Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class. Christopher Newfield. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008.
When state representatives confront budget shortfalls during upcoming legislative sessions, they are likely to ask public universities to economize and seek new sources of revenue. Christopher Newfield, an English professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, argues that this now-perennial rite reveals more than an unfortunate combination of rising costs and competing state priorities. In Unmaking the Public University, Newfield asserts that conservative elites have intentionally undermined the credibility of state universities. According to Newfield, conservatives attacked public universities because they empowered a new, multiracial, left-leaning political majority during the 1960s and 1970s. Conservatives worried that state universities produced threatening numbers of “potentially independent, intellectually active” middle-class citizens who supported civil rights and questioned freemarket economics.
Described as an “intellectual and institutional history,” Unmaking the Public University draws upon a wide array of sources. Its first section, “The Meaning of a Majoritarian Society,” combines historical, social scientific, and literary analysis to detail the state university’s contribution to a powerful liberal coalition during the decades following the Second World War. The next section, titled “Inventing PC: The War on Equality,” claims that conservatives attacked ethnic studies, affirmative action, and the intellectual climate of state universities in order to discredit these institutions altogether. The book’s third section, “Market Substitutes for General Development,” depicts recent budgetary constraints and privatization efforts as the economic manifestation of this cultural attack. Stating that the conservative cultural and economic agenda “were the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the counterrevolution,” ewfield argues that commercialization and the assault on cultural inclusiveness are two prongs of a single campaign to reduce the distinctive role of the university as a bulwark against market values. In the process, he provides succinct analyses of topics such as professional fundraising, patent development, and responsibility-center management (an administrative strategy that obligates academic units to contain costs). A brief final section, examining accusations against “Un-American Universities” in the aftermath of September 11, features a persuasive dismantling of the propaganda published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
Needless to say, Unmaking the Public University seeks to rally the left, not persuade the right. Newfield will frustrate conservative readers with passages that equate “cultural knowledge” or “cultural intelligence” with liberal political values. For example, he reasons that greater cultural knowledge among Americans would have reduced opposition to affirmative action. Newfield also blames conservatives for most challenges facing state universities. Unmaking the Public University does not merely argue that freemarket ideology has encouraged inappropriate or counterproductive university policies; it accuses conservatives of intentionally weakening public higher education in order to undermine the middle class.
This charge will surprise middleclass conservatives. Newfield, who tends to present the American rightwing as an elitist monolith determined to thwart majority rule, would be well served by further engagement with recent scholarship that situates the conservative ascendancy in the growth of segregated middle-class suburbs. In juxtaposing a conservative elite and a multiracial middle class, he overlooks the ideological diversity of college-educated America. While conservative politicians such as Ronald Reagan profited by insulting the integrity of state universities, it is difficult to prove that conservatives were actually afraid that these institutions would promote egalitarian social movements. Were middle-class college graduates more likely to support affirmative action or economic regulation? Did conservatives believe this to be the case? Newfield provides limited evidence to this effect, in the form of quotations from conservative figures such as Irving Kristol.
Newfield also blames the financial struggles of public universities on these conservative culture warriors. Although he demonstrates that funding for higher education has lagged behind support for other state institutions, Newfield does not systematically refute the conventional argument that legislatures have responded to the rising expense of other budget items. A political conspiracy is not required to explain why legislatures often conclude that spending on universities (which have the potential to raise their own funds) is more discretionary than support for K–12 schooling or health care. Newfield correctly places the budgetary squeeze in the context of the conservative tax revolt, yet he fails to demonstrate that tax cuts were designed to weaken public higher education in particular. This framework also does not explain why state universities have faced similar budget crunches in blue as well as in red states. In addition, Newfield does not acknowledge that liberal elites rarely protest vigorously against some of the evils he outlines, such as stratification within state higher education systems.
The more compelling moments of Unmaking the Public University address the plight of the arts and the humanities. Newfield eloquently links the declining prominence of the humanities with the embrace of business practices by public universities and their decreasing commitment to the principle of social equality. He argues that the arts and the humanities can encourage imagination of social progress, new forms of personal fulfillment, and deeper understanding of the processes of cultural change. By discussing humanistic questions about technology and contributions to ideals of human rights, Newfield presents a case for ranking the study of human and cultural development alongside the study of science and business. Humanities professors will be pleased to read that their disciplines contributed to the civil rights movement as well as to current protests against unequal global growth and unfettered free-market ideology.
Delving into the details of grants, patents, and teaching loads, Newfield also rebuts the common assumption that income from scientific research subsidizes the humanities. His examination of English departments’ responses to the pressures of privatization and a grim job market will resonate with scholars in other disciplines as well. Newfield criticizes the fatalistic attitude of colleagues who have hesitated to promote the public contributions of literary and cultural studies. He pointedly concludes that the most prominent scholars in his discipline were “more comfortable with losing to market forces than with everyday efforts to manage them.”
Unmaking the Public University is an ambitious and provocative undertaking. Newfield’s allegation that conservative elites have intentionally undermined public higher education probably underestimates the bipartisan nature of American skepticism toward intellectuals and higher learning. Nevertheless, his fresh synthesis of cultural and economic pressures makes a welcome contribution to scholarship on public higher education. Newfield’s passionate book will provide a valuable service by prompting further examination of the politics of state universities.
Scott Gelber is assistant professor of education at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. He is working on a book about American state universities during the populist revolt of the 1890s. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.