Grotesque Inequity: Christopher Newfield on Higher Education

By Jeffrey J. WilliamsFebruary 1, 2022

Grotesque Inequity: Christopher Newfield on Higher Education
WHAT’S WRONG with higher education? In several books as well as his blog, Remaking the University, Christopher Newfield has comprehensively analyzed the problems confronting contemporary American higher education. He also suggests ways to change it. In The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, Newfield shows how the problems are interconnected, tracing the “devolutionary cycle” through which cuts in public funding were answered by raising tuition, which prompted rising student debt, in turn causing lack of confidence in public education, and so on. That builds from his analysis of how support was drained in Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class and the embrace of managerial policies in Ivy and Industry: Business and the Making of the American University, 1880–1980.

In this interview, Newfield discusses the shift from a public to privatized model of higher education, his version of critical university studies, and his belief in higher education as an emancipatory project.


JEFFREY J. WILLIAMS: You’ve been analyzing the problems with the American university for the past three decades. Could you encapsulate your diagnosis?

CHRISTOPHER NEWFIELD: One overriding problem has been the shifting away from public to private rationales for higher education, which has been a disaster. This has been happening since the 1980s but was accelerated by the financial crisis. There’s been enormous state support for asset prices since the 1980s, starting when Greenspan was head of the Fed, through cheap money — that is, the constant flooding of the financial system whenever market prices start to fall with public dollars.

But that is very much the opposite of the state’s treatment of the public sector. After the financial crisis, there was a bailout for the private business ownership system and for the asset system, but there was no bailout for public services and public infrastructure, which the university is a part of. For public colleges and universities, instead there were cuts. That’s justified as steering resources from an inefficient public to an efficient private sector, but the reality is the opposite.

My work responds to that grotesque inequity. I’ve always been interested in human development as a form of emancipation and in the broad distribution of formal education as a way for people from all sorts of backgrounds to use knowledge for their own purposes. There is just a gross inequity in access to formal knowledge that reproduces systems of power and wealth.

You trace a “devolutionary cycle” in The Great Mistake. How does that work?

It’s a cycle where states cut the public allocation to public universities; public universities then raise tuition; and with raised tuition, students are only able to pay it by increasing their debt. So we have a student debt crisis that’s well known now. Administrators have claimed that poor students are protected by grants or other aid, but that’s wrong; what actually happens is that lower-income students work more hours in order to borrow less. Or they stretch out their degree, starting and stopping to work full-time. But that damages their intellectual attainment because they’re spending so much of their educational time working for the money to pay for their education.

There’s also a relationship between budgeting and social justice and intellectual equality across races and across classes and across backgrounds and national origins. Public universities can no longer pretend to do egalitarian work around knowledge when they undermine their own mission by hiking tuitions and saying that fundraising will solve the inequities. Injustice is created through privatization because low-income students take on debt and excess work. The only people who are unaffected are the upper middle class and the wealthy, who are increasingly trying to avoid going to public universities since they can afford a superior service — a premium service like Stanford, where the classes are regularly a fraction of the size of a UC Santa Barbara or UC Berkeley class. You are getting more for the money, in terms of personal attention and other things that matter to learning.

In Unmaking the Public University, you debunk the conventional idea that the sciences are subsidizing the humanities; rather, we’re funding them. As a case in point, you unpack the line budgets in the California system, showing how an engineering or biology professor might have a grant bringing in a million dollars, but their costs are twice that, whereas those in the humanities might receive a $6,000 summer grant, but we are revenue-producing for the university via teaching. In other words, the humanities are subsidizing the sciences, and that inequality has bad effects on humanities fields and on students in them.

And it’s gotten worse. Unmaking the Public University came out as the financial crisis started, 2008. Then The Great Mistake looks at the aftermath of the financial crisis, when administrators mostly gave up on their (often horrible) state legislatures. Now Biden proposes massively increasing STEM research funding while completely neglecting the arts and humanities.

The first problem is that the amounts of money that go into arts and humanities research are relatively tiny. For example, I got an NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] collaborative research grant in 2017, and it was one of 10 in that program for the whole country. It’s ridiculous to do humanities research where 10 investigators, plus their handful of collaborators, are responsible for a country of 330 million people’s collaborative humanities research in one year.

The second problem is that extramurally sponsored research, which almost entirely happens to be STEM research, loses money for the institution. That’s one of the things I show, based on NSF [National Science Foundation] and other data: the allowed indirect cost recovery is always lower than it should be at public universities and generally lower than in private universities, which are usually able to negotiate higher overhead charges. For example, the University of Michigan is a great research university that funds about 30 percent of its research internally with its own money — which comes from some donors but mostly student tuition, and, to a lesser extent, from the state.

