second is that the federal government seems to be throwing in the towel. There’s no interest in a federal bailout for all these busted-up state systems. They’re going to focus on the cheapest end of it—community colleges—and hope that something good happens there. But it’s not going to solve any of the other problems.
Adam Harris: During the protests and reckoning over systemic racism in American life over the past year, students have been a major part of the national energy. But they haven’t had a chance to be on campus, to be in spaces where they can organize. A lot of college leaders, particularly at predominantly white institutions, are very concerned about what is going to happen when students come back. I think a lot of energy that has been pent up over the last sixteen, seventeen months will reveal itself on campuses.
On top of that, it was a record-breaking year for a lot of historically Black colleges in terms of philanthropy. Some HBCUs also used the time to think more broadly about how to pull in more philanthropic giving. I imagine students will be energized, too, so campuses at HBCUs will be more electric than they have been in recent memory.
At the same time, the outlook for affirmative action and race-conscious admissions does not look great. And we already know what a post-affirmative action landscape looks like. Look at Michigan; it banned affirmative action in 2006. Before, Black students made up about 7 percent of the campus at the University of Michigan; after they made up about 4 percent. Experts say we should expect the same nationally, and for the percentage of Latino students to also drop significantly.
Affirmative action was already incredibly limited. It’s not a tool to address historical discrimination; it’s a tool to diversify campus for the benefit of everyone. In most Association of American Universities institutions, Black students make up about 5 percent of the student population. A place like Auburn, a highly selective college in Alabama, had more Black students in 2002 than they have now. At the University of Mississippi, the enrollment of Black students has been declining every year since about 2012. Looking ahead, I think you’ll see greater stratification in terms of where the wealth is concentrated. The institutions that are losing money are also enrolling high numbers of Black and brown and low-income students. If we actually believe that higher education enhances someone’s ability to operate in a functioning democracy, what does that mean for the country?
Shenk: Maggie, from your perspective as someone who thinks seriously about the condition of adjuncts, what do you think these students are going to be coming back to in the fall?
Maggie Doherty: As Tressie said, we’re going to see the continuation and intensification of some trends we’ve been seeing for a while, namely the adjunctification and the neoliberalization of the university. At Harvard, we recently had a meeting with some deans about the state of contingent faculty. A panel of faculty and administrators had reaffirmed the so-called “time caps” on contingent faculty: after eight years of teaching off the tenure track, you have to leave your teaching post. (The deans refer to this as “regenerating” the teaching faculty.) At the meeting, when pressed about the time caps, the deans kept coming back to language of flexibility, agility, dynamism—it was as if we were at the Olympics. I think we’re already seeing how the pandemic can be used to justify those values: “We need to have the mobility, the flexibility, the dynamic potential to adjust to these kinds of crises.”
So what does “flexibility” look like in this context? Flexibility might look like hiring additional contingent faculty on one-year contracts to deal with the influx of first-year students who deferred their admission as a result of COVID-19. It might look like refusing material support to adjunct and contingent faculty so those resources can be directed elsewhere. During the pandemic, tenure-track faculty got an additional year on their tenure clocks, extra teaching assistants, and smaller class sizes; this assistance was balanced out by asking contingent faculty to teach more, with less support. We circulated a petition that asked Harvard to extend contingent faculty contracts by one year, to account for the pandemic; the administration refused. Universities like Harvard need to have an exploited class of faculty, who can do extra labor for less pay, or else they can’t maintain “business as usual” during periods of stress.
People think of Ivy League institutions as these places that have all these resources, but even at the wealthiest universities, the resources aren’t going to the contingent faculty who do most of the teaching work (to say nothing of the staff who do the other kinds of work that make a university run).
As someone who does intimate, high-contact teaching of younger students, first-year students, students who are often coming from different backgrounds, I think Tressie’s point about customer demand is a really good one. I’d just add that the customer demand is often created by the university itself, by the messages it sends its students and by the way it frames the college experience. At prestigious private institutions, like the one where I work, students are told when they get admitted that they are there for “the experience.” They may enter college excited about learning certain things, or taking certain classes, or reading certain writers, but when they get here, they hear, “Actually, the most important thing that’s going to happen for you is not in the classroom; it’s in the dorm room, it’s in the dining hall. This is where real learning happens, this is where you make connections, this is where you network.” I think this is one of the reasons teaching classes over Zoom was so challenging: students were missing all the things they’d heard were important.
