A New Vision of the Public University

Michael Burawoy over at the SSRC blog:

The university is in crisis everywhere. In the broadest terms, the university’s position as simultaneously inside and outside society, simultaneously participant in and observer of society, – always precarious – is being eroded. With the exception of a few antiquated hold outs the idea of the ivory tower has gone. We no longer can hold on to a position of splendid isolation. We may think of the era gone by as the Golden Age of the University, but in reality it was a Fool’s Paradise that simply couldn’t last. Today, the academy has no option but to engage with the wider society, the question is how.

We face enormous pressures of instrumentalization, turning the university into a means for someone’s else’s end. These pressures come in two forms – commodification and regulation. I teach at the University of California, which, with its seven plus campuses, is (or was) surely one of the shining examples of public education in the world. This last year it was hit with a 25% cut in public funding. This is a sizeable chunk of money. The university has never faced such a financial crisis and it has taken correspondingly drastic steps – laying off unknown numbers of non-academic staff, putting pressure on already outsourced low paid service workers, furloughing academics that include world renown figures. Most significantly it involved a 30% increase in student fees, so that they now rise to over $10,000 a year, but still this is only a quarter of the price of the best private universities. These are drastic measures indeed, and a violation of California’s Master Plan for higher education, a vision of free higher education for all who desired it, orchestrated through a system that integrated two year community colleges, the state system of higher education and then, at the pinnacle, the University of California. All this is now turning to ruins.