If U.S. higher education is in crisis, as a spate of recent books and articles would have it, then it’s a strange crisis. Outside the anti-intellectual Right, and even inside it when its writers forget themselves, we hear that advanced degrees are more important than ever. We need higher education as an escape from the increasingly unsafe safety net and the declining prospects faced by less-educated Americans. And we need it as a nationalist project to fend off economic competitors. By most accepted measures, elite universities and colleges—other than the public flagships, that is—are providing better services and a higher quality education than ever before.
But there is something deeply wrong, even in these “thriving” schools. Perhaps no word better captures it than “corporatization”—and perhaps no phenomena better represent it than the insane debt loads students are now taking on and the worsening treatment of graduate students, junior faculty, and non-faculty staff at the hands of a ballooning administrative stratum. The same trends are visible in many public schools, which also suffer from plummeting state funding, due to interrelated ideological and budgetary reasons that predate but were exacerbated by the post-crash recession. With the decline in public provision has come the rise of corporate for-profits. Recent Senate investigations reveal these schools to be even more sinister than leftists had imagined.
If crisis is just another word for opportunity, then the question is, opportunity for whom? The forces driving many of these changes have capitalized on powerful, business-friendly, and austerity-happy trends in American politics to solidify their plans for post-secondary education. The articles in this special section, along with others that will appear on Dissent’s website, examine these plans and their consequences. But they also look to other constituencies—that is, the majority of Americans—who have not benefited from the changes to the university over the last few decades, and who might use this opportunity to fight for their interests and their values.
The utopians of the New Left have been roundly criticized for retreating into academia, diverting radical political energy away from popular struggles and toward a critique of oppressive and exclusionary syllabi. However true this story rang in the 1980s and 1990s, it doesn’t make sense now. Structural changes in the U.S. economy have made more and more people dependent on colleges and universities for their livelihoods, in direct or indirect ways, and these livelihoods are more and more precarious. The work done at universities, the arguments that go on there, the organizing efforts that succeed or fail—all these have repercussions not just for the ivory tower, but for the larger public.