Part of the reason a progressive vision of higher education has failed to gain traction is because it has no single, unified vision. The political left adopts parts of two incompatible views: the notion of higher education as
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Part of the reason a progressive vision of higher education has failed to gain traction is because it has no single, unified vision. The political left adopts parts of two incompatible views: the notion of higher education as the 13th grade, as well as the idea that higher education should be the manifestation of glorious inefficiency. Faculty members and commentators tend to hold these views reflexively and avoid looking at their implications and contradictions. It’s time to do better.
The 13th-grade theory comes mostly from the neoliberal center-left that prioritizes efficient student transactions and is modeled after an economic-style thinking that has taken hold in policy circles. Since the Clinton administration, Democrats have focused on higher education as a tool for economic and work-force policy (a view that was supercharged during the Obama years). This vision focuses on inclusive access, student support, and improved graduation rates, all of which are attractive to those left of center. And yet some of the technocratic organizational reforms that stem from this perspective (like unbundling undergraduate teaching from research and focusing on vocational programs, for instance) are objectionable to progressives.
The glorious-inefficiency viewpoint holds that higher education works best when it’s pursuing many goals at once. Inefficiency and even occasional waste are not liabilities but rather a strength, because they create an environment in which a thousand flowers can bloom. But the glorious-inefficiency view is fundamentally inward-looking — it takes the organization of the sector to be an internal matter for those who work in it and chafes at accountability and oversight measures. It also rejects the notion of prioritizing its goals. And for these reasons, glorious inefficiency isn’t helpful in the culture-wars-era budget fights.
To see the left’s selective and simultaneous adoption of these two ideas, we need look no further than the debate over cuts and reforms at West Virginia University. Given everything that has transpired in recent months, you could be forgiven for forgetting that, in 2023, E. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University, re-emerged as a main character in the discourse. To close a $45-million budget gap, WVU made some of the deepest and most widespread recent cuts to a major public research university. In mid-September, the Board of Governors approved cuts that included the elimination of dozens of programs and over 100 faculty positions. Critics, of whom there were many, saw nothing but disaster.
Embedded in Gee’s gambit to remake WVU is a version of the 13th-grade theory. High tuition costs and poor educational outcomes are caused, this theory holds, by academic self-interest and policies that force taxpayers to underwrite higher education with little accountability. New America’s Kevin Carey argued in his 2015 book, The End of College, that the American university “is a deeply flawed, irrational institution designed to be bad at the most important thing it does: educate people.” One part of the solution for Carey and like-minded reformers is to uncouple what they see as the good part of higher education — undergraduate learning — from the self-satisfied bloat of specialized scholarship and the light teaching loads that faculty prize. As the business-school professor Paul N. Friga wrote in these pages in 2020: “I believe that the time has come to discuss the elephant in the room” — by which he meant academic costs.
Reformers also want to ensure that undergraduate learning works for students through greater accountability for outcomes. Common proposals include using a set of carrots and sticks such as outcomes-based-funding and gainful-employment standards that ensure degree programs offer good value for students and taxpayers. “If half of a program’s graduates can’t make more than they would have without the credential,” Michelle Dimino of the Third Way think tank writes, “it’s definitely worth asking whether taxpayer dollars should be used to prop up that program.” The subtext is that colleges should offer only degrees that reliably lead to well-paid jobs.
The architects of WVU’s restructure seemed to agree. The university’s provost, Maryanne Reed, pointed to the interests of students and employers as driving the reforms. “The key point here,” Reed said in an interview with The New Yorker, “is that we need to focus on what our students and their future employers want and need.” In his state of the university address in October, Gee promised to “create the programs our students want, and our communities need.”
Where everyone, critics and Gee alike, agree is that WVU’s $45-million deficit alone did not require the level of restructuring the university undertook. WVU administrators pruned back degree programs that had few enrollments. They stripped away Ph.D. programs that prepare students for increasingly hard-to-come-by faculty jobs to focus on basic instruction in undergraduate education. Gee dispatched niche degrees and foreign-language majors. This was a project to remake the West Virginia flagship.
Few outside the administrative inner-circle in Morgantown voiced support for the cuts. But by reducing the number of graduate programs and focusing on undergraduate education and labor-market outcomes, post-Gee WVU could end up looking like the sort of university some liberal reformers claim to want.
I’m confident that most of Gee’s critics would agree that colleges have an obligation to do better by their students. Many of them very likely share the center-left view that colleges should de-emphasize the trappings of academic status (qualifying as an R1 university, say, or reaching the even loftier ranks of the Association of American Universities). And instead, institutions should concentrate on providing broader access and better support to undergraduate students who hope to find a better life through education.
These critics, however, were not buying Gee’s approach. The retrenchment at WVU was painfully deep and swift, a sort of administrative shock and awe. Events played out like a script dramatizing the cruel austerity of managerial capitalism. Gee travels by private jet and his team contracted with rpk Group, a higher-education consulting firm, to eliminate academic programs. Rpk boasts a “distinctive emphasis on maximizing Mission, Market, and Margin®.” Shortly after the consultants came in, the university shed scores of programs and fired professors, including some with tenure, all without much input from the faculty.
Critics saw anti-intellectual “market-worshiping” in Gee’s plan and warned that it could spread beyond the mountains of West Virginia. From this point of view, Gee and the consultants misrepresented the cost of the programs they cut and dismissed the value of many fields they deprioritized — as if they alone could see with clarity what knowledge would be needed in the future.
