Back to School

Perhaps one of the least understood and most important fights in America today is over the future of public higher education. Our public university system, originally funded with state and federal tax dollars, foundation grants, and private gifts, emerged after World War II as a massive driver for the economy. Universities became the research labs for science and industry, the birthplace for innovation and economic expansion, and the brain trust of post-war America. These flagship schools—the universities of California, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Texas, and many others—became regional powerhouses of economic and civic growth. Further, those schools provided millions of students a springboard into adulthood and made them productive workers and good citizens. Public higher education was understood as contributing to the common wealth of states, and thus worth public investment.

By the 1980s, however, there was a decided shift in thinking about these fine institutions. At the urging of conservative forces, legislatures began to see the benefits of these institutions as mostly private ones – benefiting individuals -- and thus their not-inconsequential expense should be borne by students and their families rather than taxpayers. These schools were no longer a public good, and instead were a private benefit. The de-investment of states in their universities may be the single greatest story in contemporary higher education, and it is the cause behind the dramatic rise in tuition, in student debt, and the lagging completion rates. Further, this shift parallels the growing reliance on contingent workers—adjuncts—to teach classes at a fraction of the cost of a tenured professor. Universities, it is argued, need to be more efficient and run like businesses. Students are consumers, after all, and are now buying their education.

A new film documentary, Starving the Beast by filmmaker Steve Mims takes up this issue as he shows the fight played out in statehouses across the country. Many of our higher education books this fall look at this enormously complex issue from a variety of angles. Chris Newfield’s The Great Mistake, How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them is a masterful indictment of the shift away from the common wealth of universities. It charts the downward spiral in these once-great institutions. CUNY scholars Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier frame the issue differently in Austerity Blues, Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education, as they look at the historical evidence, social science research, and contemporary reportage around the defunding of the great state systems in New York, California, and elsewhere. David Harvey, author of A Brief History of Neoliberalism, calls it “a landmark publication in the debate over the future of public higher education in this country.”

In The Branding of the American Mind, How Universities Capture, Manage, and Monetize Intellectual Property and Why It Matters, Jacob H. Rooksby looks at how schools seek to control the work produced by their faculty, staff, and students as patents, copyrights, and trademarks. The team of Martin Finkelstein, Jack Schuster, and Valerie Conley offer us their magisterial study of the shifting nature of the American professorate in The Faculty Factor: Reassessing the American Academy in a Turbulent Era.

Over the coming days, many of our authors will be writing on this blog about their particular perspective on American higher education—on access and affordability, on innovations and technology, on student affairs, faculty lives, teaching, and learning. I encourage you to stop back and read about the richness of this common wealth of ours. It is too important not to protect.


Greg Britton is Johns Hopkins University Press editorial director and the sponsoring editor for our books on Higher Education. You can follow him on Twitter at @gmbritton.