Shenk: Writing in the Nation, you argued that there’s an anger building among graduate students and the adjunct class that could be politically mobilizing. Do you think there’s room for something like that with undergraduates who feel like they’ve lost more than a quarter of their college experience?
Doherty: It’s going to take a lot of solidarity-building among staff, faculty, and undergraduates. I think it’s too easy for students to look to the proximate authority figure in their lives—like me, the adjunct teacher—and think, “You’re the one who’s not delivering what I need. You’re the one who I’m supposed to get all this stuff from, and I’m paying, and your class isn’t very good.” It’s going to take a lot of organizing work to make students and faculty and staff not see each other as potential obstacles to something that they want, but as people who can work together to demand something better.
Shenk: Nils, you’ve seen the university from the side of the administration, and you’ve studied it as an intellectual historian. What do you think is going on here that we might be missing?
Nils Gilman: Money is the central issue. The amount of money that’s required to keep these institutions running is enormous, and not just at a place like Harvard, or even Berkeley. We’ve already seen a wave of bankruptcies, mergers, and consolidations. There’s going to be a lot more of that coming down the pike.
Tressie’s point about doubling down is exactly right. I’ve also seen, just as tellingly, a doubling down of the critique of universities from three perspectives. The first one is the left-wing critique. In a way, Maggie, you were just articulating it. The critique is that the university is an engine of neoliberal reproduction; you get these rich kids, they come in and they treat the staff like hired help, and they get indoctrinated into becoming the elites that are going to perpetuate the system. You’re hearing even more of that than you did a year and a half ago. The same goes for the right-wing critique that the university is just left-wing indoctrination. And finally, there’s the libertarian critique, the Peter Thiel critique, which is, “It’s just a waste of your money. They’re charging you $75,000 to sit at home and take Zoom classes for a year. This just exposes what a bunch of charlatan nonsense the whole enterprise was all along.” The critiques have doubled down just as much as the prior strategies of the administrations have doubled down, and so the tensions within the system have intensified.
One of the things that actually has changed, not just intensified, is the huge amount of resistance at a lot of universities—particularly by tenured and tenure-track faculty—to online education. Most schools went from a tiny fraction of a percent of the total amount of delivered education being done online to 100 percent overnight. And all of the faculty members who said, “We can never do this,” did it by force majeure. That experience is not something that I think administrators are going to forget. They’re going to say, “We can force you to do this. And you don’t like it, and maybe the outcomes aren’t as good, but it’s a lot more cost efficient.” Those discussions are happening, particularly at universities where the cost structure is just not holding up anymore. How that’s going to play out is going to be a matter of political power. We’re going to see the changes happening not at the super-elite institutions but at second- or third-tier institutions where the faculty are disempowered, or the threat of incremental replacement of faculty by adjunct faculty is more intense.
McMillan Cottom: I could not agree more. I think it is very telling that, over the last year and a half, we actually did not see university leaders scrambling. Instead, many are cautiously optimistic about the opportunity that COVID-19 provided to change the balance of power in universities. You cannot become a superstar university president right now unless you break the faculty. You cannot satisfy the board, you cannot satisfy donors and the political class, unless you get around what tenure does for worker power in the university system.
Most of higher education has been very comfortable with tenure being narrowed as long as they could control its boundaries. COVID-19 has shown the weaknesses in that. Now that we need solidarity to defend tenure, we don’t have it. Now that we need student buy-in to defend tenure, we don’t have it. Because we did not make a case that what tenure ultimately does is gives students power and voice.
Students like the consumer model not because they just like being customers, but because it is the only place where they feel like they get to speak back to this nameless, faceless bureaucracy. That’s especially true, I think, at large, diverse public universities. What if we said to students that tenured faculty is a check on administrative power? I think we can make a case to students that tenure can be as much about establishing a sustainable class of workers here at this university who will be advocating for students as it is about protecting my individual job.
But that’s not how tenure is often understood. Tenure is usually seen as a benefit for a sinecure class. When we now make a case for tenured faculty, it’s hard to do it in public without sounding elitist, because we haven’t drawn connections about how tenure can be used to stand up for students and university workers, especially in the South and across parts of the Midwest where unionization is just not a practical option.
Instead, today we make a case for tenure that sounds like, “I need tenure to do my research.” Frankly, even I don’t think that’s a very resounding case. I like having tenure, but I don’t think of it as an individual good. All workers should have those protections, and if we’re not making that an explicit claim, we’re part of the problem.
