The Humanities and the Crisis of the Public University

image for the Humanities and the Crisis of the Public University article

The Humanities and the Crisis of the Public University

Colleen Lye and James Vernon

Over the last eighteen months of cuts, commissions, and protests no one at the University of California needs reminding that declining state support has repositioned the public university in ways that telegraph crisis. This crisis, however, is not particular to the failing state of California, nor is it a product of the global financial crisis that continues to unfold. The restructuring of public universities—how they are funded and organized to maximize market efficiencies and accountability—has been on-going for at least two or three decades across the United States, Latin America, Europe (including Russia and Britain), Central Asia, South Asia and Australasia. A key feature of the restructuring process has been the increasingly attenuated position of the humanities within the public university, dramatically illustrated by events in October, 2010 with the United Kingdom’s elimination of all public funding for the teaching of the humanities and social sciences, and the announced suspension of the Departments of French, Italian, Russian, Classics, and Theater at SUNY Albany.

Faced with declining state investment, public universities have turned to private revenue streams to fund research, especially when that research appears to have a tangible utility. As the greater part of funding for the humanities has remained state-dependent, humanists have found themselves conspicuously identified with the “public sector” of the now hybridized university and forced to defend the public value of their teaching and research. Ironically, this occurs at a time when rising fees are returning the humanities to their historical position as the luxurious pursuit of the privileged few. How then do we articulate a democratic vision of the humanities and the university’s service to the public good? It turns out that the defense of the humanities must also be a defense of the public university.

The following questions are part of an on-going public conversation at UC Berkeley since the summer of 2009 when furloughs were first announced, and they were explored in some depth at a workshop we co-convened in October 2010 with Chris Newfield (UCSB). Speakers included scholars from UC campuses as well as directors of humanities institutes and foundation programs, deans, faculty association leaders, department chairs, and scholar activists.

Point of Departure: Crisis?

Why characterize a historical process that is transnational in form and decades in the making as crisis? The rhetoric of crisis from all sides (from activists to administrators) perpetuates the view that the current recession has created emergency conditions rather than recognizing its chief architect as an ideological project of structural adjustment to shift support from the public to the private sector that has equally characterized the first and third worlds. Sarah Amsler (Sociology, Aston University, U.K.) and Kristin Peterson (Anthropology, UC Irvine) threw these critical questions into relief through analyses of the U.K. on one hand and Michigan and Nigeria on the other, where—for different yet comparable reasons—restructuring earlier took place as a product of necessity.

According to Michael Meranze (History, UCLA) and Robert Meister (Social Sciences and Political Thought, UC Santa Cruz), the current restructuring of higher education in California is far from a product of necessity, but rather is a consequence of an historically contingent and in the end self-defeating speculative financial model. In this model public funds are used as leverage for raising private funds or launching profit-orientated endeavors in the name of protecting the university’s public mission, just as federally guaranteed student loans enable constant tuition increases. In the 1990s students were prepared to borrow more as a hedge on future incomes, but this model of financing higher education now seems obsolete as fees have continued to rise while future incomes have stagnated, and income inequality has grown. In such a context students will inevitably only invest or hedge on degrees from cheaper providers (transferring down to the Cal State system, community college, or going online) or strictly vocational degrees. How then do we advocate for the “value” of the humanities in a system that has made education a speculative financial investment in a futures market?

The Value of Questioning?

In a survey of humanities enrollments across the system, Jenny Sharpe (English, UCLA) found that enrollments have fallen as fees have risen, especially in smaller departments. Sharpe’s findings suggest the extent to which humanists have a practical self-interest in opposing rising tuition, in that the latter pushes students toward instrumental attitudes to their education. In a cognate argument, Wendy Brown (Political Science, UC Berkeley) held that the value of the humanities cannot appear in the metrics of impact; the power of the humanities lies in its cultivation of non-market desires, its resistance to homo economicus. Therefore humanists must be wary of the drive to professionalization that, rather than securing their legitimacy, is accelerating their illegibility within a world saturated by neoliberal values. David Theo Goldberg (Director, UCHRI) insisted that the humanities can still provide models of public reasoning, as well as skills necessary for civic engagement. Alternatively, Nelson Maldonado-Torres (Comparative Literature, Rutgers) suggested that the humanities could only articulate its public value once it had decolonized sufficiently to speak to and represent the lives of the coming brown majority in the state of California —the hopeful result of which would be the public’s future support for the university. From this perspective, decolonizing the humanities is integral to the civil rights struggle to extend the public mission of the university.

Geoffrey Harpham (Director, National Humanities Center) traced the historical centrality of the liberal arts to U.S. higher education and the latter’s cultivation of collective and individual freedom. Whether in the case of Cold War-originated U.S. federal agencies or today’s corporate-minded Arts and Humanities Research Council in the U.K., government investment in and regulation of the university have often worked against its education function rather than on its behalf. Suzanne Guerlac (French, UC Berkeley) placed the question beyond private/public dichotomies and distracting rivalries between the sciences and the humanities. Tracking UC’s financially-driven initiative to develop online courses as part of a global race to market a UC brand, she demonstrated the extent to which the public university is becoming more like a for-profit proprietary than a private medallion university.

The current circumstances are forcing other entities, like the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, into the unhappy position of replacing rather than supplementing the public funding of the humanities. Philip Lewis (Vice President, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) underlined the difficulty of pursuing effective political action on the scale that would be required to reverse current trends. By making targeted grants to only a few public institutions, Lewis acknowledged, Mellon and others run the danger of reproducing systemic inequities.

If restructuring of the university is inevitable, Randy Martin (Art and Public Policy, NYU) argued, that restructuring also affords humanists the opportunity to rethink and reorganize their affiliations, applications, and forms of engagement. After all, the public disinvestment in universities is part of the longer history of the decline of intellectuals as a professional managerial class, and the general deauthorization of expert knowledge could recharge our speculative intellectual potential and its public value.

Colleen Lye is Associate Professor of English at UC Berkeley. James Vernon is Professor of History at UC Berkeley.

This article can be found in the February/March 2011 newsletter.