Review of Newfield’s The Great Mistake

I just sent in a review of Chris Newfield’s The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them to LATISS. The book’s out already; the review should be coming out in LATISS before long.

Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake is a well-documented and systematic analysis of what we might call American-style neoliberalism, which applies itself more through market pressure and managerial ideology than through direct state regulation (as in many European cases). The book focuses on what he terms the “devolutionary cycle” of privatization of U.S. public universities. While these universities have remained legally public, Newfield defines privatization not in terms of formal legal status or ownership but in terms of practical “control”: who wields influence, sets expectations and creates incentives. One of the great conceptual strengths of the book is its demonstration that privatization as process can be at once partial and paradigmatic, a totalizing system that may nevertheless benefit from leaving occasional gaps that can serve it as alibis. As he observes, ”the privatization of public universities is a complicated pastiche of mixed modes, which is why so many people can plausibly deny that it is happening” (28). Nevertheless, as he discovers firsthand, the decline of public support and financing has become an unquestionable fact (rather than a contestable policy choice) for many senior administrators. “State money isn’t coming back,” Newfield gets told bluntly by an assistant to the University of California’s chair of the board (188).

Newfield’s analysis has two modes, one taxonomic and the other more deconstructive. On the taxonomic front, he proposes a useful series of conceptually distinct (though empirically overlapping) “stages” of privatization: (1) the decline of the “public good” as an institutional ideal; (2) the chase for outside money; (3) the permanent growth of student tuition and fees; (4) the decline in public funding; (5) the calamitous rise of student debt; (6) the (partial) privatization of educational processes themselves (e.g. via MOOCs, online course vendors); (7) the decline in student learning that corresponds to resource scarcity; (8) the sociological decline of the “middle class” (including the professional-managerial workers) via wage stagnation since the 1970s. None of these processes are unfamiliar to critical scholars of higher education, but Newfield brings new clarity to a wealth of detailed economic, institutional, pedagogical and policy data.

In his more deconstructive mode, Newfield also debunks a series of standard ideologies about the privatization process. For instance: The search for outside research grants actually costs more than it brings in, once the non-reimbursed overhead costs of institutional infrastructure are taken into account (85-93). The humanities, in spite of their small grant revenues, end up subsidizing the sciences by bringing in large student fees at low instructional cost (Figure 7, 99). The private banking sector is actually less efficient than the public sector at providing student loans, but it has manipulated the national regulatory framework to capture this lucrative lending market, while undermining the public Direct Loan Program (201). Student tuition increases are not always the result of cuts in public funding, but in fact often precede them; and they also teach legislators that public funding cuts can readily be offset by other revenue sources (133-138, esp. Figure 13). Finally, Newfield argues that privatization is not the cure for university’s wasteful spending (via market or austerity “discipline”). Rather, privatization is a key cause of budgetary expansion, since marketization forces universities to spend broadly on feature parity with their peers and to “engage in a perpetual scramble for cash” (146).

In the optimistic part of his conclusion, Newfield proposes that each of these stages of “decline” should be reversed — by restoring public funding, eliminating student tuition and debt, restoring a commitment to public goods, and so on. The aim would be to create a new “virtuous cycle” of “democratized intelligence” and “mass quality.” Yet Newfield’s conclusion also foresees the skeptical responses that his essentially social-democratic vision is apt to elicit. He is all too aware that no single reform can reverse decades of privatization doxa. Thus the real aim of the book is to constitute an alternative common sense. Newfield’s book summons the reader to adopt the views that higher education is a public good deserving of public funds; that higher education should not be stratified by race or class; that it should not subsidize for-profit enterprises or cater to philanthropic donors; and that equality should become both the ideal and the socioeconomic reality of American society.

I must note that Newfield’s optimistic counter-doxa must now face a deeply hostile political climate. In spite of gestures “away from privatization” during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign (319), the new Trump administration is likely to champion privatization and deregulation, not egalitarian public services. This context switch draws our attention to something that Newfield strategically downplays: the identity of his project’s logical opponents. These would presumably include the affluent (who would be taxed to pay for Newfield’s proposals); the private loan industry; potentially the for-profit and non-elite/non-profit private colleges (which compete with public institutions for working-class students); outside research funders, philanthropists and the educational tech sector; and the political Right, which is committed to shrinking the (non-military) public sector. Faced with this set of entrenched interests, is a renovated, non-racist social democracy even possible in the United States? And what might become of Newfield’s relatively non-partisan egalitarianism — which seeks to enlist university administrators and the general public, not just the academic left — in such partisan times?

But suppose for the sake of argument that this robust social-democratic (“egalitarian capitalist”) society were feasible. Certain further questions about Newfield’s program would still present themselves. Is it possible that Newfield still distantly idealizes higher education, and in particular the faculty? He notes that the UNIKE project in Denmark “helped suspend my churchy centrism toward the university” (xi), but his book still ascribes to the public university a unique potential for mass intellectual emancipation. The general ascription of emancipatory possibility seems fair enough (“universities can democratize intelligence”), but is it fair to go beyond that to claims about necessity (“only universities can democratize intelligence,” cf. 5)? After all, as many precarious intellectuals get forced out of the privatized university, alternative intellectual spaces and institutions are becoming more salient. Does the university, even Newfield’s hypothetical “mass quality” university, deserve a monopoly on intellectual virtue, in light of the forms of domination and hierarchy that, as Bourdieu showed, accompany professorial power as such? In my reading, the utopian component of Newfield’s analysis still leaves many open questions, but in any event, it is a great merit of this study to produce in one gesture a materialist analysis of our compromised present and a utopian wish-image of an egalitarian mass university. I would merely insist that all utopias are themselves social products calling out for further analysis.

One thought on “Review of Newfield’s The Great Mistake

  1. I really admire the precision and concision of this review– many thanks. I particularly like your last combo formulation of my desire to produce ” in one gesture a materialist analysis of our compromised present and a utopian wish-image of an egalitarian mass university.” I also agree completely that the university does not “deserve a monopoly on intellectual virtue” or activity in general. I’m trying to bring wayward faculty and administrators back to their own professed principles of quasi-egalitarian inclusion. I realize these were often weakly held, and mixed with elitism and a fixation on prestige that led to the pouring of energy into selectivity and the minor–but expensive–forms of distinction that sociologists from Veblen to Bourdieu among many others have described as aiming at stratification rather than democracy. My hope is that at least some of us who have consented to our own anti-democratic decline will be galvanized by the book’s demonstration that privatization doesn’t even function financially, much less socially, intellectually, or ethically. You’re certainly right that Trumpian policies will increase the hostilities. The university’s main hope is to lead with strong public claims rather than with the current weak-public strong-private version that has stopped appealing to its base constituency of working-class / middle-class regular folks. The situation now is so fluid that I think there is more hope than before the election that the democratizing university can gain mass support. For example, “free college” went from a fringe idea to a main plank of a presidential platform in a couple of years. All those pressures and desires for “mass quality” remain. Thanks again for these insights–I will continue to think about what you’ve said.

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