Bold Action for Higher Education

What it will take to move a New Deal for Higher Education forward.
By Irene Mulvey

American higher education has been on increasingly precarious footing for many years. Decades of disinvestment at state and federal levels have led to chronic underfunding of public institutions and cascading problems for our colleges and universities. Financial burdens have been shifted to students and their families, so that 45 million Americans now collectively owe more than $1.7 trillion in student loan debt. The profession has been “adjunctified,” with more and more classes taught by nontenured contingent faculty, many working for poverty wages, without benefits, and having to rely on public assistance. Faculty have long recognized that this state of affairs is unsustainable, and we have been fighting these trends for years with little success. Now the COVID-19 global pandemic has exacerbated the problems we face.

Reactions to the pandemic were predictable. Administrations are firing faculty members, cutting departments, and gutting programs, decisions that hurt students and undermine the quality of education. These cuts are almost always taken without meaningful faculty involvement in the decision-making process and rarely reflect the primacy of academics. They are presented as “necessary,” but they strike at the heart of an institution’s educational mission.

Our system of higher education, once the envy of the world, is in crisis. The pandemic has made the fragility of the system visible to all. Many institutions will fail, and others will be too diminished to sustain a tradition of excellence. Crippling student debt and an impoverished academic profession will have devastating implications for higher education and our society as a whole for decades to come.

Higher education can be an engine of economic development and social mobility. It can be a producer of leaders in the sciences, the arts, and technology, providing us with the resources to address current and future challenges. It is a common good, whose health is essential for our democratic society.

We must act decisively to correct the long-standing problems that higher education faces by providing solid, sustainable public investment. We must take bold action—on student debt, accessibility, affordability, and employment practices—to allow the higher education sector to be the resource we need.

It is time to go big. The AAUP is proud to join Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and our other coalition partners in launching the campaign for a New Deal for Higher Education. We call upon the Biden-Harris administration to seize the opportunity to reimagine higher education and its funding at this critical moment. What is needed to enable higher education to help the nation recover from the pandemic and move toward a more just and equitable democratic society?

We need a common understanding that higher education should be accessible and affordable to anyone willing to do the work to get a degree.

We need full-time faculty members in our institutions to ensure that students receive a high-quality education built, as Michael Meranze suggested in the fall 2020 issue of this magazine, “around the fundamental purpose of inquiry” and “designed around the reality, and not just the claim, of students and faculty joined together in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.”

We need immediate relief for students and their families struggling with massive student debt. Higher education fails to be an equalizer when the degree that promises to result in higher overall earnings forces graduates into a lifetime of crushing debt.

We need to take actions to address and correct racial inequities—in admissions, state funding, hiring, and tenure—if we are to move higher education closer to its ideal role as social equalizer and promoter of social mobility.

We need a profound rethinking of higher educational staffing. College and university administrations must be held accountable for their employment practices; institutions that are publicly funded must be publicly accountable. A system in which higher education is offered on the backs of contingent faculty is grossly unfair and ultimately unsustainable.

The AAUP brings to the New Deal for Higher Education campaign tens of thousands of educators in colleges and universities across the country who believe in higher education as a common good and want to work to make that vision a reality. We bring a century of commitment to advancing academic freedom, shared governance, and the economic security of the profession. We look forward to working with the Biden-Harris administration on policies and legislation that will adequately fund a plan to address the systemic and institutional racism that is pervasive in higher education, to cancel student debt, and to help the nation recover from the pandemic, so that our system of higher education lives up to its promise. With our progressive coalition partners, the AAUP’s leadership is ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

What will our country gain from this initiative? First and foremost, we gain a well-educated citizenry, people able to think critically. We create a more just and equitable democratic society. We create a stream of educated people joining the workforce, undiminished by debt, and powering the economy. We gain a society where higher education is no longer restricted to those who can pay for it, advancing progress toward racial justice and equity. With the academic profession on solid ground, we provide stable employment and decent wages and benefits to faculty members. We produce and support the scholars, the research, and the knowledge needed to fight our current challenges of the pandemic and the climate crisis as well as the challenges of the future.

The AAUP is grateful to Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education for their vision and passion, and to our ally, the AFT. We are proud to stand with these colleagues and all our coalition partners in calling for a bold federal program that will enable our institutions to help guide our national recovery.

What will it take to move a New Deal for Higher Education forward? It will take organized, inclusive, open-minded, creative thinkers and government leaders determined to put higher education on a solid footing for the sake of our students, for the sake of our profession, and for the sake of our society. Let this be the moment when the country takes decisive action. Let this be the moment that future historians will recognize as pivotal in making our society more just, more equitable, and more prosperous. Let us now have the courage and the determination to make a New Deal for Higher Education.

Irene Mulvey is president of the AAUP and professor of mathematics at Fairfield University.