Public and Private Goods

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 There are, admittedly, massive differences within the category of “universities” that my argument in this chapter doesn’t fully contend with. I am, to begin with, exclusively focused on not-for-profit higher education; one might see McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed for a powerful analysis of the basis and functioning of the for-profit sector as well as its profound differences in mission and orientation from the traditional institutions to which I attend here. Moreover, I am primarily focused on public institutions, which bear a particular responsibility and a particular history, having been founded for the express purpose of providing higher education to the citizens of their states. Not only should upholding that mission form a core part of these institutions’ identities, but it is these institutions that have lost the most, and that still stand the most to lose, from the deterioration of the relationship between the university and the general public. That said, the distinctions between publics and privates are diminishing thanks to radical shifts in the funding and admissions models under which those institutions operate, a circumstance that is largely the subject of Newfield’s The Great Mistake. And the need to build better relationships between the university and the broader public is an issue not just for public colleges and universities (though of course it is a primary one for them) but also for those private institutions that understand themselves to exist to whatever extent in the public service, insofar as those institutions rely on federal financial aid, on public research funding, and on the goodwill of their communities and the publics beyond. If today’s universities are to build successful relationships with those publics—if they are genuinely to be understood as providing a public good—we must not only argue for but also model what understanding our work as a public good means.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 This should probably begin with a bit of discussion of what the public good is in the first place. As I noted in chapter 2, the very notion of the public good is one of the concepts on which the political left and right have been speaking past one another in recent years: while most liberal and progressive voters would today understand the public good as just what its name suggests—a good that is held in common and shared by all, whose maintenance benefits everyone and therefore to which everyone must contribute as they can—many conservative and libertarian voters find the very declaration of the public good, much less the costs of its upkeep, to be an imposition on their individual liberty. In economic terms, a public good is non-excludable and non-rivalrous, meaning that no one can be prevented from using it and that no one’s use diminishes reduces its availability for use by others. The most common examples of such public goods include clean air and water, from which everyone benefits. Others include public services such as roads and firefighters. Most importantly for our purposes here, knowledge is in this sense a public good: my possession of knowledge should not preclude your ability to possess it as well, nor should I be able to prevent anyone from similarly possessing it. And as a service producing knowledge, education should similarly be a public good: non-excludable and non-rivalrous, supported by all for the benefit of all.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 In actual practice, we already know that not to be true. Knowledge, where it has been captured in tangible form, has been turned into a private good, which those who can afford may use and those who own may profit from. Similarly education: over the last four decades, our culture has moved away from the understanding that educating children and young adults provides a benefit to society as a whole, and thus that providing everyone with access to a high-quality education is a social responsibility and that no one should be excluded from that benefit. Instead, over that period, the pervasive assumption that parents are responsible for providing the best possible education for their own children has taken root, with the result that education has come to be seen as a private good, one best financed privately. Asking me to pay for your children’s education is thought to be an undue imposition on my personal well-being. And as a result of this privatization, education has come to be seen as rivalrous: if your child gets into the “good” school, there’s one less seat available for my child. And even worse, it’s coming to be understood as excludable as well, as arguments circulate that maybe education—especially higher education—isn’t for everyone, and so maybe it’s not a problem if some people don’t have access.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Privatization of the public good that was higher education in the United States has been described by Chris Newfield as academia’s “great mistake.” The impact of privatization on campus is evident in the degree to which core education and research functions have been outsourced to commercial enterprises. Results of this kind of outsourcing include not just McMillan Cottom’s fully corporatized institutions of “lower ed” but also, in traditional institutions, key university information and processes being locked into systems that primarily serve corporate interests. This mode of privatization has resulted in the rise of what I think of as the Solutions Industry. This industry has sprung up in the gap created by universities’ inability to work together to solve shared needs and the impossibility of their solving those needs individually. The Solutions Industry ostensibly provides key services that support but are not themselves central to the university’s core educational mission, but it functions by rendering institutions dependent on systems that lie outside their control, and that never really work the way that would best serve institutional needs. These systems might include the course management system, the library discovery service, or even journal publishing, for that matter. Privatizing these core functions has happened over the course of decades, and for seemingly sensible reasons, but it has left the university trapped in expensive contracts that drain more than they provide institutional resources.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Beyond those particular instances of outsourcing, however, Newfield argues that “privatization has become the public university’s political unconscious, in which non-economic educational means and ends lost their autonomy and become half-submerged in economic goals” (37). Privatization is in this sense not just how the cost of higher education got shifted from the government to students and parents; it is rather part and parcel of the conversion of the university’s entire educational purpose to serving market-based needs: privileging research that results in patents or technology transfer; privileging educational programs that provide clearly definable career pathways. This mode of privatization is directly, demonstrably responsible for the assumption that liberal arts degrees in general, and humanities degrees most especially, are “useless.”

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 So this chapter is filled with a number of extremely difficult questions. How might we begin to rebuild the strong ties between the university and a flourishing understanding of the public good? How can we reorient institutions of higher education toward their public missions and away from the mandates of the private sector? How might we communicate the socially oriented, non-market value that higher education produces? And how—necessary for all of this to succeed—can we foster the understanding that our institutions will gain more from collaboration than from competition?

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 2 This is a lot to take on—especially for a poorly-defined “we” who no doubt feels quite powerless before the massive bureaucracies that structure the contemporary university. Changing individual mindsets is difficult enough; changing organizational cultures and public commitments is something else altogether. It’s not just a matter of a few strategic decisions and slogans here and there; it requires massive transformation. As Newfield convincingly argues, we cannot simply make the leap from today’s heavily privatized higher education back to a fully supported public university system that provides all members of our society with the opportunity to become creative thinkers because the paradigms under which we operate today—paradigms that understand value in narrowly economistic ways and that understand the locus of that value to be the private sector—make it impossible. We cannot tear down the political unconscious that structures our institutions and their relation to the broader culture with the arguments and analytics that the current structure makes available. All those analytics lead us back to the cycle we’re currently trapped in: competition, austerity, increasing privatization, and a growing divide between the university and the public it is meant to serve. Breaking that cycle and establishing a new mode of both thinking and structuring the role of the university in contemporary culture requires nothing short of a paradigm shift.

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