Neoliberalism and Higher Education

Dear GCI followers,

This past weekend, I had the honor of speaking and participating in a conference at Michigan State University on Neoliberalism and Higher Education.

The Julian Samora Research Institute sponsored the conference that drew scholars from around the country. The keynote speakers were thought provoking and the conversations were rich.

Among those who spoke was Lawrence Busch, University Distinguished Professor of Sociology, Michigan State University The title of his opening keynote was What Good is Higher Education? How Neoliberalism Constrains Teaching, Research, and Outreach. He provided statistics demonstrating that from 1993-2009, administrative employment at Universities has increased by 60%. The growth was ten times faster than the growth of tenured faculty. The closer you come to converting higher education activities into the market, he stated, the bigger the bureaucracy that is created – “to make sure that everyone adheres to the rules.” Rules that are created are frequently market driven but become unfunded mandates and therefore costly operations. Among the many insights that he shared, he pointed out the trend that administrators, rather than protecting faculty and the academic mission, have become regulators of faculty, as they have sought to “run universities by numbers.” “But university quality is hard to quantify…and metrics of human behavior changes behavior.” The shift, he worries, has been from the public to the private good.

Professor Busch extended his analysis to describe how these trends of neoliberalism in the university have negatively affected the quality of education with the growth of standardized testing, a focus on education for the purpose of salary maximization, a dumbing down, and the rise of “institutionalized plagiarism.” Judging the quality of research has also become a numbers game of counting publications and citations, downgrading books and book chapters, the discouragement of innovation, and the devaluing of non-publication activities such as advising students. There is a decline, he suggests in public interest science while the conflicts of interest in funded research has increased.

After pointing to a number of societal issues that demand the attention of researchers and higher education, Professor Busch asks, “What kinds of selves do we want to reproduce? What should universities be? They should certainly be places, he argues, that are not driven by state sponsored market dominance. Rather, if we want freedom and liberty, then this requires our citizenry to be “reflexively aware,” with the “ability to decide” and the “wherewithal to change.” These skills are produced in the context of the university.

Professor Busch concludes his keynote address with an array of suggestions for how to enhance the integrity of higher education in light of these threats. Among this long list were:

  • Provide security for those who inhabit universities
  • Eliminate standardized testing
  • Restrict the use of classroom lectures
  • Increase learning communities
  • Better integrate research and teaching
  • Recognize the importance of slow scholarship
  • Reward research based on substance not numbers
  • Help produce sustainable societies
  • Assess assessments
  • Bring arts and humanities back in
  • Challenge the prevailing wisdom that higher education is getting a better paying job

Higher education, he concludes should focus on producing educated citizens, top quality research and new knowledge. Lawrence Busch has written and co-edited several books on this subject.

Dr. Sheila Slaughter delivered the luncheon keynote, Private Advantage and New Patterns of Stratification Among Public and Private Research. Professor Slaughter has also written on the subject including her co-edited book, Academic Capitalism and the New Economy: Markets, State and Higher Education. Among the research that she presented in her address, she spoke about the “submerged state” and the dynamics of distributing government funding upward.

The day and a half gathering concluded with a closing keynote panel. The main presenter was John V. Lombardi, who has an impressive resume of former positions as President and Chancellors of Universities, including President Emeritus, University of Florida. He titled his remarks, Elitism, Ideology, and Pragmatism: A US Higher Education Perspective. Noting that much of what is happening today in universities is “a function of shifts in funding,” he provided the long view, and addressed the question of “what matters in universities?”

Indeed, what matters in universities today? As different interests vie for the heart of higher education, we at Great Cities Institute continue to believe in Harnessing the Power of Research: Solutions for Today’s Urban Challenges.

Teresa Córdova