The University We Want

The University We Want

Introducing our Fall 2021 special section, “Back to School.”

Illustration by Tabitha Arnold

It’s over, kind of. After more than a year of Zoom purgatory, millions of Americans—students, faculty, administrators, and all the workers who make a modern university run—are heading back to campus. In this special section of Dissent, we take a close look at the world they’re returning to as higher education stumbles beyond the pandemic.

That starts by acknowledging that much of academia today looks the same as it did in March 2020, except with more people wearing masks. Universities are still trying to squeeze every last bit of tuition revenue out of students, whether it’s cash-strapped publics making up for cuts in state funding, ivy-covered privates looking to add an extra billion to the endowment, or for-profits grifting while they can. Deans and sub-deans keep proliferating, while the ranks of the tenured dwindle, adjunctification marches onward, and graduate students ask what they’re supposed to do next. All the old political battles are waiting to be picked back up, only everyone is angrier than they were eighteen months ago, and journalists need to fill a Trump-sized gap in pageviews. It’s as if they all spent the pandemic at home working on their tinderboxes. Now they’re back together waiting to see who remembered the match.

Contemplating this gloomy scene, it’s easy to forget that higher education is more than the sum of its scandals. For a country with a reputation of anti-intellectualism, the United States invests an enormous amount in its colleges. And for institutions that are supposed to traffic in the higher things, universities offer an attractive return on the investment. Along with hospitals, they anchor an economy built on eds and meds. They’re incubators for the technologies shaping our lives, from the fetal monitors tracking an unborn child’s heartbeat to the computers that will ruin the poor kid’s brain. They brew ideas that take over political debate: hello, critical race theory. More than ever, they’re where Democrats—and socialists—are made. And they’re still the envy of the world, one of the few pillars standing in the crumbling edifice of American global hegemony—like Hollywood for nerds. Although views on the relative merits of all this will vary, the scale of the thing can’t be denied.

So we won’t try to. Instead, this section will take the beast apart piece by piece. A symposium featuring Tressie McMillan Cottom, Maggie Doherty, Christopher Newfield, Adam Harris, and Nils Gilman takes stock of the changes wrought by the pandemic. Jennifer Mittelstadt and Ian Gavigan explore the prospects for industrial-style organizing within the university, considering what it would take to bind students and all university workers together into a coherent movement. Davarian Baldwin surveys the political economy of higher education in a conversation with Sam Klug. Lyra Walsh Fuchs examines a new frontier in college activism: pathbreaking efforts by feminists to bring the principles of restorative justice to cases of sexual harm while ensuring safety for all. Alice Quach and Victor Tan Chan explain how remote learning reflects and amplifies racial and class inequalities. Mike Rose details the obstacles preventing students at community colleges—especially working-class, first-generation students—from turning their education into a tool for social mobility. Michael Kazin and I reflect on the politics of higher education from two sides of the generational divide. And Lucia Geng makes her debut as Dissent’s first college columnist with a report on the strengths and limits of a mutual aid movement that flourished among students during lockdown.

Taken as a whole, the section offers a bracing assessment of the state of higher education: clear-eyed in its analysis of the challenges ahead, but unwilling to give up on the possibility of meaningful reform. It’s a section for anyone who has seen how rarely universities live up to their own stated ideals, and how easy it is to twist high-minded arguments into rationales for exploitation. It’s also a section for anyone who believes in what universities could be: a community devoted to human flourishing, where students are invited to join a vital conversation about what makes life worth living.

Welcome back to school. Now let’s get to work.


Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.


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