U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tough Times in Higher Ed

Earlier this week, the President and Board of Sweet Briar College announced that their institution would be shutting down following this semester. Though SBC’s financial problems were no secret, the announcement apparently came as a shock to students and faculty and to the larger academic world. The Sweet Briar closure caps what has, so far, been a terrible year for higher education. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to dramatically defund his state’s superb public university system and to scrap the “Wisconsin Idea,” the guiding principles that made the University of Wisconsin one of the nation’s leading state institutions of higher learning, has dismayed faculty not only in Wisconsin, but also around the country.[1] Governors in other states, like Louisiana and Arizona, have also recently proposed draconian cuts in higher education. The state of South Carolina is considering temporarily closing South Carolina State University, the state’s only public historically black college or university. Last Friday, in an action critics accuse of being wholly political, the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors voted to eliminate three research centers: a center on poverty at Chapel Hill, one on biodiversity at East Carolina University, and a center devoted to civic engagement and social change at North Carolina Central University.

What’s happening here? And what can be done about it?

Though all the particular events are surprising, the overall pattern is much less so. I almost named this post “Naming the System,” after the famous 1965 speech given by Paul Potter, then President of Students for a Democratic Society. After asking what kind of system produces a horror like the Vietnam War, Potter declared, “We must name that system. We must name it, describe it, analyze it, understand it and change it.”[2]

But, in fact, I don’t think our greatest challenge is naming or identifying the system that is producing our various higher education crises. It usually goes by the name of “neoliberalism” these days, but whatever we call it, I think most of us understand the broad outlines of its operation. States have been defunding public higher education for decades. At these public institutions, tax dollars have been replaced by tuition dollars. The increases in tuition have exacerbated a growing student debt crisis that goes back to the decision, by Congress and President Reagan back in the early 1980s, to largely replace federal student aid with loans. Indeed, the easy availability of federally guaranteed student loans has helped drive the tuition increases. Meanwhile, fixed costs, most notably health insurance, are growing at a phenomenal rate. Administrations are becoming larger, more expensive, and more powerful relative to faculties.

In the private sector, tuition is also skyrocketing. But private institutions largely compete over students through discounting tuition via various forms of financial aid. This was, apparently, the last straw for Sweet Briar, which found itself unable to increase real tuition and still attract students. Despite having an endowment of around $90 million, the College found itself in a kind of tuition death spiral.[3] According to Ry Ryvard, writing today in Inside Higher Ed, Sweet Briar’s sudden closure “may cause other struggling private colleges to do the same by creating a new paradigm for when a college should call it quits.” At least publicly, presidents at seemingly similarly situated institutions are feverishly insisting that they are not in fact in a similar situation to Sweet Briar’s, and that, if they were to be in such a situation, they would act differently. The last thing any of these colleges needs is prospective-student (and parental) fears that they might go out of business before next year’s entering class graduates.

All of these things are taking place as we continue to experience an ongoing crisis in the academic labor system. Fewer than thirty per cent of faculty members are now in tenured or tenure-track positions. Threats to academic freedom – like the Salaita case at the University of Illinois – are on the increase. Last week, Joe DiPietro, the President of the University of Tennessee system announced that it was considering creating a system for “de-tenuring” faculty. In response to widespread opposition to this idea, DiPietro walked back the word “de-tenuring” while keeping the concept very much on the table.

Higher education plays a very peculiar and important role in the neoliberal imaginary. On the one hand, all but the most reactionary members of our political class see education as one of the few legitimate and effective ways to create economic and social opportunity. Despite ongoing public disinvestment in education, many believe that expanding access to affordable higher education is the best – perhaps the only – solution to the problem of growing income inequality in our society. But, as Paul Krugman wrote last month, there’s no reason whatsoever to believe that education can be the solution to the problem of economic inequality. While the myth that it can be has made improving education a popular cause among our political class, their vision of higher education as almost entirely about creating economic opportunity threatens to drastically limit what it is that colleges and universities do. And those outside the academy will likely blame our institutions of higher learning for the inevitable failure of their schemes to make colleges and universities into the engines of kinds of opportunity that the structure of our economy make impossible for most Americans to realize. “Reform” talk in common education has for years been dominated by the idea that one can improve education by rewarding a tiny set of “star” teachers while threatening the employment of all other teachers under the apparent theory that people work best if their career is in constant jeopardy. Many supposed friends of higher education have a similar vision for the academy.

So what is to be done about any of this?

Those tasked with leading our institutions of higher learning seem to be bracing themselves for the next wave of bad news. Matt Reed, who writes the Confessions of a Community College Dean blog at Inside Higher Education, reacted to the Sweet Briar closing by cautioning leaders of similar institutions to prepare for the changing circumstances that led SBC to cease operations:

For those of us who care deeply about preserving the mission of higher education, I hope Sweet Briar’s decision provides momentum to get past some of the stalling tactics that colleges have been using to avoid uncomfortable decisions. Regional shakeouts aren’t pretty; the ones that survive, other than the elites, will be the ones that are willing to change in ways that they haven’t always been willing to consider in the past. The playbook that worked well for a long time is showing signs of exhaustion.

It’s entirely understandable that those tasked with the immediate preservation of our colleges and universities will focus on scrambling to higher ground as the floodwaters rise. There are certainly better and worse responses to any crisis and it should be the job of deans, provosts, presidents, and boards of trustees to find the best responses.

But it should also be clear that, while there are better and worse responses, there are no good ones….and that this crisis will not end on its own. We cannot afford to be satisfied simply with devising the best playbook for the increasingly impossible game that we are being forced to play. We need, instead, to change the game. As teachers, scholars, and citizens, we need to think seriously and practically about altering the system itself.


[1] Though Walker walked back the proposal that would have literally erased the Wisconsin idea from the school’s mission statement, smaller and more substantive changes in the school’s mission are being proposed, such as eliminating funding for UW’s renewable energy program.

[2] I blogged about this speech in a very different context a couple years ago.

[3] More than half of Sweet Briar’s endowment is tied up in designated usage accounts, which limits the institutions financial flexibility. And while its nearly $90 million endowment makes Sweet Briar almost exactly the median institution in American higher education (it ranked 419th out of the 839 institutions in this Chronicle of Higher Education list of colleges and universities by endowment), an alumnae group hoping to raise funds to rescue the college estimates that it would take $250 million to do so.

One Thought on this Post

  1. What did Matt Reed outline as the most nefarious or troubling “stalling tactics”? What are small institutions doing that larger ones aren’t? To me the big funding problem is the one you mentioned, student loans. – TL

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