The Shell Game of Higher Education Funding

The Shell Game of Higher Education Funding

Jeffrey Williams: The Shell Game of Higher Education Funding

It?s a widely accepted view that the humanities are a money drain?the welfare queens of higher education. The sciences are the breadwinners, bringing in the real money and supporting their impractical campus-mates. This is a myth, as Christopher Newfield shows in his recent book, Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (published in paperback in April). In fact, if you crunch the numbers, it is the humanities that support practical disciplines and professional schools.

On the left, we don?t usually have much time for business. And if we are academics in the humanities, we don?t usually know much about accounting. Newfield?s achievement is to cross these divides and apply some critical acumen to university budgets. What he finds dispels a number of commonplaces. For one thing, he shows that the race for research dollars is skewed. Only a relatively small number of universities actually bring in significant research funding, leaving most of the rest at a deficit. For another, he shows that most disciplines in the humanities and social sciences make money. They bring in less than practical disciplines, like engineering and some sciences, but they have little overhead costs, so their balance from FTEs (?Full-Time Equivalencies,? the standard measure of teaching hours) is ?robust,? as they say in business. In contrast, the practical disciplines might bring in research grants that appear to be a windfall, but their costs are far higher. In fact, they usually operate at a loss. The market model, or at least its advertising, is a lie. Newfield looks at the numbers from one University of California campus and shows how this comes to pass.

Newfield not only targets the unfairness of the current apportionment of university budgets, but argues that students are shortchanged, receiving less of their tuition dollars than they should. Literature students are providing some of the cash for engineers to make their better mousetraps. Newfield focuses on the United States, but it?s worth considering that Australian universities have differential tuition rates, with students in the arts and humanities paying half as much as those in business and professional schools.

Newfield?s larger story is that the current condition of higher education results from a ?culture war? that began in the 1970s. (He co-edited a book, After Political Correctness: The Humanities and Society in the 1990s, on the culture wars in 1995.) His argument is that those battles were not just over a question of language, or a complaint about affirmative action, but represented an attack on the middle class. The redistribution of the postwar years built the middle class; policies of the last few decades have undone it. In other words, he sees the culture wars as an ideological battle, and one that the Right has largely won by ?unmaking? the public institutions, like the system of state universities, of the postwar years.

Newfield remarks that he was especially motivated to write about this because he grew up in California and was a beneficiary of the rise of the middle class. His parents received nearly free higher education and became members of the burgeoning middle class, and then were able to send him on his way to an even fancier education at Reed and Cornell. The redistributive public universities made possible his, and his family?s, class mobility.

Though he is on the redistributive left, Newfield?s story is not a Marxist one: it isn?t about the working class. He is also more sympathetic to business in some of its aspects than one would expect. He is a revisionist who sees management as potentially a good thing: as an instrument that helped the United States achieve prosperity for a broad swath of people after the war, and as a way to plan and create better (and worse) social arrangements.

This follows from the argument of his prequel to Unmaking the Public University, a book called Ivy and Industry: Business and the Making of the American University, 1880-1980, in which he argues that the American university thrived after the Second World War because of a layer of managers who arranged the money and terms for research. Figures like Vannevar Bush, who was a dean at MIT, director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, and the author of the report Science: The Endless New Frontier (1945), created the conditions for the university to flourish in the postwar years.

One could question Newfield?s making management the hero of the Golden Age of American higher education. Moreover, Newfield?s book puts a lot of stress on English and literary criticism (his, and my, home discipline), and much less on the parallel rise of social sciences. But Christopher Newfield is one of the most important critics of American higher education today, both in his latest book and on his blog, Remaking the University.

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: