Post-Game Analysis: Senior Cole Wilson on Dr. Chris Newfield and the Future of Higher Education

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Larry D. Moore [ CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) ], via Wikimedia Commons

Last month, Dr. Chris Newfield came to UT to deliver a lecture as part of the department’s “History and Future of Higher Education” class, team taught with Rich Reddick in Educational Administration and Kate Catterall in Design. This experimental, multidisciplinary, collaborative course has addressed pressing problems and issues in higher education over the course of this semester. For more information about the course, you can listen to this interview with the three professors on KOOP radio.

Senior Cole Wilson offers this tremendous write-up of the event, which emphasized the troubling relationship between privatization and higher education.


Dr. Christopher Newfield came to the University of Texas as a guest of the American Studies Department and of the course instructors behind the History and Future of Higher Education class. His work in the critical university studies field spiked the interest of Dr. Julia Mickenberg, Dr. Richard Reddick, and Dr. Kate Catterall who jointly invited Dr. Newfield to discuss his upcoming book, The Great Mistake: How Private Sector Models Wreck Universities – and How We Can Reconstruct Them. Dr. Newfield is currently a professor of literature and American Studies at The University of California at Santa Barbra where he has worked closely with the school’s budgetary and planning committees respectively.

Dr. Newfield’s lecture focused on four major issues in higher education: the continued need for more funding in public universities today, the prioritization of STEM fields over the liberal arts, fine arts, and natural sciences, the newfound notion that Bachelors Degrees are a private good, and the privatization of industry-university partnerships. He proceeded to elaborate on these issues, arguing that universities have begun to embrace a market based model where costs rise continuously, causing student debt to rise in cadence. This has pinned a hefty price tag on the contemporary Bachelor’s Degree, turning it into a perceived private good and marginalizing innovation due to cost.

He went on to argue that the partnerships between private corporations and universities that are forged in a relationship where research exits the university through the private sector and produces income from patented ideas do not give back to the research producing university. He stated that this broken relationship has forced price increases across universities as impotence is continuously placed on costly research in the STEM fields with no substantial income to match the financial output.

In a conversation later that evening, I pressed Dr. Newfield on the possibility of philanthropic donations as an income bridge between the two worlds. He argued that reliance on philanthropic donations typically demands yet more income from the school, that simply “money attracts money.”

While Dr. Newfield did not believe philanthropic donations to be a valid cure to what he called “cost disease,” he argued that a revolution in the classroom and a counter to the STEM field would. Tailored or “personalized” instruction would halt marginalized innovation caused by cost increases. He countered STEM’s dominance by suggesting collaboration across disciplines in the class room advocating for the construction of hybrid classes much like the Future and History of Higher Education.

Opposed to a reliance of donations as I suggested, Dr. Newfield argued that the injection of non-commercialized technology into all aspects of a university, especially the liberal arts, social sciences, and natural sciences would bolster innovation and result in greater income equality within the university.

Finally, Dr. Newfield countered the notion that a Bachelors Degree is a private good by charging the owners of those degrees with the duty of explaining and expressing the societal value of their degrees whenever applicable. In short, Dr. Newfield demands a culture change led by those with degrees.

For a complete taping of Dr. Newfield presentation, visit the Texas Learning Sciences’ Vimeo page here. Look out for his next book coming out later this year, or check out some his previous works like Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-year Assault on the Middle Class.

Alumni Research: Siva Vaidhyanathan on Higher Education as a Consumer Good

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“Siva Vaidhyanathan PDF 2011” by Esty Stein for Personal Democracy Forum – http://www.flickr.com/photos/57152978@N08/5804650852/in/set-72157626898963796/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Congratulations to Siva Vaidhyanathan, a UT AMS alum and professor at the University of Virginia, who has written a critical and thought provoking essay for The Baffler about the cultural and political roots of the rising cost of higher education. We’ve excerpted a section below, and you can find the whole post here.

Elite higher education in America has long been a Veblen good—a commodity that obeys few, if any, conventional laws of economic activity. In some cases (chiefly among the children of the serene professional elders perusing the Sunday New York Times), the higher the sticker price of a particular college or university, the more attractive it is. Raise the price and then offer a “discount,” and applications will fly in and better students will enroll. Private colleges and universities figured out this marketing strategy about twenty years ago. That’s a major reason that private college tuition has skyrocketed over the same time span, often at more than double the rate of inflation. Because university administrators know they have an essentially captive client base, they can mark up their sticker prices with impunity.

Economists call things “Veblen goods” when they violate standard models of supply and demand—mainly in cases when an ongoing spike in price works, perversely, to increase demand. Veblen goods are usually luxuries, or at least luxury versions of goods that might be considered necessities in general. Higher education seems to comport with the trend: as the prospects dim for earning a decent wage and forging a comfortable life without a bachelor’s degree, we are told we must increase the number of bachelor’s degrees floating around the economy. And as that number increases, some versions of the degree have become even more valuable in the eyes of tastemakers and nervous wealthy people.

Thorstein Veblen described the cultural and economic effects of the irony of prestige in his best-known, bestselling book, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). But Veblen did not call Veblen goods “me goods” or define the phenomenon himself. In a 1950 paper, economist Harvey Leibenstein coined the term “Veblen effect” to explain why people pay more money for goods of no discernably higher quality. Over time, economists began to refer to such goods as “Veblen goods,” a legacy designation that would doubtless exasperate its namesake.

A Post-Lecture Assessment of Thomas Frank on Higher Education

Last week, we were delighted to host Thomas Frank and John Summers, founding editor and editor-in-chief of The Baffler, for a conversation on the future of higher education. In case you weren’t able to attend the event (or watch our live-tweeting), one of our graduate students, Brendan Gaughen, has penned this thorough and thought-provoking write-up of the event. Feel free to weigh in in the comments, too – where is higher education going in the age of market pressures and student loans?

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A student protests tuition hikes at McGill University in Quebec

Thomas Frank, founding editor of The Baffler, gave a talk called “Academy Fight Song” on October 30 in Avaya Auditorium on issues in higher education. Comparing higher education to an impossible dream burdened by unfulfilled promises, Frank decried the fact that universities have over the past few decades been increasingly run as businesses that value profits over the interests of students. Though his jeremiad was quite effective in articulating some of the problems presently occurring in higher education, his solutions were less clear.

Frank began the talk by describing the perception of the American university system as a dreamlike utopia of infinite possibility. Then all of a sudden, he said, recent college graduates wake up from the dream to discover themselves $100,000 in debt with no prospects to speak of, despite the pervasive myth that their college degree grants automatic entry into the professional managerial class. Frank was careful to differentiate between a college degree and a college education, the former being what is thought of as the single most important credential to obtaining a career.

According to Frank, universities themselves are guilty of perpetuating this myth of self-importance. They are driven by what he called academic capitalism, selling promises to students but acting in their own institutional best interests, calling Harvard, for example, a “hedge fund with a university attached to it.” Frank cautioned against universities functioning like businesses that answer to the needs of the marketplace.

He claimed college students also feed into the problem, calling them cash cows who are duped into believing a college education is necessary. Like lambs to the slaughter, said Frank, they sign a student loan application, a blank check drawn on their own future, not knowing what they are getting themselves into. Once in college, they are trapped by the high cost of textbooks and ever-increasing tuition. Afterward they are saddled with huge amounts of student loan debt.

Higher education has been undergoing what he called deprofessionalization, and the bulk of the teaching is now done by low-ranking faculty with no tenure, benefits, or job security. University budgets go toward things like fancy architecture, sports stadiums, food courts, and celebrity professors with no academic credentials such as General David Petraeus and Chelsea Clinton, who was given a high-ranking position despite not have finished her doctorate. Perhaps most importantly, higher and higher percentages of university budgets are spent on an increasing number of administrators, whom Frank believes are largely unnecessary. Instead of a dreamlike utopia, said Frank, the American higher education system has become a “dystopia brought about by parasites and billionaires.”

