Christopher Newfield’s ‘Unmaking the Public University’

[6 May 2011]

By John L. Murphy

Has the American right-wing conspired to take down state universities? Does a “multiracial, worker-inclusive majority” benefiting from higher education that is funded by taxpayers threaten conservative politicians and corporate managers? The author of Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class, a University of California, Santa Barbara, professor of English, argues that the past 25 years of advances by a “college-educated economic majority” threaten the establishment. Christopher Newfield, who came up through California’s once-vibrant university system to achieve tenure at one of its respected campuses, reports from his own research with faculty committees on a “roundabout weapon” which the reactionary culture warriors bent on taking down the “mass middle class” have brandished to disenfranchise a restive, assertive, and diverse majority.

This lengthy study follows Newfield’s Ivy and Industry as a history of what happens when humanists meet industrial (and now post-industrial) knowledge managers and technocrats. As markets and profits demanded increasing attention in the ‘80s, the humanities faltered. Business schools, defense grants, marketing opportunities—spurred by shifts from factories to information—asserted their power over universities. These turned “privatized knowledge factories” as public funding dipped. For Newfield’s argument, this shift represents an oblique strategy by the Right to undermine a class-based, earnest, insurgent cadre determined to replace “traditional business values” with an alliance of students turned managers and leaders, schooled in the civil rights movement and anti-authoritarian attitudes.

Part One, “The Meaning of a Majoritarian Society”, analyzes this challenge. “Inventing PC: The War on Equality” presents the conflict of “political correctness” in the late 20th century “culture wars”. Those angered at diversity are determined to resegregate student bodies along class and racial lines—which recalls the stratifications of earlier decades. We now see “Market Substitutes for General Development” studies, industry-collegiate links, donor reliance, and the weakening of English departments. Funding favored technological fields as public money and political support declined for the radicalized liberal arts and social sciences. Finally, “The New War—and After” brings the transfer of power into the past decade, when what Newfield interprets as “poor data poorly interpreted” exaggerated the post-9/11 dangers of “subversive faculty” and assumed radical bias.

Allow my autobiographical digression. I’m also a Dodger fan from Newfield’s generation and hometown; I’m from a blue-collar family that our state’s postwar UC Master Plan was meant to assist as I pursued my own higher education at a “public Ivy” campus with a world-renowned reputation. I attended a sister campus to Newfield’s UCSB, down the coast at UCLA in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I taught six years (the limit) at UCLA as a teaching assistant, and then in Los Angeles public schools, as I finished my doctorate in English literature. I have taught since then at a non-public (but “minimally selective”) institution serving mainly immigrant and first-generation Southern Californian students from largely non-traditional backgrounds, albeit often older than a typical UC undergraduate. My students represent a pragmatic cohort often less academically prepared but arguably more career-focused than some UC liberal-arts majors.

Chapter 9 of Part III, “English’s Market Retreat”, scrutinizes the literary and cultural study (LCS) field. Newfield and I attended graduate school during the post 1970 collapse of lifelong job opportunities for English PhDs. As jobs increased for non-tenure track applicants like me, jobs decreased for tenure hires like him. English departments responded to this “contingent” or adjunct (and less often, full-time without tenure) trend in a hesitant manner. Humanists denounced the labor shift; then they adapted it.

The Modern Language Association (MLA) failed to offer practical reforms.  A 2001-2001 MLA analysis of the LCS job market defended “oversupply” as the norm. Fatalism, the public’s growing sense that the humanities lacked utility, and demands for required composition rather than LCS courses all weakened humanists, who tended to resist commercialism. They resented downsizing, while budgets shifted expenses through a reliance on teaching assistants and “visiting” rather than full-time (and tenured) faculty—who tended to resent teaching composition or language-learning classes to lower-level students or even undergraduates, as such tedium distracted them from rarified research, I may add.

Critics of austerity succumbed to market forces. Peter Drucker’s “knowledge management” innovations applied tough entrepreneurial theory to those bearing “intellectual capital”. This set of principles clashed with those employed increasingly by humanists to justify their reaction to such political blocs, erected to suppress dissent. However, Foucault and Lacan provide fewer principles to assist English professors charged with meeting expenses. Newfield examines this lack of a strong defense as weak offense, but his dry chapter, which might have benefited from campus accounts from those who were there to balance his reliance on “subtle and conflicted formulations”, fails to dramatize the transition over these 35 years, as enacted by thousands of my fellow students and professors.

Elsewhere, he provides a valuable resource in compiling data, inevitably dry but carefully collected, that document how the humanities and social sciences must beg for money that they generated, which is used by universities for engineers or medicine. Drama and music departments decay while MBA programs may enjoy gleaming facilities. While his account passes over the lot of those assigned or resigned to attend such venues, this book appears aimed at administrators of—rather than everyday users of—such spaces.

Newfield, as expected, questions the lack of what he regards as racial diversity in many departments, which he sees as skewed as those for “underrepresented” populations at many public universities. He shows, if too broadly and rapidly, how integration does not always follow demographic change. Economic restratification may solidify after social change. The frenzy for admissions, funds, and research grants increases. Newfield asserts this as a “professional-middle class self-defense”, but I would question his view that this “self-defense” while “apparently color-blind and supportive of diversity” is targeted intentionally against the “racialized masses”.

There may be think-tanks and corporate entities engaged in shadowy subversion; the Koch brothers come to mind (this study first appeared in hardcover in 2008 before they were exposed as funding Tea Party and climate-change denial “grassroots” movements).  Yet on an everyday level, labeling this as a “decentralized and complex campaign to discredit” those progressives challenging business and political elites appears more sensible than to label this a coordinated assault against “racialized masses”—those who aspire to UC admissions appear to me as diverse as Los Angeles itself.