When you have less public money that you can distribute, it changes your judgment of value, since you’re increasingly looking for a way to deliver a direct, obvious return to the private funding source. Also, superwealthy foundations like Gates are looking for direct, measurable impacts from their donations and for confirmation of their values. So you may move into areas that you probably would not teach if you were just looking at intellectual value or coherent curriculum, and away from important fields, like instruction in lesser-known languages, literary or art history, Classics, that can’t show a monetary payoff.

Obviously, it’s a crisis for a profession to not have its research funded. What follows is that universities don’t feel they need to hire on the tenure track in fields that aren’t performing that kind of research. There’s a connection between the bad job market and the bad research funding that we’re going to have to work on in this decade, especially in areas that have been devalued by the political system or devalued by cultural attacks on them.

You were trained, like me, as a literary critic. How did you learn to do this kind of research? You go through university budgets, you go through research money, and you go through various statistics. It’s not quite what you were trained for.

I knew by about 1993 that higher ed was being screwed financially, and I wanted to understand how that worked. I had a bit of a math background from my undergraduate years, but I became slightly better than a dilettante at budgeting because I had a mentor named Joel Michaelson, who was in geography and the chair of the UCSB campus Council for Planning and Budget when I was first a member of it. He saw my fascination with budgetary plumbing that he was diagramming, and he taught me how to do it. I got a lot of background proprietary knowledge about how money really flowed in my institution and was able to transfer it to other places. Also, I picked up stuff from other people who knew more than I did. The math stuff — the accounting, the institutional analysis, the government studies — is central to analyzing the university crisis.

Also, you can see how the poor governance systems that we have — the state politics, university missions, cultural politics with race, class, other identity categories mushed together — interconnect in the budgets. One of the lovely things about cultural studies is the integration of different disciplines to look at these things.

I also am interested in reminding people of the ways in which their lives are conditioned by decisions that seem rational locally but end up being systemically perverse and damage their fields. By the time it becomes visible to most people, it’s too late — like with climate change, “Now that it’s a catastrophe, let’s pay attention!” University budgeting sometimes gets buried under secrecy, but also tenure-track faculty refuse to deal with it, and we need to.

You started in American studies and your first book is on Emerson, but I can see a thread from there to your work on the university. You look at an American ideology that descends from Emerson’s idea of self-reliance, leading to what you call “submissive individualism,” which explains how we live as individuals in corporate structures. Also, in the 1990s, you interviewed and wrote about the business guru Tom Peters and his theory of liberation management. How do those play out?

Emerson designed a type of subjectivity that allowed previously mostly self-employed professional middle-class people to enter into large organizations and preserve their sense of autonomy but still submit to authority. That’s what I term submissive individualism — it’s the normative, white, middle-class individualism that we call “liberal individualism,” which is actually submissive to higher powers. Everybody thinks that Emerson is saying, “Self-reliance,” and instead he’s saying, “Submit. Obey!”

Emerson is only 62 when the Civil War ends, and that’s when corporations start to become the dominant organizational form. He’s living through that transition, and my argument is that he creates the self that’s going to be happy in middle management. That’s also not a very flattering argument about academics. In some ways it describes the trapped position that we’re in, where tenured faculty, those who have total job security in the United States, don’t revolt against the Man. It’s endlessly looking for forms of accommodation and cooperation, and that’s exactly what I mean by submissive individualism — for instance, not doing anything about decisions that impoverish one’s own department, like the downsizing of PhD programs in the humanities. That might be reasonable if you don’t want to hurt your students, but some of it is also self-effacement about the value of one’s own discipline.

In Ivy and Industry, you talk about how midcentury literary criticism developed alongside university management.

The argument of Ivy and Industry was that humanism or the humanities, as it developed in the profession of literary studies, had the potential to be anti-managerial. That would combine equality and democracy with a kind of intellectual autonomy, where you could imagine a radically democratic individualism coming out of the study of literature.

But that did not happen. The book was a study of how, even when you have all these interesting leftist people, the dominant people (in terms of professional structure, not intellectually) are much more like the moderate Emersonian type. The book isn’t “we should read Tom Peters and take liberation management seriously,” but more about why professors both feel superior to Tom Peters and his middle manager audience and fall into the conformity traps that Peters pointed out in the 1980s and ’90s.

The lesson is that we have to engage with managerialism if we want to take the university back. We have to do critique, but we can’t only do critique. We have to have managerial engagement and reconstruction. I don’t think I’ve persuaded many faculty of that. A lot of the passivity about our fate is a result of that.

