Communication Currents

The Political, Cultural, and Economic Assault on Higher Education

June 1, 2012
Higher Education

The Great Recession was initiated by the development of complex financial schemes that failed when the housing bubble burst. Yet, its impacts have reverberated to several other spheres of public life. In the wake of the financial crisis, several trends converged in particularly perilous fashion for higher education as an institution. State support for public colleges and universities, which had been gradually eroding for decades, dramatically collapsed due to tremendous government budget shortfalls. As state support collapsed and tuition increased, more students took out more and more student loans, a process which many argue placed even greater upward pressure on tuition prices. And all of this occurred at a moment when college graduates—particularly those under 25—became one of the groups hardest hit by pervasive unemployment.

Given this convergence, it’s not surprising that people began to question the value of a 4-year degree as part of debates over the long-term implications of the economic crisis. Certainly, critiques of higher education are nothing new. Yet, the sharply negative criticism witnessed in the last five years seems to have adopted something of a new tone, one questioning not just the current nature, but also the long-term viability, of higher education. In short, a new tenor seems to have taken hold in our public conversations about the role, nature and purpose of higher education as an institution.

Troubled by this tenor, we began contemplating the communicative forces—both rhetorical and organizational—shaping contemporary public discussion of higher education. As a first step of what is designed to be a larger project, we brought together a collection of nine exemplary books, representative of a recent wave of books published about the state of higher education, just before and during the early stages of the economic crisis. In assembling this collection for review, we sought to explore the different ways in which an interdisciplinary body of scholars was attempting to understand contemporary critiques of higher education, as well as to consider what unique voice communication scholars might add to the gathering conversation.

We observed three distinct responses to the contemporary “crisis” in higher education. First, we noted a discourse ofadministrative realism, which accepted the crisis more or less at face value and which sought to craft appropriate institutional responses. Second, we found an economic and institutional critique, casting colleges and universities not simply as acted upon by broader economic shifts and dislocations, but rather as active and willing agents in the restructuring of the contemporary economy. Finally, we observed a response that tracks contemporary critiques of higher education as a newly-inflected but enduring front in the ongoing culture wars.

As a response, administrative realism encourages the public to uncritically accept the current economic environment of global capitalism as an unchangeable reality—one demanding greater leadership and creative strategies from university administrators. Here, James Garland’s Saving Alma Mater stands out (Jonathan Cole’s The Great American University and Robert Zemsky’sMaking Reform Work were the other books reviewed representative of this framing). Drawing on his experience as president of Miami University (Ohio), Garland argues that views of higher education which resist a market framing are nostalgic or naïve, and that for universities to survive, they will inevitably have to give in to the twin pressures of competition and consumer choice as they refashion their purpose to provide entrepreneurial leadership in today’s economy. Garland, and those who share his vision, argue that, like it or not, colleges and universities need to catch up with other institutions that have become more business-like in their outlook and organization.

The economic and institutional critique, on the other hand, argues that higher education has not simply found itself in a position where it needs to “get with” the economic times. Rather, colleges and universities have actively participated in the market forces transforming higher education from a public to a private good. Here, Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works is exemplary (Wannabe U by Gaye Tuchman and Class Degrees by Evan Watkins were the other books reviewed), tracing the ways in which the university—like institutions in virtually every other sector—has embraced a division of labor which relies increasingly on a precarious workforce. In higher education, the contingent workforce has all-too-familiar faces: the adjunct faculty, who now teach a majority of courses, to students who find themselves working more jobs and longer hours, often in low-paying service industries to afford an education escalating in cost, while simultaneously diminishing in quality and payoff. The thrust of the economic and institutional critique is that greater corporatization poses great costs to institutional mission, student learning, and faculty dignity.

The final voice we observed contextualizes the transformation of higher education within the ongoing culture wars, of which the university has long been a central front. Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University offers an excellent illustration of this response (see also Michael Bérubé’s What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts? and Henry Giroux’sThe University in Chains). The culture wars seem to have been focused on a fairly abstract ideological battle waged between conservatives and the “liberal” academy. Yet, Newfield identifies more material underpinnings: political conservatives have concentrated on scaling back higher education’s ability to build and expand an economically and politically powerful middle class. For Newfield and others, the culture wars now appear to have been less about conflicts over issues such as “tenured radicals,” the canon, or speech codes; and more about threats to general knowledge, an educated citizenry, and an economically-independent middle class with the political will and power to challenge elite interests.

Each approach offers a distinct viewpoint on the contemporary “crisis” in higher education, and each carries with it a subtle understanding of the communication forces shaping the contemporary academy. Garland’s calls for accommodation to economic reality, for instance, are steeped in the contemporary rhetoric of neoliberal economics, which presupposes the inevitability of the market and leaves little space for alternatives. Bousquet’s painstaking description of the communicative forces shaping administrator’s views of how universities should be run reads like a case study in organizational socialization. Newfield underscores the university’s status as a laboratory for, and purveyor of, values that sustain the public good amidst economic privatization.

But while communicative forces underlie these different approaches, notably absent is the lack of a communication studies presence in the broader culture conversation about the “crisis” in higher education. Given these implicit communicative dimensions, we argue that communication scholars and practitioners ought to take a more active role in contributing to these discussions. Rhetorical and organizational communication researchers may, for instance, add more depth and nuance to public and scholarly conversations about the purpose and function of higher education as an institution: As the books reviewed here suggest, the presence of colleges and universities offer more to the US (and the world) than a well-trained workforce. Communication scholars may persuade their institutional cultures to consider the full value of higher education; while scholars and practitioners alike may lay the groundwork for a healthier debate on the purpose of a 4-year degree. Likewise, communication instructors are uniquely poised to engage students in meaningful conversations about the ideological factors shaping their understandings of their own education. Students may chart the course for their own education through the communication curriculum, rather than accept that attending college is simply what one does in order to get a job—students may see a spectrum of educational value, in personal, public, and professional contexts.

In conclusion, as a discipline, communication studies has long wrestled with the kinds of tensions that the current academy is facing as a whole. And communication professionals have just the type of insight into the practical arguments that might persuade others to see the inherent value in a liberal arts education. Our review of nine key books demonstrates the need for more public discussion about the nature, purpose, and future of higher education. We look forward to joining these conversations, which are certain to become more contestable (and higher stakes) in a Presidential election year.

About the author (s)

Daniel J. Lair

University of Michigan-Flint


Christina R. Foust

University of Denver

Associate Professor