Higher education can reverse its democratic recession
One need not be a linguist to acknowledge the fluidity of language. In 1977 Lewis B Mayhew, one of academe’s preeminent scholars of higher education, penned Legacy of the Seventies. In his preface he cited an even earlier scholar, Laurence Veysey, who had written a still useful history of American higher education between 1870-1910. The classical curriculum of the 19th century, taught through recitation, gave way to electives, lectures, and the rising import of scientific research. Mayhew pointed out how much had changed throughout the 20th century.
The college teacher in Mayhew’s tome was an expert who held authority as a socialising agent for students, and arbiter of knowledge for society. Classes occurred at set times in physical locations.
‘Experiments’ were largely campus-based, which began in the 1960s and started to regress to the norm in the 1970s. Evergreen State College in Washington, a public institution, and Hampshire College in Massachusetts, a private institution, were prime examples. Some experiments were nascent – interdisciplinarity, student-based, independent study.
A chapter on educational technology focused on how technology would reduce costs and expand access. Faculty and administrators still had failed to figure out how to work together through shared governance, lamented Mayhew, and boards were largely irrelevant. Any discussion of faculty assumed that they were tenure-track. Financial decline was a worry, but not a preoccupation.
‘Efficiency’ and ‘effectiveness’ became 1970s buzzwords. Subsequently, Mayhew became an advocate for what he called ‘Strong Administrative Leadership’.
Strategic planning came into the nomenclature, and he wondered if faculty performance could be enhanced in some way. All of his work arrived in cloth-bound books. His grammar, today, seems from a distant past.
Nowhere in his work do we find analyses of the impact of the market on higher education, the rise of digital learning or for-profit higher education, a concern about increasing access to, and diversity in, higher education, the importance of post-secondary institutions in protecting democracy, or the concern for identity politics and the resultant cancel culture. Ninety percent of the authors in his bibliography were white men.
No author has a crystal ball; today’s grammar will be out of fashion tomorrow. Of consequence, we ought to approach an analysis of today’s current situation not only with a healthy understanding of the past, but also with a humility that none of us will be able to predict the future.
Nevertheless, what might be a grammar of higher education in the subsequent decades of the 21st century? None of the vocabulary would have been employed a half century ago.
The rise of neoliberalism and the power of the market
Governments once thought of education as a public good that benefitted society. Throughout the 20th century countries moved toward greater participation in higher education because the assumption was that a well-educated citizenry benefitted not only the individual but also society. The assertion about the import of higher education often revolved around the need for a well-educated workforce, and organisations that had the ability to conduct research that increased the well-being of society.
Underneath these assertions, however, and never well articulated, was the belief that a society needs individuals with the skills to participate in the polity. Generally, these assumptions derived from assumptions about democratic societies, but they also pertained to countries aimed at increasing the welfare of their citizens regardless of ideology.
The implications for higher education were that faculty had a pronounced say in the governance of the institution and tenure provided job security. The assumptions were that society wanted faculty to critique flaws that they saw in the larger society, and that professors should be comfortable critiquing the internal affairs of their institutions. Shared governance became the sine qua non of decision-making.
Eventually, however, what has come to be known as neoliberalism took hold, and markets became the foundation for how to organise society, and hence, academic organisations. A market-based framework suggested that organisations needed to be ‘nimble’ in meeting the needs of the customer (aka the student).
Shared governance was not nimble. Members of boards of trustees had a better feel for the market than professors with lifetime appointments. Step by step we have seen the erosion of tenure, the elimination of shared governance, and the rise of new organisational forms intended for the market.
Rather than experiments aimed at different learning styles such as occurred in the 1960s, for-profit institutions were heralded as new kinds of organisations that could scale up and down as the market demanded. Rather than based on ideas or access for the citizenry, for-profit institutions focused on profit for the owners and shareholders.
Where we are today is that public and private non-profit organisations are largely hollowed out organisations with a small cadre of tenured faculty and an overwhelmingly large number of contingent faculty. Shared governance has gone by the wayside.
The market assumes that the consumer buys a product rather than the government providing that good as a right and necessity. Governments have stepped back from the assumption that they have an obligation to adequately fund tertiary education, and instead, students have taken on debt.
The decline of democracy and the power of the state
There has long been a robust argument about what role universities might play in society. The idea of the ivory tower where academics distance themselves from society came about in large part so that intellectuals might be able to develop arguments based on evidence rather than ideology.
In some countries, such as many in Latin America, students have long participated in the public sphere. In other countries, such as India, universities were initially physically and intellectually removed from society in order that one might contemplate life.
Nalanda University, arguably the world’s oldest university, is a good example. Over time, however, universities such as Delhi University developed to become not only the world’s largest institution, but also one of its most actively engaged with society.
In the United States, post-secondary institutions have stood apart from society at times, and at other moments, such as during World War II, have been actively engaged in helping to defend the country by training soldiers and conducting research.
Today, however, countries throughout the world are going through a significant shift in how they see faculty and students. Whether we look to Hong Kong, India, the United States or Brazil, the assumption is that faculty and students either need to keep their mouths shut, or support the policies of the state.
Criticism, whether disengaged from a particular ideological persuasion, or supporting ideas that counter the hegemony of the state, will garner a response from the state. Boards are now more empowered than they have ever been in the modern era, and a key goal is to reign in free speech.
The result is that we have seen a democratic recession and an infringement on academic freedom.
The import of identity and the power of merit
Higher education has long been a bastion of privilege. Societies and governments, beginning with stutter steps a half century ago, began to realise that excluding individuals based on one’s identity was morally, economically and intellectually wrong. Modern nations needed a well-educated workforce to compete.