One criticism of your work comes from the new “Abolish the University” group. They see what you’re doing as a liberal reform of the institution we have, whereas they want an entirely different institution. How would you answer that argument?

We need multiple strategies. Although I’m not a liberal, I have tried to make arguments that might appeal to liberal administrators who posit that they care about equity and don’t want to get rid of the humanities. You know, the chancellor of UC Irvine gives speeches on a fairly regular basis about how the humanities are at the center of the university. I know that the humanities have been pushed out of the center of his university according to the budget there; in terms of resources, they are no longer supporting their flagship critical theory program and previously fabulous School of Humanities. I try to expose contradictions like that.

If it’s a liberal project to use the tax system to fund an institution that has a large majority of students of color, then yes, I am for that project. I am also for the project of racial egalitarianism and the reconstruction of knowledge away from Eurocentric epistemic paradigms. I think there’re multiple strategies we can use at the same time.

Another contradiction is the private funding model, which creates the most glaring inequity for students of color. If you look at the 30-year period from 1960 to 1990, you see that enrollments grew quickly with increasing funding when they were 85 to 95 percent white. But then from 1990 to 2020, when the proportion of students of color grew a lot, the funding wavered and flattened. That, to me, is the crux of the issue: the United States is giving up on paying publicly for knowledge training, for a society that it says is based in knowledge production, as the society is becoming minority majority.

We want formal, procedural equality, but we’re not going to pay the same amount for Latinx students, African American students, Native students to attend really high-quality places in the way we were shelling out like mad in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s through the tax system for our own kids. The bulk of students of color, first-generation students, and non-wealthy students wind up in the public system.

All of these things have been made worse by COVID. The university is disoriented and in a weakened state in relation to all of the social problems that it claims to address.

You’ve been one of the main people forging the field of critical university studies. What is critical university studies, and where is it going?

For me, it’s a combination of scholarship and activism. I really want to put these arguments in the hands of colleagues — and that includes staff and students — to change their institutions. For me, it’s critique and transformation together that make critical university studies [CUS]. It brings together different disciplines and looks at the institution both philosophically and organizationally. It’s also been important to me to have technical sophistication about how the university works as an institution — governance operations, financial operations, etc. CUS puts the material facts and the conceptual pieces together.

Where is it going? I hope that the left version of it can have its various wings cooperate and inspire each other. Internal critique is essential, and I’ve learned from abolitionist critiques of CUS, and I’ve learned from reading widely in oppositional work about the experience of the university. Folks like Sara Ahmed and Sandy Grande have experiences of the university that are different from mine and are doing work that is different from mine. It’s complementary to what I’m doing, but there doesn’t have to be convergence.

I share the radical impatience of abolitionism — “these institutions were built on colonial exploitation and have never overcome that legacy, and won’t. So let’s start a completely different university, that can grow and develop into something else.” At the same time, I am unwilling to let go of gigantic public universities, but they need to be redeemed and changed. Those two processes — new creations and wars of position — are going to learn from each other.

You know, I can speak about this calmly in a professional tone; I don’t really feel that calm about it, though. These institutions have become massive hardship shows for a large number of people, if not a majority of them, especially students of color and low-income students who have become financially burdened in a way that they never were before. There was no golden age, but there also was no student debt at this level in the postwar period. It would have been unimaginable to my parents’ generation, when the University of California was nearly free. There was a kind of democracy, although it was a racial democracy in which white Californians taxed themselves to give their youth free college. But they will not do it for the multiracial societies we have now. That leads toward the response, “Knock it down and start over.”

How can we unbuild the overall research structure that we have now? I mean the very expensive administrative overhead, the health complexes, the NIH and NSF that enable the shifting of academic spending from the academic core to management — that is totally removed from the classroom and laboratory and library, where the educational core operates. The superstructure is sinking the whole thing. I think the next step for CUS is institutional development and defining a rebuilt system. We need to transform the existing institution of knowledge in part by building new ones alongside it and seeing where the interaction goes.


Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted nearly 80 interviews with critics, writers, historians, philosophers, and editors, published in Minnesota ReviewSymplokeIowa Review, and elsewhere. He has written on the form in “Criticism Live” (Biography, 2018) and “The Rise of the Critical Interview” (New Literary History, 2019), and his book, How to be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University, includes profiles drawn on various interviews.

LARB Contributor

Jeffrey J. Williams has published more than 90 long-form interviews with critics, writers, historians, philosophers, and editors, appearing in Minnesota ReviewsymplokēStudies in the Novel, and elsewhere. He has written on the form in “Criticism Live” (Biography, 2018) and “The Rise of the Critical Interview” (New Literary History, 2019), and his book How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, & the University (2014) includes profiles drawing on various interviews.


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