Doherty: I really like this way of thinking about tenure, but I think there are at least two challenges. The first is that university administrators are going to try to pit tenure-stream faculty against adjuncts. That does create an antagonism between those two classes of workers. And to be honest, the interests of tenure-stream faculty and those of adjuncts are opposed in some ways. As I was saying before, some of benefits that tenure-stream faculty enjoy—smaller class sizes, for instance—depend on contingent faculty not having those same benefits and picking up the slack.
The other challenge is figuring out the points of leverage that tenured faculty have in their workplaces, especially if they’re not unionized.
I was really heartened when, during COVID-19, a bunch of tenured and tenure-track faculty signed an open letter saying that they wouldn’t give talks at universities that were not making accommodations for their contingent faculty during the pandemic. But at the end of the day, a university can live with the fact that someone won’t come to give a seminar talk. It’s not yet enough leverage.
So what are the pressure points? What leverage do tenured faculty have if they’re not unionized, if they can’t engage in formal contract negotiations or go on strike? What can they do that’s going to put pressure on the university administration? And will they be motivated to do it if the cause is not their own, but rather the cause of contingent faculty, or undergraduates, or graduate students?
Shenk: This connects to an argument that’s often made about the future of higher education—namely, that the wealthy institutions are going to get wealthier, the poor will be wiped off the map, and the middle will shrink. Adam, you mentioned earlier that an uptick in donations for HBCUs is one of the few bright spots of the last year. Are you worried they will fall victim to the same stratification—that Howard is going to hoover up all this money while everyone else struggles to keep up?
Harris: If you think about the institutions most likely to be in dire financial straits, it’s typically institutions with fewer than 1,000 students, institutions that are in rural areas, and institutions with endowments under $50 million. A lot of HBCUs fall into that category. There is a chance that some HBCUs may not survive.
But it’s always a precarious situation for these institutions, which is why I call for the redistribution of endowments from institutions that benefitted and profited from Jim Crow and slavery to the institutions that educated students who were shut out of higher education. More pointedly, because of how federal and state actors shaped this inequitable higher education system, it is the government’s responsibility to provide redress for the past harms that it has caused these institutions.
Across about fifteen federal programs, HBCUs get around $1 billion each year. This year, with the two stimulus packages, they’re going to get about $3 billion. That’s a huge improvement, and it will do a lot for them. But a one-time injection of funding is barely enough. Black colleges in Maryland recently settled with the state for over $500 million over ten years, split among the four colleges. One estimate said, however, that they would need at least $2.73 billion to begin to address the state’s historical legacy of underfunding. That’s just four colleges. And there are over one hundred HBCUs. It is going to take a lot to pull them out of this financially precarious situation, and it should start with the places that have put them in this situation. A single year of philanthropic gifts does not solve a history of systemic racism.
Shenk: But that raises the issue of how to build political support for any kind of increase in higher education funding. It seems to me like public universities are the key battlegrounds here. Christopher, what do you make of the political terrain right now?
Newfield: Public universities have a good counter-narrative about public service. They bring intellectual transformation to everybody, regardless of where they started out. When done properly it’s anti-racist, it’s egalitarian, it’s pretty damn socialist. As for what tenure-track and tenured faculty can do, the obvious thing is to produce counter-narratives that don’t suck, like the ones that we have right now, which are self-regarding and not particularly social. COVID-19 has actually launched some of these narratives, like the one that teachers are essential workers. We are teachers. We can push for tenure for all—in other words, just-cause termination for everybody, no at-will firing. We should move to that, and we should present ourselves as a model of labor justice.
There’s another important narrative to push: the current business model is a paradigm of structural racism. As the white share of the student body has fallen, tax-based public funding has fallen pretty much in lockstep. I have the data to show this at the University of California, but it’s also true if you look at thirty-year cycles of funding across the country. People are very sensitive about being called racist, and I think this could be used to bring in a broader base of people who say they are opposed to structural racism. We’re past the affirmative action debate, and we can get into deeper discussions about the damage of debt—and then the intellectual and social benefits of egalitarian funding. Poor kids who go to poor schools shouldn’t get poor degrees or no degrees because their schools don’t have the resources to get them through: we should push people off the fence on this issue.
Gilman: In negotiation theory, there’s a concept called “costly signaling”: you show your commitment to a particular cause by engaging in something harmful to yourself. It’s a sign that you’re negotiating in good faith, that you’re willing to incur costs as a group in order to push your agenda. I don’t see a lot of costly signaling from tenure-track faculty at universities. There’s a lot of signing collective letters, a lot of expressions of solidarity, but I don’t see people saying things like, “I’m willing to give up privileges in order to have a more egalitarian distribution of resources at this university.”