Those countries that excluded women, for example, from participating in higher education were not only intellectually at fault, but also economically at risk. To be sure, Dalits in India, African Americans in the United States, and indigenous peoples in Guatemala remain severely under-represented.
At least today, however, in all but the most retrograde countries, such as Afghanistan, there is an attempt to use higher education as a force for good, not only for some, but for all.
The challenge of identity has enabled women to assume executive positions, racial and ethnic minorities to be represented amongst faculties and students, and LGBTQ individuals to proclaim who they are without fear of persecution.
Certainly, enormous work remains to be done in all countries for individuals in groups who have previously been denied equal access, voice and dignity in academe. The strides that have been made, however, also came about frequently at the urging, or at least the acquiescence, of society.
Affirmative action, for example, in the United States occurred not because of campus action but because of governmental policies. The representation of Dalits on campuses in India was done at the urging of the government. Different universities based on ethnic or cultural identity rose in Malaysia because of demands from those groups, not organically within academe.
Many, certainly not all, politicians gradually came to see that academe could no longer be isolated bastions of prestige and exclusivity. At a minimum there was a symbiotic relationship where, for example, women became better represented on campuses and in government. One enforced the other.
Today, however, we are seeing the opposite movement.
In the United States, the first act of the governor of Arkansas was to ban the use of words such as ‘Latinx’ in public schools, colleges and universities. The governor of Florida, for example, has tried to make post-secondary institutions an ideological weapon in his arsenal.
To acknowledge that students of colour are under-represented in higher education is a statement of fact that should enable robust policies to combat inequity. However, such data is now seen as ideological. One should not care, the thinking goes, about the identity of an individual. Tests can decide who merits advancement.
Accommodations for individuals who are not heterosexual are seen as unnecessary special privileges. Norms exist, and any discussion about how those norms privilege some and marginalise others is seen as irrelevant and harmful.
The transformation of the idea of the campus
One point here is that ideas are not isolated from one another. The desire for a market economy did not occur because of the rise of the internet, or vice versa. Multiple forces arise at any given moment that are hard to predict and are not necessarily coordinated.
In the 1970s individuals still used typewriters for correspondence and landlines for telephones. Sustainable technology – from a manual typewriter to an electric – does not disrupt norms and processes. Disruptive technology – from a landline to a cell phone – does.
Disruptive technology also has the ability to transform organisational life. A half century ago, whether in Chile or the United Kingdom, if one spoke about tertiary education they meant a place-based learning and research environment. Today, obviously, the idea of a campus has changed.
COVID hastened that change. Faculty, reportedly slow to accept pedagogical innovation, turned in a matter of days from teaching in a classroom to using Zoom.
Economic inequities for individuals who did not have Wi-Fi in their homes remained a significant problem, but large cadres of workers and their employers also realised that work – including teaching and learning – can get done without bringing people to campus.
Campuses remain a unique puzzle in the post-COVID era. Those post-secondary institutions that are large and have open spaces remain islands that students, faculty and the larger community like to congregate. Although faculty, staff and students benefit from remote work as do their counterparts in traditional businesses and organisations, there is frequently little incentive for workers in an office to come to work for quality of life.
Campuses can be enjoyable cultural islands that offer creative energy. Many students also found that they actually liked face-to-face encounters and did not want an entirely online experience.
Although the norms of what a campus was prior to COVID is not likely to be replicated in the future, I also suspect it is facetious to suggest that all of teaching, learning and research will be digital and that the physical campus is an artifact of the past.
The global nature of academic work
Although some, but not most, academic staff have spent time in other countries, the nature of academic work is now more interconnected than ever before.
When one thought of international education the assumption quite frequently was that the topic pertained to study abroad. A student went from their home country to another country. Perhaps a cohort of students went from their college or university to another institution to study a language, experience the culture, and hopefully gain a different perspective on their topic of study.
In many ways branch campuses were a logical extension of study abroad. Students could get a degree from an institution and study in two different locations.
Some institutions that created branch campuses also assumed that the offshore campus would be a financial boon regardless of whether the branch was in Phoenix, Dubai or Singapore. Others thought that ‘extending the brand’ of the institution was a net positive in terms of marketing. Regardless, these sorts of efforts were minimal if we look across the broad spectrum of tertiary institutions throughout the world.
What has changed for all of us, however, is that technology has enabled academics to communicate with one another in unprecedented ways. COVID may have brought to a halt international travel, but the internet enables immediate communication with colleagues throughout the world.
The war in Ukraine is not a distant battle waged by an anonymous aggressor against an unknown nation; for many academics, we are able to communicate with colleagues at Ukrainian universities in real time. They are not alone. Students are able to dialogue with each other about the challenges they face and how their problems are similar and different.
Globalisation as an economic tool is derivative of neoliberalism and accounts for attempts such as branch campuses. Globalisation as an intellectual framework enables faculty, staff and students to think of themselves as members of a larger intellectual community than simply with others on a singular geographic-based campus.
Higher education is at an inflection point.
The grammar one employs can be outmoded and not useful. We also make a mistake when we reduce higher education to a consumable product in a market economy. We ought not wish for a romanticised version of the past as if campus life was an Eden insofar as many of us never were able to get to that Eden or be treated equitably if we did.
The future of higher education, however, is also not a fait accompli that will derive from market imperatives. The future is one where collective discourse about the goals we want to achieve can help chart the path on where we want to go.
William G Tierney is university professor emeritus and founding director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California, United States. His most recent books are Higher Education for Democracy: The Role of the university in civil society, and Creating a Culture of Mindful Innovation in Higher Education (with Michael Lanford), SUNY Press.