But that’s where most progressive critics stopped. Few advanced an affirmative vision for higher education in West Virginia, or anywhere else. A group of WVU faculty offered an alternative proposal that purported to close the budget gap with modest across-the-board salary reductions and deeper pay cuts to administrative and athletics staff. The proposal is the sort of thing faculty members cling to because it implies that the only thing that stands between them and a more sustainable and equitable higher education is a bloated administration. Cut them, not us, the thinking goes. Beyond the highly paid executives, however, most members of the administration are midlevel staff members like institutional researchers and mental-health counselors. De-bloat the administration is a slogan, not an idea for what higher education should be.
De-bloat the administration is a slogan, not an idea for what higher education should be.
Like the 13th-grade theory, the glorious-inefficiency notion of higher education has appeal on the left. David Labaree describes how redundancy, striving, and experimentation created a strong, adaptable, and enduring sector. In Robert Birnbaum’s classic How Colleges Work, he pithily described the virtues of glorious inefficiency this way: Although the “Shakespeare Dinner Theater program for working adults proved to be an academic, fiscal, and culinary disaster, other programs for new learners continued and prospered.”
Glorious inefficiency and the 13th grade are not readily compatible views. And yet progressives, including me, want a higher education that is both accessible and focused on student success and that is a beautiful wild garden of ideas and pursuits moving in all directions at once, but never with a single destination in mind. Together these two ideas make a hard circle to square.
The problem is not that it’s impossible to hold two ideas at once. It’s the inability, or unwillingness, to acknowledge and deal with the contradictions of pursuing two goals that would seem to imply very different models. Institutional diversity is the traditional solution to this puzzle. The designed inequality in the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education set community colleges and regional universities to teach the 13th grade and protect the University of California’s glorious inefficiency. But that project is now defunct, and system segmentation often becomes de-facto segregation.
More public money is another commonly invoked solution. I won’t argue with the need for the states to reinvest in higher education. Still, the total amount of money involved is not the problem. The American system, although highly privatized, spends more on higher education than just about any other country in the world. The answer to some problems is more public money, but the answer to every problem cannot be more money.
Powerful critiques of contemporary higher education (such as Christopher Newfield’s in his book The Great Mistake) are too often backward looking. No doubt, there is much to be learned from the past. But the state legislatures of today are not like those of yesteryear, and the political reality is that undermining higher education is popular with certain voters. The present conditions are real, and pointing to a bygone era, which was more segregated and exclusionary, does not advance a new vision for the future. What we often get is a version of the glorious-inefficiency model restated with an anti-neoliberal edge.
The cuts at West Virginia were not simply a reflection of Gee’s vision for the future. Several factors contributed to WVU’s budget shortfall and the perception that major change was needed. West Virginia funds public higher education well below the national average, and it’s hard to imagine that changing much. Gee, who has a track record of imperious administration, promised enrollment growth that never materialized. And the flagship university has the misfortune of being located in a rural, mainly white, conservative state. Its shrinking population is increasingly distrustful of higher education. These are all realities that must be reckoned with.
First, give up on solutionism. Consistent engagement and working within existing processes are much more likely to realize lasting change than quick-fix interventions. Gambles that new technologies will revolutionize higher education usually fail (a good example of this is project 2021 at the University of Texas at Austin). Think-tank and foundation-funded solutionism is unlikely to deliver on goals, and, as the case of WVU demonstrates, could impose devastating costs. One recent review of social interventions shows that the limited, measurable approaches that are favored by wonks and reformers rarely overcome the weight of broader social forces. Conservatives who have been effective in remaking higher education, like Robin Vos, speaker of the Wisconsin state assembly, have done so by persistently bending existing structures, little by little, rather than through nifty interventions.
Second, keep knowledge at the center of the progressive visions for higher ed. Academe’s most important societal contributions come from fostering individuals’ relationship with knowledge and holding up the role of knowledge in society. Whether a graduating art-history major gets a job, whether the ROI ticks up or down — these things cannot be ignored but are secondary. Responding to anti-intellectual assaults with claims about the economic value of the humanities is, as Barrett Taylor says, ineffective — a mere partial defense of higher education.
Third, adopt an informed, realist stance. This means we should think about the cultural conflicts in higher education just as Tressie McMillan Cottom does, as power struggle. But it also means learning how the budget works and what it means when we ask for a raise or a different teaching load. Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra, a sociologist studying university budgets, points out that faculty cultures often cultivate management ignorance. Too often academics ignore the knowledge staff members have about how the university works, and we often refuse to consider that knowledge when we pontificate about the state of our own departments and beyond.
Fourth, be honest. Admit that finding a way to reconcile the attractive aspects of higher education as the 13th grade and as the model of glorious inefficiency is going to be hard and will require compromise, consensus building, and collective action. Think through the implications of your preferences in practical terms. Think through the logic behind your adversaries’ preferences as well. Don’t commit the fallacy of generalizing from your own experience. Understand how others are situated in and around higher education and what they know that you can bring into your thinking.
Adopting these four principles won’t result in instant consensus. But they might allow us to craft one or more feasible alternative models for higher education that neither reduce higher education to vocational training nor indulge in sentimentality about the glory days.