The Value in the Public Good

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed many fissures and failures in U.S. society, some of which have long been obvious, but were more easily ignored in better times. For instance, the pandemic has revealed just how much the U.S. power structure stands opposed to the concept of the public good. There are some services that support the public good, or which are generally perceived as doing so — public libraries, fire departments, police departments, public schools, etc. — but many of these are always scrambling for funding, while others are based on the only model of public good that the U.S. has consistently supported: the military.

Stanford educational sociologist David Labaree has pointed out that there was a time when the U.S. considered higher education a public good. This was during the Cold War, when the U.S. government poured funding into schools to help them develop new weapons to kill Communists with. This was also a time when the CIA funded all sorts of cultural programs, working from the (now quaint) assumption that supporting cultural institutions would help us against our enemies and make us respected around the world. There were intersections here, too, with higher ed — as Eric Bennett has shown in Workshops of Empire, much of the infrastructure of American creative writing programs benefitted from CIA support. It may seem strange that tools of U.S. imperialism were central to the development of higher education as we know it, but it was new only in details and inflections. Much of American higher education is quite literally founded on imperialism. Land-grant universities continue to profit from land they stole from Native Americans.

(But I digress.)

As Labaree’s research demonstrates well, the behavior of politicians, funding agencies, and administrators suggests that the U.S. has not considered higher education to be a public good at least since the early 1990s, and the period when it did consider higher education to be a public good (in a limited, militaristic way) was a brief interruption in a longer history of seeing higher education as a private privilege. This despite the fact that universities have a tremendous effect on their regions and beyond, as Christopher Newfield has documented at length in The Great Mistake. Again and again, governments and administrations treat public universities as if they are of narrow and limited value, while simultaneously benefitting from the many and various social, economic, and cultural values they provide.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has made clear just how deep the neoliberalism goes. Many an administrator has learned the beauty of the phrase Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste, and even people who once sprinkled their dissertations with marxist citations now stand atop ivy-covered towers and swear allegiance to the gods of market logic. It’s as if legislators, trustees, and administrators all read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and thought it was a pretty good instruction manual.

The result is an utter impoverishment of imagination and possibility, one that has left us especially vulnerable in this time of multiple, massive crises. School after school had been cut to the bone before the pandemic, and now bones are being ripped from skeletons. It’s hard to keep up with the announcements of staff and faculty being cut, of programs ended, entire schools shut down. Just across my social media feeds recently: 900 layoffs and 6,400 furloughs at Rutgers, 200-300 (or more) potential layoffs at Marquette, Ohio Wesleyan cuts 18 majorsand so on. There is no reason to believe it will get better. Decades of austerity emptied any reserve of resilience that might have protected us now.

When schools are facing tens of millions of dollars in losses, it’s hard to blame administrators for falling back on the neoliberal ideas, even when we know it’s those very ideas that got us here — our administrators must answer, after all, to various constituencies for whom the gospel of finance is holy writ. It is dispiriting, though, to see so little resistance from leaders. To see so little advocacy for the public good and so little acknowledgement that the financialization of everything has rotted our cores.

Morale disappears in this environment. Despair mingles with frustration which mingles with anger which mingles with desperation which mingles with rage. Fear alternates with sadness. Toxicity floods the campus. Instead of vision, what we get from boards of trustees and administrations is a habitual repetition of empty phrases like market realities, which they hold aloft as shields while they slash and burn whatever is nearby in frenzied desperation to placate the latest metric spewed forth by a roiling sea of bizschool schemes.

We are told that all this trauma is the result of our own failure to bow to the market’s commands. We have not delivered what our customers want. It is our fault for not being better, more attractive, more appealing, more innovative, more entrepreneurial, more up-to-the-minute, more flex. If only we had more zip in our steps, more zing in our Zoom! Then we might be as valuable as a technocrat!

