The Academic Devolution

The Academic Devolution

The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities
by Frank Donoghue
Fordham University Press, 2008, 172 pp., $22.00

How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation
by Marc Bousquet
NYU Press, 2008, 304 pp., $23.00

In 1968, Christopher Jencks and David Riesman published a book called The Academic Revolution. It tells the success story of American higher education, from small, sectarian colleges to the major universities of the postwar era. Its revolution is not that of students but the professionalization of faculty and the new stress on research. Jencks and Riesman observe that, for the first time in American history, professors were more preoccupied with research than teaching, with their discipline than their campus, and with graduate education than undergraduate. Stressing “the rise to power of the academic professions,” Jencks and Riesman might well have called their book “The Rise of the Professors.”

The revolution didn’t happen by accident. It was planned during the Second World War, as those in Franklin Roosevelt’s administration worried about the postwar years and invented the G.I. Bill, among other things, to stave off a return to economic depression, as well as to build America through “the endless frontier” of science, as adviser Vannevar Bush called it. It was promoted by the Report of the President’s Commission on Education, or “Truman Commission,” in 1947, which called for massive public investment in higher education to provide opportunity for Americans across class and race lines. It was incited by Sputnik and the subsequent creation, in 1958, of the National Defense Education Act. Like the federal highway system, which was brokered for the sake of national defense, the United States developed a national system of affordable higher education and university-based research.

Published by Doubleday, The Academic Revolution was something of a public event. There was a large audience for updates on the state of American higher education, and it was met with a wave of histories, position statements, and reports, such as a forty-book series from the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education that adduced all manner of demographic and other data about the spread of higher education to a majority of Americans. The burgeoning university was a measure of the postwar boom, like the great American car companies that put rubber on the pavement of the new highways.

Forty years later, the revolution seems distant history, and a reaction has set in. From a time of expansive federal and state funding, accounting for upwards of 60 percent of university budgets and resulting in unprecedented support of research across the disciplines, low tuition for students, and plentiful jobs for faculty, we have experienced a prolonged period of cutbacks, with federal and state support reduced to about 30 percen...