In the last couple of weeks, I have discovered an entirely new category of book: ones which you enjoy reading and contain plenty of fantastic information and insightful observations, but whose central thesis is demonstrably wrong and does not hold up to scrutiny. The first was Masha Gessen’s The Future is History, about Russia’s transition from Gorbachev to now, and the second – more relevant to this blog – is Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them.
Newfield is a professor of English at UC Santa Barbara and over the last 25 years he’s had a front-row seat to the rather dramatic transformation (some would say dismantling) of the UC system. For the last decade he has maintained a very informative blog about UC’s travails entitled Remaking the University (which is very good, though if you prefer something more narratively coherent than a blog to learn about the University of California, check out Simon Marginson’s The Dream is Over). The argument in this book is superficially similar to that made by another UC professor, Robert Samuels, in Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free, which longtime readers may recall I reviewed unfavourably back here. Newfield’s book is much superior. The research and the argumentation around how money gets spent in higher education is more precise.
The book is structured around eight chapters. There’s the university retreating from describing itself as a public good, there are subsidies that universities provide to outside sponsors (despite the title this is mainly about sponsored research), the problem of large, regular tuition hikes and cuts to public funding. The result of these ills are increased student debt, dubious relationships with outside vendors promising a quick buck or instant savings, falling attainment rates due to unequal funding and graduates poorly equipped to taken on new knowledge-sector jobs
Most of the chapters stand up pretty well as stand alone treatment of subjects. The one about MOOCs, for instance, is pretty good, as is the one about state disinvestment. Chapter 2 is excellent on the issue of indirect costs of research and the implicit cost-subsidization of research through tuition and I’ll be using it as a resource on a series of blogs early next year. The one about student aid is a little unreflective and dismissive about the success of the system in keeping net costs stable for low-income students even as tuition has risen, but not irredeemably so. In fact, if this book were re-titled “eight essays about stuff that’s going badly in higher education,” it would be a most excellent book and I would not quibble with a thing.
The problem is, that’s not the book Newfield wrote. Instead, he has a story he wants to tell which links these eight things together so that each of these topics is a result of the one that precedes it. And this is where things get weird.
Take for instance the claim that “unequal funding resulting from cutbacks” harms attainment. There is no doubt whatsoever that the US has a massively unequal higher ed system, one which actively discriminates against the poor. But this is not a product of recent cutbacks. ‘twas always thus. And while it’s clear completion rates for low-income students would be improved if only some of the money that goes to what Newfield calls the “double Ivies” were spent better, there’s no data (to my knowledge anyway) which suggests attainment rates have taken a hit since the recession that cause all the cutbacks.
Or, take the MOOC chapter. It’s a great chapter if you want to learn about MOOCs and their financial model. But it actually undermines Newfield’s thesis. If higher education were really in the grip of hucksters thanks to penny pinching, MOOCs would have been a success. But as everyone knows, that fad crashed and burned pretty quickly. So, what does that say about the thesis?
Or, take the contention that it was tuition hikes in good times which allowed the legislature to cut funds in bad times, because they knew the institutions could make up any lost money on the backs of students. This argument sounds backwards to many (usually it’s argued that cuts cause higher fees not the other way around), though I think Newfield does enough to require us to take the argument seriously in the US context. But this is one of those places where it might have been useful to look abroad for some evidence. Having a strong sense of universities as a public good didn’t exactly save the higher ed sector in places like Greece or Germany. Free tuition didn’t stop a 16% cut in funding to Danish universities. So maybe this isn’t such a great argument.
But the biggest gaping hole in the chain of causality is the bit about universities “selling themselves out cheaply” to outside partners and subsidizing ruinous partnerships. This sounds like a classic case of neo-liberalism until you realise that the terrible, bankrupting subsidies that are causing universities to raise tuition fees incessantly – they’re to the federal government, in order to undertake sponsored research. Now, I happen to think he’s 100% right: universities do use teaching revenue to subsidize research. But that’s hardly a sign of a lack of public purpose, as Newfield would have it. It’s publicly-subsidized research, for Heaven’s sake.
A more interesting examination of this topic would have asked; what makes universities so keen to cut corners on their teaching mission in order to favour research? And of course the answer would have been: because research is deeply ingrained in the formation of academics in a way that teaching is not. It’s what academia, by and large, values. But Newfield seems to have a vested interest in making administrators the villains of this piece, and so landing on an explanation which might make academics themselves partially responsible for the system’s basic imbalances wouldn’t work very well.
So as I say, the overall argument does not hang together well. But that’s not a reason to avoid the book; on the contrary, it’s well-written and packed with interesting information and perspectives. Enjoy it, but with a skeptical eye.