Markets are fickle masters. Woe unto you who smash decades of work, life, knowledge, and infrastructure in a vain quest for the latest and greatest thing — a thing which will slip away with the next quarter’s earnings statement. Universities may be beasts slow to change, but there is value in that when what is hip, new, and desireable lasts only as long as the latest meme.

The actions now taken by university administrations are ones that a cynical person might suspect are taken with glee, because they accelerate the scorched earth strategies begun some time ago: hollowing out of the humanities, hastening the destruction of tenure, marginalizing faculty governance only to areas not considered central to the functioning of the school, promoting the role and power of financial officers within the university hierarchy, etc. The playbook was written long ago. Now it’s set to warp.

While it is infuriating to see all the carnage — it did not have to be like this — the salt in the wound is the failure of leadership to believe in the institution as a public good rather than a customer service. Giving up on the public good is what left us open to evisceration in crisis. Leaders’ belief in the public good was so flimsy, their hostility to it so open, that it isn’t surprising now when nobody in power even pretends to believe in anything other than the whims of the marketplace. Still, the absolute failure of courage is nauseating. Will no leader in university administration risk their six-figure salary to say, “Our institution is not a business, it is a unique service to the public, one the public benefits from in myriad ways. I will not be complicit in the destruction of that public good.”

No, they won’t say that. Because they can’t, for various reaons new and old. The immediate crisis makes ideals feel like luxuries. The massive obstacles we face are nothing if not overwhelming. Budgets have to get balanced, bills have to get paid. But most of all, leaders won’t say this because they don’t have the words. The complete triumph of the neoliberal attitude has rendered the language of public goods foreign to the lips of power.

What, I want to ask the powers that be, are your values?

If your vision begins and ends with a balanced budget … what’s the point? Go work at a widget factory. Do you have values other than money, other than “efficiency”, other than a rapacious idea of “innovation” that looks a lot like reheated techbro social darwinism?

Values matter most in a crisis. Who you are when things are going well doesn’t tell us much; who you are when things get bad is how you should be judged. Values allow us to assess how much we have compromised, how complicit we have become. Without values, it’s too easy to inch your way toward cruelty, selfishness, ego. This is especially true for anyone in a position of power. Power is the greatest seducer, the greatest deluder. Power will continue to make you think you are a good person long after you have become a monster. If you have no values by which to judge your monstrosity, you are lost, and will leave nothing but a swathe of destruction and misery as your legacy.

The public university is, as Christopher Newfield has repeatedly shown, incontrovertibly a public good (albeit one that has been beaten and plundered). But more than the concrete reality, the concept of the public good is necessary to us now, because that concept provides vision and values. The more we do to erode the vision and betray the values, the more we slip into the realm of the monstrous.

I have no answer to the present budget crisis at my university or any other. I am glad I am not an administrator, which, aside from salary, is a no-win job even in good times. The pain and destruction we currently face may be unavoidable, its sources many and its roots deep. But if leaders cannot articulate a vision — whether, as I would prefer, of the public university as a public good or, as they might prefer, of something else — then their actions will be fickle and incoherent, suffused with inadvertent cruelty, causing greater chaos as they play Whack-a-Mole with people’s lives and careers. You will see it in the language. They will resort to cold bureaucratism, prioritizing policies over people, privileging data sets over wisdom, composing form letters from death sentences. The same vague phrases will be used in answer to different questions; spreadsheets will supplant arguments; rationalizations will be thin as snakeskin; responsibility will be deferred to abstractions or obscured in passive constructions.

What can we do? How might we reshape our feelings of powerlessness into a sense of possibility? How might some ideals survive?

I have no answers.

But I do have questions.

What, we must ask the Powers That Be, do you value?

Imagine yourself decades from now, in a ruined world. A young person approaches you and asks, “What did you do when everything fell apart and the public universities were destroyed?”

Will you answer: I fought as hard as I knew how for the ideal of the public good, and I stood in solidarity with people doing the same. We couldn’t save much, but we tried to help each other.

Or will you stand in the ruins and say: I added to the destruction.

Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash

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