This is part of the neoliberal model, where everybody sees themselves as an isolated entrepreneur. There is no solidarity even among the tenure-track faculty, much less in these larger communities of adjunct faculty and staff. So I’m somewhat pessimistic about this, as much as I might like to see some of the things that Christopher is describing.
I was really struck, when I was an administrator at Berkeley, by the amount of magical thinking among some members of the faculty concerning the funding structures that we were up against. It was explained to me that, if you are a legislator in a statehouse, there are basically five things that you spend money on: K–12 education, law enforcement and prisons, healthcare (primarily for lower-income people), infrastructure, and higher education. In every single state, regardless of whether they’re run by Democrats or Republicans, higher education is almost always the lowest priority. As social democrats, it’s hard to say that’s the wrong decision (maybe you make it the fourth-lowest, because you’d rather defund law enforcement). It’s a structural problem of the chronic underfunding of the state as a whole, and that problem way exceeds higher education, and I don’t know that we have a solution for it.
McMillan Cottom: I agree that higher education is not a sympathetic victim. You talk to politicians, and they’ll tell you, “Listen. I get phone calls if there are potholes, I get phone calls if there are dogs on the loose shitting in yards. I get a phone call if the Amtrak is late too often, and I get a phone call if you can’t get your kid in the kindergarten class you want. Nobody calls me if I cut funding to higher education.”
Higher education isn’t even that high on the list of what people on the left care about. Universal pre-K will touch more people than higher education will. That’s just the way that goes. But, long-term, I still think it’s a defensible good. I want higher education to be less necessary for the most amount of people, but I also want everybody to have an opportunity to choose higher education on the same terms that the privileged get to choose it. That is the best-case scenario for higher education in the United States, and it only works if all of these other parts of the social system work, too.
The best thing we can do is to connect to those other causes. What the anti-apartheid movement did really well was building solidarity across student cohorts. You came in as a freshman, and you were handed the legacy book that explained, “Here’s what we’ve been raising hell about for the last eight years.” Faculty worked with student leaders to keep that handbook, and that’s how you got a sustained student movement across eight years. That, to me, seems like the best base for tenured faculty and for faculty to build. We can be the keepers of the thing that creates the space for student mobilization, because ultimately, student mobilization is what does it. In a consumer model of higher education, student mobilization is more powerful, not less, but it is also harder to develop.
Harris: America thinks of higher education now as a private good. We don’t have the broad conception that the founders had; George Washington and James Madison and Benjamin Rush thought we needed a national university, because the best way to teach people how to be good citizens is through higher education. Into the 1960s and ’70s, that starts to change as higher education becomes more diverse—and more of a private good.
That’s heightened in this political environment, where there’s greater stratification between voters with college degrees and voters with non-college degrees in terms of their party identification. The Republican Party does not see its base as college-educated voters, so it’s a question of who you are politically beholden to. Time and time again, you see conservatives promote this idea that professors aren’t just teaching students how to think, they’re teaching students what to think. It’s one of the first things that Betsy DeVos said after she became Trump’s education secretary. When you think that a structure is only benefitting the opposing party, then it makes sense that they would want to defund it.
Newfield: I think we have to build for the next thirty years. Versions of the same goal with different arguments could work, whether they’re about public funding, or about making higher education really a populist institution or a popular cause. I’ve never met a student—regardless of how poor, their immigration status, and how many hours a week they spend working in their uncle’s restaurant washing dishes—who didn’t want happiness, intellectual capability, personal growth, multilingual development, and the ability to make social change in a meaningful way through their personal abilities. That’s what we’re about, and if we focus on these things we’ll be in better shape in 2030 than we are right now.
Maggie Doherty is a literary critic and the author of The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s. In addition to teaching as an adjunct professor, she is a staff organizer with the UAW.
Nils Gilman is Vice President for Programs at the Berggruen Institute in Los Angeles and the former Associate Chancellor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Adam Harris is a staff writer at the Atlantic where he has covered education and national politics since 2018. He is the author of The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal—and How to Set Them Right. He was previously a reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education where he covered federal education policy and historically black colleges and universities.
Tressie McMillan Cottom is a research professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s iSchool, a MacArthur Fellow, and a New York Times contributing opinion writer. She is a member of Dissent’s editorial board and the author of several books, including the National Book Award finalist Thick: And Other Essays.
Christopher Newfield is director of research at the Independent Social Research Foundation in London and distinguished professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of a trilogy on higher education that includes The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them and runs the Remaking the University blog.
Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.