(State legislatures, prominent politicians, special interest groups, and university administrators and boards of trustees have placed the character of higher education on the public agenda for the first time in years. Unfounded criticisms of the teaching and study of racism in US history, shifting to online education, further encroachments by university administrators on what is taught and how, all necessitate a serious reexamination of the transformation of the university in incremental and non-transparent ways. For example, even the teaching of STEM courses is being examined with a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation at one prominent university.
The materials below were written a few years ago but reflect some of the issues that are currently being raised, and decided, without sufficient public discussion and without input from most educators. (Some organizations, such as the American Association of University Professors, have committed themselves to stimulating a broad-based public discussion of higher education in the 21st century. See for example the emerging discussion of a New Deal for Higher Education which addresses the process and content of higher education and the support for students pursuing higher education. The campaign includes the idea that higher education is a public good. https://newdealforhighered.org/)
REMODELING LIBERAL ARTS IN THE PUBLIC UNIVERSITY
In the recent book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, Nancy MacLean traces the intellectual development of the libertarian right and its connection with the Koch Brothers and state programs to promote an ideologically-driven policy agenda. She argues that many of the libertarian right’s policy proposals would be opposed if public discourse and majoritarian democracy prevailed. Consequently, she suggests, efforts are made to limit transparency, public discussion, and legislative and electoral participation in major public policies.
Public universities are among the institutions in which the lack of transparency is becoming the norm. The tradition of shared governance is being trampled on. Educational decisions are being made by politicians, and administrators and boards of trustees without any advice and consent from educators and taxpayers. Under the guise of a “business model” driven by metrics and profit-making, many years of educational practices are being overturned by administrators with little educational experience. Great state universities such as those in Wisconsin, Michigan, Texas, North Carolina, and Indiana are being reconstructed. Programs of teaching and research are being uprooted. Sometimes ongoing programs are abolished. And new liberal arts curricula measure success by creating narrowly trained job seekers. Further, research is increasingly channeled to meet the needs of corporations or the military.
The Vision of the 21st Century University
The President of Purdue University, Mitch Daniels, on October 12, 2018 received the Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education presented by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). Daniels reported with enthusiasm that Purdue University is the third “most STEM-centric school in the country,” with over 60 percent of its undergraduate students matriculating in engineering, chemistry, physics, and agricultural and biological sciences. And he implied that there is a struggle going on in great universities everywhere about what should constitute liberal arts (Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. “Re-liberalizing the Liberal Arts,” Washington, October 12, 2018, goacta.org.) From Daniels’ point of view, administrators cannot wait for liberal arts programs in the twenty-first century to transform themselves. This is so because liberal arts education today consists of “conformity of thought, intolerance of dissent and sometimes an authoritarian tendency to quash it, a rejection of the finest of the Western and Enlightenment traditions in favor of unscholarly revisionism and pseudo-disciplines.”
Daniels then railed against the “one-sided view of the world” being presented in liberal arts classrooms in opposition to critical thinking. He appropriately celebrated the “clash of competing ideas,” but characterized liberal arts curricula and research as dogmatic and authoritarian. (Many liberal arts educators would argue that old ideas are always revisited bringing new, diverse, perspectives to bear on traditional disciplinary formulations in the social sciences and humanities). In other words, while most scholars and students appreciate the openness and creativity of education and scholarship that has resulted from the last fifty years of ferment, debate, and thought characteristic of the intellectual life of higher education, Daniels advocates to the contrary that the newer scholarship and education should be challenged and expunged (Daniels referred in his lecture to some of his intellectual mentors including Charles Murray and Jeb Bush).
Daniels added that the tenure system protects dogmatists rather than what he would regard as free thinkers. He characterized modern liberal arts education as “the celebration of mediocrity;” the liberal arts as the home of “illiberal viewpoints;” and as the transmitter of “conformity of thought.” He condemned what he called “shoddy scholarship” as well. “Hopelessly abstruse, jargon-laden papers from so-called ‘studies’ programs read like self-parodies.” He claimed, with no evidence, that “…fewer than half the published studies across the social sciences can be replicated.”