The problem will remain unnoticed, said Frank, until there is an eventual breaking point: a bursting bubble that would take the form of a debt-driven failure of a prestigious university. The failure, he said, will inevitably be blamed on socialism, and the solution will be more standardized tests and more number-crunching administrators to monitor budgets and standards. There will be a mass faculty extinction that will miraculously spare administrators, and as a result humanities education will only be available to the very rich.

At the end of the talk, Frank outlined some components that would begin to reverse the process of marketization in higher education. Ideally, college should be very cheap, he said, with greater subsidies from the state. Universities should reduce the number of adjuncts and get rid of most administrators. Student loan debt should be forgiven in bankruptcy. Finally, he suggested college students speak up for their own interests and strike for better higher education. Though he did mention a recent event in Quebec where students were able to negotiate for lower tuition, one wonders if he truly believes college students would be able to successfully organize on a grand scale, given that he previously portrayed them as unsophisticated and charmingly naïve (though perhaps it takes a bit of youthful naivete to proceed when the odds are not in your favor).

In the question and answer session that followed, several audience members brought up good points. What about the positive experiences and transformations of students? What about the fact that universities continue to be at the forefront of scientific and intellectual innovation? Why isn’t the solution to dream more, rather than less? Frank acknowledged the transformative power of college but again lamented the fact that it has largely been captured by market logic. He then described an intellectual epiphany that he had in college when he used to be a Republican, though surely he must have had a more significant transformative experience than that.

But let’s face it – the climate of higher education was much different then. The cost of tuition and textbooks was much lower. University budgets were not burdened by cadres of administrators, and a significantly greater portion of the teaching was done by tenured (or soon-to-be-tenured) faculty rather than adjuncts. The high cost of a college education today has made it increasingly more difficult for even the middle class to attend, let alone those from lower socioeconomic classes. This makes the privileges afforded to certain groups (based on race, gender, and class) even more pronounced. Despite a somewhat condescending view of the ones who should be central to the story – college students – “Academy Fight Song” described quite effectively some of the main problems facing higher education today: belief in the necessity of a college degree, skyrocketing debt, shrinking budgets that have decimated some humanities departments, and a proliferation of administrators. But as I’m sure even Thomas Frank knows, outlining the problems is much easier than articulating realistic solutions.

Announcement: Thomas Frank’s Take on Higher Education in The Baffler

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We recently announced the exciting news that Thomas Frank and John Summers, editors of The Baffler, will be joining the Department of American Studies for a spirited conversation on the future of higher education on October 30. Today, we offer an excerpt of a piece called “Academy Fight Song” that Frank published about the topic for their most recent issue. Expect the event to address and spring off of the arguments that Frank makes here.

The university deals in dreams. Like other utopias—like Walt Disney World, like the ambrosial lands shown in perfume advertisements, like the competitive Valhalla of the Olympics—the university is a place of wish fulfillment and infinite possibility. It is the four-year luxury cruise that will transport us gently across the gulf of class. It is the wrought-iron gateway to the land of lifelong affluence.

It is not the university itself that tells us these things; everyone does. It is the president of the United States. It is our most respected political commentators and economists. It is our business heroes and our sports heroes. It is our favorite teacher and our guidance counselor and maybe even our own Tiger Mom. They’ve been to the university, after all. They know.

[…]

Another fact: This same industry, despite its legal status as a public charity, is today driven by motives indistinguishable from the profit-maximizing entities traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

The coming of “academic capitalism” has been anticipated and praised for years; today it is here. Colleges and universities clamor greedily these days for pharmaceutical patents and ownership chunks of high-tech startups; they boast of being “entrepreneurial”; they have rationalized and outsourced countless aspects of their operations in the search for cash; they fight their workers nearly as ferociously as a nineteenth-century railroad baron; and the richest among them have turned their endowments into in-house hedge funds.

[…]

Grant to an industry control over access to the good things in life; insist that it transform itself into a throat-cutting, market-minded mercenary; get thought leaders to declare it to be the answer to every problem; mute any reservations the nation might have about it—and, lastly, send it your unsuspecting kids, armed with a blank check drawn on their own futures.