The Price of Admission

Newfield subtitles his account as a “forty-year assault on the middle class”; this amorphous entity itself is more and more a “multiracial” one, comprising immigrants from hundreds of nations and their increasingly intermarried and blended families. The class stratification of this global, entrepreneurial elite, as it settles in the US and seeks inclusion within (or parallels to) admissions programs designed for historically disadvantaged American groups, complicates Newfield’s colleagues’ delineations. Also, the rapid increase in tutors, intensive and pricy SAT preparation, and counselors-for-hire gaming the entry process (as often as neo-con reactionaries) challenges Newfield’s model.

As an observer of the admissions frenzy (and a now a parent of two teens) I suggest that this escalating competition is driven by a corporate-funded tutorial industry—and a desire to attain an affordable, respected degree. In an increasingly multicultural state, most residents outside the affluent or those courted for rare talents face this “brute selectivity”.  Newfield relegates most of his few mentions of Asian American students, who far outnumber at UC their parity in the state population, to a couple of footnotes; he also does not include Indian or Middle Eastern American students in his study.  More consideration of how such “minority” but often markedly “overrepresented” populations effect his findings might have enriched their relevance, for many students seeking technical and business degrees come from these backgrounds, which throw off his assumptions based on a rear-guard action by managers from a conspiratorial “white” cabal. They certainly prove to be capitalists, but they draw from allies worldwide, often with degrees earned here.

Universities can’t be capitalist. They need to balance their books, but they need to teach from books, and produce more books, that challenge profit as the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Furthermore, the affirmative action programs in which I taught at UCLA in the late ‘80s often enrolled those from upper-middle class suburbs, rather than those from inner-city or rural high schools from where few students entered the UC system, and from which far fewer graduated. A few Asians qualified based on the national origin of their families; most were denied this “bridge program” as based on university-mandated categories relating to “race” more than class. Today, perhaps more than a quarter-century ago, the majority of those applying to UC, I’m guessing, come from weaker-income families. These parents suffer job instability, often regardless of what “ethnicity” or combinations thereof they checked off on an application.

Newfield criticizes the lack of parity as to faculty and diversity. Meritocracy and equality contend. He admits that integration succeeds better at more selective schools. He notes how less elite workplaces integrated as whites “retreat upmarket”, yet he overlooks how those ambitious or motivated students from among non-white populations also follow this migration to more lucrative careers.  At my less prestigious institution, I observe how far more students from “non-traditional” backgrounds seek careers in business, high-tech, management, or in the professions. They rarely enter an unstable, underpaid, overworked occupation reliant on adjunct classes and multiple campuses, amidst “the declining status and working conditions of large sections of college teaching”. 

Regardless of the complexion or gender of those behind the lectern or in the seats, the public university system relies upon quality. Newfield warns of Michigan’s “privatization” and reliance on philanthropy as a harbinger of what happens (as the UC system now proposes) when out-of-state (or international) students paying higher tuition gain a greater share of admissions. When global markets and not state access determine who enters a flagship institution, its reputation as a state-wide system established for local advancement may concomitantly decline.

This message reminds us, as taxpayers, parents, neighbors, colleagues, and coworkers of those enrolled and graduated from the land-grant and state-funded universities, of their importance. If professors questioned the complicity of the US corporate system in angering those who attacked on 9/11, then, after all, these professors were doing their job: to encourage criticism, and to foment debate. Newfield applauds the professoriate for its resistance to revenge, flag-waving, and jingoism. “They refused right judgment and clear action. Or to put another way, they taught.”  Unpopular opinions wilt when unprotected at work, at home, off campus; this makes their shelter on campus all the more urgent.

All the same (here Newfield argues against a former UCLA classmate of mine), I think that he downplays the liberal tendency in the humanities and social sciences to dominate a department by hiring and promotion and course content. What Stanley Fish calls “impaired liberalism” emerges as a challenge to the academic freedom afforded students as well as professors. That is, pressure persists within classrooms for those with less power to accept the positions advocated by those with tenure, who enjoy a protection denied, suppressed, or less likely to be appealed to by the term-paper or dissertation writer, the T.A., the adjunct.

Taxpayers must fund the universities which may and which should question our own ways of making a living, of conducting wars, of denying climate change. Yet I see no contradiction in demanding accountability from institutions founded to serve those from my state, paid for by those of us from our state. Those of us outside the public universities must assure their perpetuation—-for all who seek to learn and to assert facts as distinguished from opinions and cant. This may be a more nuanced position than Newfield and his colleagues may understand. I sympathize as do many humanists with liberal concepts, yet my own eclectic thinking compels me to question arguments arrayed by my peers, students, colleagues, and mentors. That too is part of the higher education I earned in part at UCLA.

Certainly Newfield’s call for remedies restoring the liberal arts and social sciences to their once-respected ranks should be heard. It may be idealistic by definition, but as an interested bystander in the professoriate’s less exalted echelon, I concur that this makes it no less necessary. The problem embeds itself in the institution, funded by a government with whom it often argues.

Universities can’t be capitalist. They need to balance their books, but they need to teach from books, and produce more books, that challenge profit as the price of everything and the value of nothing. Teaching, Newfield concludes, remains “labor-intensive, craft-based creation” which is noncapitalist. “Since capitalism will continue to insist on bottom-line measures of their output, universities will at those times need to be frankly noncapitalist”.  We should be able to afford this ideal of a lively campus, not so much as an ivory tower, but as an open arena for battles even against us, who pay for admission.

Born in Los Angeles but should have been born in my parental Ireland. Find me at:"Blogtrotter".

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