And the final and most damaging claim Daniels made was that practitioners of liberal arts make their subject matter boring. He asserted that histories are written without heroes, excitement, “…glory, the human elements…”
All this, Daniels suggested, requires reform of liberal arts from outside the clutches of the educators in the various fields he condemned. At Purdue University change is occurring because of a program called Cornerstone which brings STEM students to specially crafted liberal arts courses. “Enrollees will read Locke, Hobbes, and Jefferson as well as other works in the Great Books tradition.” Reading the great books, which according to Daniels are not already being taught in existing courses, and offering various dual degree and fast track three-year degrees, he said, are responses to the needs of the business community for liberal arts graduates.
And as to free speech on campus, Daniels castigated students who, he asserted were coached by faculty, made unwarranted demands on him to denounce fascist and racist flyers on campus. And without any sense of irony, Daniels quoted 1960s Chancellor of the University of California system of higher education Clark Kerr who said that a proper university “is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas.” He apparently did not recall that students at the University of California launched the Free Speech Movement on their campus in 1964 because Kerr’s administration banned literature tables on campus.
Discussions of Higher Education Are Held in Secret
Lastly, Daniels praised the work of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). ACTA, formed in 1995, says it works “…to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives a philosophically rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.” Henry Giroux has characterized ACTA as “…not a friend of academic freedom, nor is it comfortable with John Dewey’s notion that education should be responsive to the deepest conflicts of our time…” (Henry Giroux, The University in Chains, Paragon Publishers, 2007, p. 161).
ACTA, while claiming to be independent, is an associate member of the State Policy Network. SPN is a “think tank” with affiliates in 49 states. SPN groups are affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which was a creation of the billionaire Koch brothers and rightwing organizations such as the Bradley Foundation, to promote a radical libertarian policy agenda in virtually every state. Jane Mayer, Nancy MacLean and others have shown that ALEC, SPN, and ACTA leaders realized that public discourse and transparency in political and other institutions might lead publics, often majorities, to reject their anti-government, “free-market” agendas.
Universities historically have had public discussions about curricula and most universities, including Purdue University, have institutionalized mechanisms for decision-making on educational policy matters. Faculty Senates, curricula committees, and promotion and tenure committees, have been the lifeblood of higher education. And, appropriately enough, as a result of student movements on college campuses, students have been included in conversations about educational matters as well. And some state universities value the input of citizens and a broad representative array of alumni from their universities, not just the wealthy who become the core of boards of trustees or the small number who can afford to donate millions of dollars.
What the speech represents is a capsule summary of the Daniels vision of what liberal arts should be. It is largely a series of claims about modern liberal arts programs, diametrically opposed to the reality. It is a policy brief for his campus that Daniels presented to the non-transparent ACTA, an affiliate of a larger covert institutional network with a presence in every state. The network is committed to a radical transformation of economic, political, and educational institutions, a radical libertarian America. Since the liberal arts tradition includes a rigorous conversation about this and other visions, questions of the direction of higher education at Purdue University deserve a rich diverse public conversation among educators, students, and citizens. Private conversations within and between organizations that restrict this conversation violate the spirit of higher education.
(This essay, originally posted in June,2014, reflects the continuing and growing debate about the vision and purpose of higher education. As Purdue University celebrates its 150-year anniversary, conversations about the purposes of higher education are in order).
The university is a site for intellectual excitement: debate about new theories and hypotheses; rigorous examinations of competing ideas; and research, teaching, and community service. Most men and women who pursue a career in the academy are inspired by intellectual curiosity, the prospect of educating and inspiring students, and serving diverse communities of citizens.
Moreover, the Morrill Act passed by Congress in 1862 committed the United States to construct and support state universities which would serve the people, in those days largely rural populations. Great state-funded public universities grew over the subsequent 150 years to facilitate the education of a growing population. They enriched that population with varieties of knowledge and the tools to improve the lives of the citizenry and, as a result, helped build a more vibrant democracy.
But there are darker truths about the growth of the modern university. First, higher education is stimulated by, and financially beholden to, governments, political processes, corporations, and banks. These institutions affect what research is done and what subjects are taught in the university.
Second, and related to the first, conceptions of disciplines, bodies of knowledge, appropriate methods, ideas accepted as unchallengeable truths in various fields, and the basic principles of whole universities are shaped by economic interests and political power.
