For a Reparative University

What should our postpandemic future look like?
By Michael Meranze

School square

As we move from the COVID-19 spring through a summer of protests and state violence and into a fall election season shaped by disinformation and division, it is not too soon to take stock of the past six months and look ahead toward the future of higher education. The continuing devastation that has accompanied our failure to meet the challenges of COVID-19 confronts higher education—along with most endeavors other than those of con artists—with several years of structural challenge and financial uncertainty. Immense federal and state resources are needed to sustain not only higher education but the larger economy as well. At the same time, the upsurge of demands for racial justice and a demilitarization of society highlights the extent to which the promise of higher education as a source of social equality has not been fulfilled—either in relation to the wider society or in the experiences of underrepresented students, staff, and faculty on campus. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to suggest that funds sufficient to meet the challenges will be forthcoming. Equally lacking is any evidence that the higher education establishment, the politicians, or the media are prepared to do the needed thinking to reimagine higher education after this watershed. How colleges and universities respond to the challenges of 2020—educational, fiscal, racial, and anti-intellectual—will shape the future of higher education for the foreseeable future. We as faculty members need to lead the way toward imagining a more expansive higher education system, one that can meet the social and civilizational challenges we face: from climate change to racial justice, from growing inequality to the authoritarian threat to the international nature of knowledge and scholarship. Now is not the time for meekness.

Unfortunately, meekness and hesitancy about what is possible seem to be the order of the day; the conventional wisdom of the chattering classes is that higher education must face a diminished future. An April 15 editorial in the Los Angeles Times, “Coronavirus Outbreak Gives Colleges a Chance to Revive a System Already Breaking,” exemplifies this consensus view and illustrates how not to think about the future. Although making a reasonable argument against the expansion of “non-teaching staff such as fundraising experts, marketers and administrators,” the Times editorial board also confuses cost with price and thereby glosses over the fact that the rise in price at public universities has been driven by the withdrawal of public funding and the insistence that higher education is primarily a private good. The editorial board repeats this error by proposing that we follow Europe’s version of free college, which is overcrowded and service-free, while ignoring the fact that almost all of the characteristics that the board praises in European institutions already existed in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, when there was more adequate public funding for higher education. But the ultimate sign of the editorial board’s tunnel vision is the claim that US institutions “pursue . . . smaller class sizes, which haven’t been shown to result in a superior education.” In addition to only grudgingly acknowledging the importance of the faculty research that has made US universities “the envy of the world,” the editorial shows no understanding of history and the purposes of higher education. Indeed, it shows no real sense of why we need colleges and universities in the first place.

This diminished view of the possibilities and purposes of higher education is not limited to the editorial pages of the nation’s newspapers. Across the country higher education management has been cutting faculty positions—most often the positions of non-tenure-track faculty members, already the most precarious—and staff. In doing so, administrations evince a lack of commitment to the educational enterprise. At the University of Akron, to take one particularly egregious example, the board of trustees has decided to lay off nearly 25 percent of the faculty but not significantly reduce funding for athletics. Athletics over academics seems to define the trustees’ vision for the future. It is almost as if they think that, without football, no students will come to the university.

Rather than provide an argument for a meaningful future for higher education, this new form of austerity reproduces the fundamental mistake that is currently driving the misplaced financial model and policy structure of higher education: that colleges and universities exist to transfer information to consumers rather than to pursue knowledge in the context of a community of scholars. This mistake undergirds the increasingly transactional nature of higher education and the notion that universities can become simple platforms for courses that will be “beamed out” to a wider market.

If there is any aspect of higher education’s mission that should be reduced, it is its role in preparing those who simply don’t want to attend college for careers. College should be accessible to everyone, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to want to attend. We must think more creatively about meaningful alternatives to college, so that the decision not to attend does not lead to reduced opportunities for life. This is one area where countries like Germany (with a stronger union movement) do far better than the United States.

But with that acknowledgment of the population’s diversity of aims, how might we differently imagine higher education on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic?

A Postpandemic Vision

As a starting point, we must imagine a more ambitious system of education as opposed to a shrunken one. Of course, one can envision a world where a shrunken system would work—if we are willing to live in a world built around digital platforms, in which a small group of extremely wealthy people mobilize an ever-growing population of underpaid and contingent workers. Under those circumstances—and those seem to be the circumstances that far too many in the ruling class desire—we wouldn’t need higher education outside of the elite universities. But if that does not seem like a good society—and it doesn’t to me—then we must insist on a system of higher education that deepens its public mission and expands its range.

Indeed, the first step toward a higher education system worthy of the present challenges is to move beyond the notion that colleges and universities simply transfer knowledge or provide specific job skills. Instead, the real aim of higher education is to produce knowledge and people able to produce knowledge who thereby contribute to a deepened and expanded democratic intellect. Business and political leaders have sought to reduce education to the transmission of information on an individual basis. Defining education down, they ignore the collective and social processes of research and learning that are intrinsic to higher education. As the pandemic has made clear, however, students and faculty want the residential experience and the shared practices that make these processes possible—not because of what the Los Angeles Times editorial board calls a “romantic and outmoded vision of college as an idyllic place packed with a full complement of sports teams on a leafy campus with climbing walls and long lists of campus-sponsored activities,” but because teaching and learning are collective practices. This wider, ongoing exploration remains at the heart of higher education—and the heroic efforts to achieve that exploration by faculty and students at all levels of our highly unequal higher education system must be acknowledged and strengthened. To move past both the pandemic and the failed era of privatization, with its rising prices, increasing student debt, and expansion of management, we will have to construct a new community of scholars.

