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Christopher Newfield's 'Unmaking the Public University'

What happens to America's higher education system when humanists meet industrial (and now post-industrial) knowledge managers and technocrats?

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.

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