Third, professional associations, journals, forms of peer review, and general procedures for validating the quality of academic research and teaching are also affected by the same economic and political interests that dominate universities.
Fourth, therefore, in the main, the university as an institution is, and has always been, designed to serve the interests of the status quo, a status quo again that is governed by economic and political interests.
The following examples are from one university, Purdue University. Similar examples can be found at virtually every large and prestigious university in the country. David Smith and Scott Bauer (The Lafayette Journal and Courier, “Daniels: Georgia Trip Was Good for Purdue,” May 1, 2014) reported on Purdue President Mitch Daniels’ attendance at a conference of the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute. Daniels said he attended the meeting to learn and to touch base with one of Purdue’s biggest donors.
The meeting, held every year since 1982, was populated by presidential candidates, and conservative governors from Michigan and Florida. Other attendees included former Vice-President Dick Cheney, former CIA Director David Petraeus, and former Amway President Dick DeVos, and current or former CEOs from TD Ameritrade, Apple, and Google. Karl Rove, premier Republican operative, also attended. Inadvertently highlighting the connection between corporate and political power and the university President Daniels said: “I considered this a trip of use to Purdue.”
Academic advocates for large-scale government and corporate commitments to increased space exploration, such as President Daniels, who served as co-chair of the National Research Council, can be seen as serving the economic needs of research universities. The NRC issued a 286-page report in May, 2014, suggesting that a huge and redefined commitment would be needed to land on Mars by the 2030s (Reed Sellers, “Report Calls for Increased NASA Budget,” The Exponent, June 9, 2014). Despite the document’s skepticism about the possibilities of achieving new goals in space, Daniels said “human space exploration remains vital to the national interest for inspirational and aspirational reasons that appeal to a broad range of U.S. citizens.”
The report outlined a range of steps that would be needed to achieve long-term goals in space, from a one-year mission of persons living on the international space station, to flight tests, rovers exploring Mars, and the development of new technologies involving health, transportation, robots, vehicles, and many other components of space travel. These multi-billion-dollar research-based programs could occupy the research agendas of academic departments in universities such as Purdue for decades and enrich the biggest corporations in America.
Daniels was not the only university affiliated spokesperson of note who recently made news. Board of Trustees member Don Thompson, President and CEO of the McDonald’s Corporation, weighed in on the debate about raising the minimum wage for fast food workers after a nationwide set of protests against McDonald’s on May 22, 2014.
Thompson at a shareholders’ meeting declared that “McDonald’s is often a first job for many entering the work force. About one-third of our employees are 16 to 19. We are proud that we open doors to opportunity” (Bruce Horowitz, “McDonald’s Plays Offense on Wages,” USA Today, May 23). Thompson praised his corporation for being a worker-friendly employer and added that it was the largest employer of veterans in the nation. Later he hinted at the possibility of raising the minimum wage at McDonald’s. However, protestors argued that the median age of fast-food workers was 29, most worked at today’s minimum wage, and economic survival on McDonald’s wages was virtually impossible.
Finally, the Purdue news service has announced increased collaboration of the university with the notorious Duke Energy Corporation, most recently in the news because of its responsibility for a coal ash spill in North Carolina that coated 70 miles of the Dan River along the North Carolina and Virginia border with 60,000 tons of toxic sludge. A North Carolina judge ordered Duke Energy to immediately eliminate the source of groundwater pollution from company coal ash dumps. A criminal investigation of links between the spill and Duke Energy and state government officials in North Carolina is still underway.
Purdue News (June 11, 2014) reported that the university would collaborate on the expansion of an education program to create the Duke Energy Academy at Purdue, a six-day instructional program to inspire high school students and teachers to work in STEM-related disciplines related to energy. The article erroneously claimed that “the amount of students entering the STEM fields is declining.” Other co-sponsors of the six-day educational experience include Bowen Engineering, General Electric, Kidwind Project, Siemens Energy, and Windstream Technologies Inc.
Higher education is at a fork in the road. One path is to maintain its traditional mission to educate and inspire students while sharing knowledge with communities at home and abroad. Another path is to expand the needs of special interests, political and corporate, at the expense of the traditional role of higher education. Growing social movements should include demands that universities continue to serve the needs of the people, rather than politicians and corporations.
By Harry Targ