This community of scholars—reimagined colleges and universities designed around the reality, and not just the claim, of students and faculty joined together in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding—would bring both knowledge and justice into the heart of college and university operations. It would aim not only to continue producing and preserving knowledge and understanding but also to enable students at all levels to become the producers of knowledge and understanding themselves. This goal can be achieved only if the community of scholars becomes more diverse and inclusive. It is not just a matter of equity; becoming more inclusive will provide new scholarly perspectives and questions. This is not to say that knowledge should be reduced to justice; rather, knowledge and justice must exist in conversation, even tension, if higher education is to gain the trust of an increasingly complex and diverse society.

Higher education, then, must take seriously its claim to serve all of society. This goal can be achieved only by breaking down the division between research and teaching and rebuilding the higher education enterprise around the fundamental purpose of inquiry. Instead of reducing higher education to a simple extension of high school, as business and political leaders often seem to propose, we must mobilize the large number of scholar-teachers who currently are trapped in precarity, providing them with secure jobs and allowing them to expand the intersection of scholarship and teaching at all levels of the higher education system.

All of these changes—the rejection of the transactional model of information transfer for the production of communities of scholars and scholarship, a renewed public mission with public funding, a new emphasis on the dissemination of democratically shared knowledge, and a regained structure of sustainable careers across generations—will be possible only if colleges and universities become more transparent and therefore more capable of making open, democratic decisions. And those directly engaged in teaching and learning must have a central role in that decision-making. Faculty may well find out that the financial problems facing institutions are more complicated than we think. But if colleges and universities once again are to self-govern in a rational way, there must be vibrant debate with meaningful openness to different perspectives.
We also must recognize and explain the particular relationship of colleges and universities to society. Over the last several decades higher education has been reduced to a tool for the promotion of nationaleconomic development and an enabler of the privatized pursuit of wealth—the numerous studies declaring that we need more college graduates to fill this or that job are simply one example of this mindset. But that is too narrow a function. We also need more graduates with the capacity to reflect on the future of society, to imagine a renewed common set of goals, to understand science, to evaluate evidence, and to engage in creative work. The transactional model is dangerous for colleges and universities because it implies that one’s education determines one’s place in the economy—our unequal economy is a far more important determinant—and it is dangerous for society because it closes off the dissemination of knowledge in the interest of fitting education and graduates into a business model.

New Community of Scholars

Creating a new community of scholars will require several changes to the internal organization of colleges and universities and to their relationship to the external world.

First, we will have to insist that different types of knowledge be disseminated more widely in society. This will mean rethinking the nature of access. Colleges and universities have too easily accepted institutional inequalities and allowed the drive for prestige to shape their own policies. The effort to enroll the “best” students, according to certain metrics, has been important to administrators and faculty alike. But if our aim is to ensure the greatest spread of knowledge in order to secure a democratic intellect, then we must set aside this way of thinking. Nor can we accept the tremendous inequalities in funding among colleges and universities. This disparity has had destructive effects on too many faculty and students, and through them, on society at large. The increasingly difficult working conditions of faculty who hold contingent positions is a labor issue, but it is also an educational issue: overworked non-tenure-track faculty have been left attempting heroically to provide education to students from underserved groups—despite the institutional limits under which they operate. Only by expanding the faculty and providing secure employment can the needs of a growing population be met. And only through such an expansion can research and teaching be fully joined throughout higher education. In the absence of that renewed commitment, higher education will continue to reproduce the larger society’s inequality among institutions and within the faculty.

Business as usual cannot continue. The Los Angeles Times editorial with which I began correctly observed that colleges and universities have increasingly diverted resources from core educational activities to marketing, secondary administrators, and other areas of institutional bureaucracy. But these areas have expanded in large part because of the decline in public funding. Universities should be willing to reduce that kind of spending in exchange for renewed public funding. Greater public funding will also enable universities to make admissions decisions on the basis of mission rather than on students’ ability to pay.

Second, internal funding priorities will have to be rethought. The Los Angeles Times editorial complains about the search for star faculty at elite institutions. But that complaint perpetuates the misshapen narrative that mistakes elite institutions for the entirety of higher education. Even more important, it ignores the reality of the decline of tenure and the expansion of precarious faculty, which has damaged the entire sector and wreaked havoc on the lives of far too many. It has always been absurd to say that the “market” for teaching is small when colleges and universities continue to expand the ranks of precarious faculty. What has been small has been the willingness of institutions to invest their funds in new permanent faculty positions. Instead, elite institutions have acted like vulture capitalists: seeking within their means to raid other institutions of their established faculty while ignoring the effects this has on the future of the production and dissemination of knowledge itself.

