The ideal of American public higher education may have entered a death spiral, several scholars said here Thursday during a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. That crisis might ultimately harm not only universities, but also democracy itself, they warned.
"We've crossed a threshold," said Clyde W. Barrow, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. "Higher education is no longer viewed as a public good in this country. As tuition at public universities becomes more expensive, middle-class parents say, 'I'll bite the bullet and pay this for four years, but I don't want to pay for it a second time with taxes.' And families who are frozen out of the system see public universities as something for the affluent. They'd rather see the state spend money on health care."
The mid-20th century suddenly appears to have been a golden age for higher education, said Wendy Brown, a professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley.
"That era offered not only literacy but liberal arts to a mass public," Ms. Brown said. "But today that idea is eroding from all sides. Cultural values don't support the liberal arts. Debt-burdened families aren't demanding it. The capitalist state isn't interested in it. Universities aren't funding it."
The danger, Ms. Brown said, is that the public will give up on the idea of educating people for democratic citizenship. Instead, all of public higher education will be essentially vocational in nature, oriented entirely around the market logic of job preparation. Instead of educating whole persons, Ms. Brown warned, universities will be expected to "build human capital," a narrower and more hollow mission.
And faculty members are unlikely to resist those changes at a time when two-thirds of them are on contingent appointments instead of the more secure tenure track, said Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors. They simply do not have enough power within the institution.
During a plenary lecture earlier Thursday, Mr. Nelson, who is also a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said he believes that the era of "incremental state funding for public higher education is basically over." For the foreseeable future, he said, the traditional battles for higher state appropriations are bound to be losing ones.
"Complaining about the amount of external funding the university gets is a kind of amoral starting point," Mr. Nelson said. "The first question should be how your institution spends the money it already has."
His own campus, Mr. Nelson said, has recently seen several multimillion-dollar projects that were favorites of administrators but were not endorsed by the faculty.
"Without these boondoggles, they could pay contingent faculty more," he said. "They could hire more tenure-track faculty. If they weren't chasing these fantasy projects, there is a lot that could have been done to build the university's educational mission."
But Mr. Nelson did not take any of this as a reason to retreat. Instead, he said that faculty activists should open up a more basic debate about the purposes of education. They should fight, he said, for a tuition-free public higher-education system wholly subsidized by the federal government.
"Higher education needs to be reconceived as a public good and a human right," Mr. Nelson said. "The only battle worth fighting now is a battle over fundamentals, not crumbs."