In a recent essay in Logos, “The Rise and Demise of the Neo-Liberal University,” David Schultz asserts that there have been two models for higher education since the end of World War II. In the first model, which he terms the Dewey university, public institutions were central, and the education of citizens was seen as an essential function of higher education in a democracy. Schultz argues that this model collapsed in the mid- 1970s and gave rise to the second model, the corporate university. The essence of the corporate university is top-down authority, with administrators and corporate-led boards displacing traditional faculty governance structures. Decision making focuses on increased revenue: certain programs are used as cash cows while others are designed to attract private donations. Schultz concludes that the corporate model has now collapsed and predicts, rather pessimistically, that the next business model will negate “the democratic function of higher education that existed since World War II,” deemphasizing the liberal arts in favor of professional education.
While Schultz raises interesting questions, he misses the fact that contradictory forces have always existed in American higher education. These forces represent the tension between the ruling elite and the working class majority who created the great wealth of American society.
From the beginning, higher education in America has been seen by some as defending religious and secular values central to capitalism. Others have seen it as the great equalizer, a vehicle for educating citizens for the “common good.” Later, as science and technology became more important, the idea of higher education as vehicle for providing “practical training” also emerged.
Before the Civil War and the spread of the Industrial Revolution, colleges and universities aimed at reproducing the class structure of American society. Thus, while Harvard was established in 1636 to train the clergy, it emerged as a secular learning center for the ruling elite in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
After the Civil War, public land-grant colleges and private research universities emerged and became centers for scientific research and vocational training. Railroad magnate Leland Stanford founded Stanford University in 1885. Stanford’s founding grant stated that the university would “promote public welfare . . . and reverence for the great principles of government as derived from the inalienable rights of man.” It became evident that Stanford had other ideas, however, concerning the faculty. The duties of the president included “to prescribe and enforce the course of study and the mode and manner of teaching” and “to remove professors . . . at will.” In 1900, at the direction of Stanford’s wife, the economist Edward Ross was fired for “radicalism and racism.” Although Ross was undoubtedly a racist with respect to Chinese immigration, the real reason for his firing was his attacks on railroads. The firing led to several faculty resignations and ultimately to the founding of the AAUP in 1915.
Several decades later, the GI Bill opened college admissions to the masses. The elite universities opposed the measure, but with hundreds of thousands of veterans returning to the United States with little prospect for employment, the GI Bill was enacted.
The biggest expansion of access to college came in the 1960s, with increased funding for public higher education, the growth of urban universities, and the development of community colleges. Greater access to higher education was part of the reform era that began in the 1950s with the civil rights movement and continued with the women’s rights and antiwar movements. The social upheavals of this era witnessed not only greater access to college but also the advent of Medicare and Medicaid, the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The “Dewey university” Schultz identifies was in reality a facet of the mass movements for social change.
The death of the reform era by the late 1970s and the rise of the corporate university in the 1980s have been documented elsewhere. The changes that have taken place since—most importantly, as part-time faculty have replaced tenure-line faculty, undermining both academic freedom and shared governance—must be seen as part of the broader neoliberal attack on organized labor and the achievements of the reform area. The lesson is that changes in higher education do not occur in a vacuum. If there is any hope of reversing the effects of corporatization, it is in aligning ourselves with the labor movement and the broader movement for social justice.