Third, authority within institutions must be redistributed. If colleges and universities are to fulfill their central function—to discover, explore, and learn—then those who are involved in those practices must drive decision-making. The emergence of a managerial class in higher education has not only shifted control away from those in the classrooms, the labs, and the libraries; it has also meant that decisions are made by people far removed from the essential academic functions of the university. If higher education is to maintain the capacity for intellectual progress, we will need to establish—arguably for the first time—workplace democracy in the university. Faculty can exert their power through a variety of structures—unions, senates, faculty associations, or a combination of these—but the US tradition of granting power to boards and presidents must be challenged in order to preserve the qualities that make the university a distinctive institution.

In the immediate future we need to staunch the damage being done to higher education through short-sighted cost-cutting. We must insist on rebuilding the foundations of a resilient and sustainable higher education system. We must protect the health insurance of all faculty members, resist the temptation to impose hiring freezes, and insist that new faculty appointments be made at the junior level. Under normal circumstances, the pressure to limit appointments to junior faculty may be an administrative cost-cutting strategy. But these are not normal circumstances. We are now facing the possible loss of an additional cohort of future colleagues. The faculty must insist that departments commit money to help start new careers instead of hiring additional prestigious colleagues. The same goes for graduate students. We need to preserve whatever graduate funding exists and explain better to legislators and the public why graduate education is so important. The end result of these short- and long-term projects will be renewed opportunities for sustainable careers for scholars. Without such efforts, the university will simply become another digital platform deepening the inequalities and hierarchies of capitalist society itself.

Toward a Reparative University

A reparative university must be built around the shared pursuit of knowledge, around an acknowledgment of the central importance of the processes of scholarship and imagination in all their varied forms. Current managerial thinking funds scholarship and shapes curricula in response either to immediate student demand or to job projections. But colleges and universities—if they are truly going to be reparative—must also be reservoirs of knowledge. It is the uncertainty of the future that higher education must confront; only by allowing faculty and students to explore and imagine without restraint will colleges and universities truly help prepare us for the future. Such unfettered intellectual inquiry will provide a richer experience for students and enable colleges and universities to make their greatest contribution to society as a whole—by expanding the range of social and human possibility.

It is not enough to point to patents and start-ups in defending research. Colleges and universities need to take responsibility for protecting and expanding knowledge that cannot be translated into commercial terms. This includes the humanities and the social sciences. Current national and global struggles over policing and statues, over the inheritances of colonialism or the values of knowledge itself, point to the central role of the humanities and the social sciences in understandings of the everyday world. Still, the need to acknowledge the public functions of scientific knowledge has never been clearer than it is today. Take our current public health crisis: aside from those health workers struggling to contain the virus, whose knowledge is both absolutely central and constantly being challenged? The epidemiologists in schools of public health. COVID-19, more than any other recent crisis, has revealed the inextricably intertwined nature of different forms of knowledge—from the scientific to the humanistic, from the statistical to the performative. As we learn more and more about the different effects of the virus on different populations—and the deep social and historical roots of those differences—it becomes clear that colleges and universities cannot support functioning, vibrant intellectual ecosystems without embracing the full range of disciplines. The same is true of climate change, which calls out not only for the free dispersal of STEM knowledge but also for a dramatic rethinking of the organization of society.

The challenge of the 2020s will be making the importance of scholarly knowledge clear to an often skeptical if not hostile range of publics. To move toward a relationship with society that emphasizes the joint pursuit of knowledge rather than the transfer of information, higher education will need a new compact with society that is based on its public mission and its public funding. If nothing else, COVID-19 has shown us the devastating inadequacy of a society based on the notion that private goods and interests can meet fundamental collective challenges.

Finally, we must rethink the relationship between scholarship, on the one hand, and teaching, on the other. One of the failures of the struggles to reform and expand higher education in the 1960s and 1970s was the acceptance of the separation of teaching and scholarship. Indeed, the editorial with which I began this article echoes that acceptance in its sneering at “small classes.” This separation set up certain institutions as research centers, despite the ongoing contributions of faculty throughout the country to the development of knowledge. And it also left the mistaken impression that only students at elite institutions deserve the fullest research opportunities. This impression is belied daily through the work of faculty and staff across the country. But it lingers in the policy imagination, demeaning both scholarship and teaching. An explicit rejoining of the two, built around a stable and sufficient faculty, is essential to meeting the challenges of the future.

These are only markers for a larger transformation. And you will notice that this transformation is not based on technology or cost-efficiency. Instead it is based on mission and need. If adopted, the changes I have described may lead to the emergence of a reparative university—one that can help repair the devastating wounds inflicted on society under finance capitalism while also repairing the internal rifts that have reorganized the community of scholars as a corporate entity with little regard for the intellectual ecosystem of the university. It may not be possible to create a reparative university. But if it isn’t then even worse times are ahead.


I would like to thank Julia E. Liss, Christopher Newfield, Henry Reichman, and Joan W. Scott for comments on earlier versions of this article.

Michael Meranze is professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. He coedits Remaking the University with Christopher Newfield and is a member of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.