'The Lost Soul of Higher Education': IHE interviews Ellen Schrecker

Historians in the News

To begin an article by saying that American higher education is in a state of crisis would be -- at least to most readers of this site -- so familiar as to border on tautology. "Well, sure," the reader can be imagined thinking. "But is she referring to the years of economic turmoil and drastic budget cuts? The adjunctification of the faculty? The neglect of the liberal arts and humanities? The watering down of academic standards?"

In this case, the answer would be, "Yes, for a start." And the author of that answer would be Ellen Schrecker, whose recent book The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University (The New Press) counts all of the above among a host of critical issues confronting academe. The book grew out of an opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which Schrecker, a professor of history at Yeshiva University, wrote that the "assault on the academy" by conservative critics such as David Horowitz poses a greater threat to academic freedom than did McCarthyism in the 1950s....

Q: What are the "major flaws [of the academic community] ... that have in part ... contributed to its present precarious condition," and how have they done so?

A: Let me begin with three (or at least two and a half) cheers for American higher education. For all its flaws – and they are many – it is still a remarkably diverse, exciting, and innovative enterprise that not only stretches the boundaries of our knowledge and broadens the American mind, but also serves as the main source of social mobility within the United States. That said, it is also a system that reflects and to some extent increases the inequalities within our society. Its flaws, it must be noted, do not stem from some uniquely academic shortcomings, but are the product of larger social and political forces. In other words, our universities are mirrors of our society. So, if we are seeing an increasingly inegalitarian, competitive, and stressed-out academic community, welcome to the world of 21st century America.

The issue, of course, is money. Since the financial crunch of the late 1960s and 1970s, American colleges and universities have worried about their bottom lines. Reduced support from state legislatures and the federal government’s decision to aid higher education through grants and loans to students rather than through the direct funding of individual institutions forced those institutions to look for other sources of income, while seeking to cut costs. In the process, academic administrators adapted themselves to the neoliberal ethos of the time. They reoriented their institutions toward the market at the expense of those elements of their educational missions that served no immediate economic function.

As they came to rely ever more heavily on tuition payments, they diverted resources to whatever would attract and retain students -- elaborate recreational facilities, gourmet dining halls, state-of-the-art computer centers, and winning football teams. At the same time, they slashed library budgets, deferred building maintenance, and – most deleteriously – replaced full-time tenure-track faculty members with part-time and temporary instructors who have no academic freedom and may be too stressed out by their inadequate salaries and poor working conditions to provide their students with the education they deserve. Meanwhile, rising tuitions are making a college degree increasingly unaffordable to the millions of potential students who most need that credential to make it into the middle class....
Read entire article at Inside Higher Ed

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