Was it not inevitable? Put these four pieces together, and of course attendance costs will ascend at a head-swimming clip, reaching $60,000 a year now at some private schools. Of course young people will be saddled with life-crushing amounts of debt; of course the university will use its knowledge of them—their list of college choices, their campus visits, their hopes for the future—to extract every last possible dollar from the teenage mark and her family. It is lambs trotting blithely to the slaughter. It is the utterly predictable fruits of our simultaneous love affairs with College and the Market. It is the same lesson taught us by so many other disastrous privatizations: in our passion for entrepreneurship and meritocracy, we forgot that maybe the market wasn’t the solution to all things.

The full article is available here.

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Announcement: The Baffler Joins American Studies for Discussion on Higher Ed

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Guys. Deep breath. You are about to learn some awesome, awesome news.

We’re extremely excited to announce to you that John Summers and Thomas Frank – the editors of The Baffler – will be joining the Department of American Studies for a conversation about the future of higher education. The event will take place on Wednesday, October 30, exact time and location TBD. We’ll keep you posted with further details on Facebook, Twitter, and right here at AMS :: ATX.

Here is a brief synopsis of the event’s guiding questions:

College is the best thing in the world; college is a complete ripoff. How are these two statements compatible? How do they differ? How can we assess the campus battles of this era, which are more focused on money than the niceties of Western Civ. and Great Books? And what are we to make of the fact that a college education, which was essentially free for the World War II generation, serves today to fasten the bonds of inescapable indebtedness to an entire generation of students?

John Summers is the editor-in-chief of The Baffler and founder and president of the Baffler Foundation. He’s the author of an essay collection, Every Fury on Earth, and editor of three collections of cultural criticism: The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills, Dwight Macdonald’s Masscult and Midcult, and James Agee’s Cotton Tenants. He received his PhD in intellectual history from the University of Rochester in 2006. From 2000 to 2007 he taught social studies at Harvard University. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Thomas Frank is the founding editor of The Baffler and the Easy Chair columnist at Harper’s. He is the author of five books, including What’s the Matter with Kansas? and Pity the Billionaire, both national bestsellers. He has been a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a guest columnist for the New York Times. In 2004 he was awarded a Lannan Literary Fellowship for Nonfiction. He received his PhD in history from the University of Chicago and now lives in Bethesda, Maryland.

American Studies and Occupy Wall Street

Since September 17, a large group of protesters has been convening in New York City’s Zuccotti Park in the Wall Street district to express their dissatisfaction with America’s financial system, corporate greed, and economic inequality.  Similar protests have sprung up in hundreds of cities worldwide (Austin included, naturally). Because these protests have been so widespread, we’re likely seeing the birth of a lasting social movement, one that will potentially have substantial political consequences. This is an important moment.

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12 Twitterers American Studies Folks Should Follow

I’ve become known as a Twitter evangelist around these parts, which is not an entirely inaccurate assessment. I’ve been a user for about three and a half years now, and continually find new, helpful uses for it, thanks largely to other Twitterers’ innovations in the ways that they use the site.

One area that’s seen a lot of innovation has been in education. If you do a Google search for “twitter and academia” or “twitter and classroom,” you’ll find thousands of sites devoted to exploring how the academic world can engage with Twitter to enhance student learning, bridge gaps across disciplines, and otherwise enable communication and sharing in new ways.

If you’re an internet or social media neophyte, though, the Twitterverse can seem more than a little daunting, even for the most illustrious and tech-savvy academic. With millions of users, jumping in at this point takes some mettle – or at least some guidance.

So, dear reader, we’ve curated a list of users you might consider following, especially if you are lucky enough to study American Studies. Besides us, of course.

Granted, this list is by no means any kind of comprehensive! There are hundreds of accounts that would probably be helpful to you and your scholarship, thanks to the big tent quality of the field, but our hope is that these will help you get your feet wet in the Twitterverse.

Check it out below the fold!

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