Redefining the Public University: Developing an Analytical Framework

Burawoy Michael Burawoy over at the SSRC's Transformations of the Public Sphere:

The university is in crisis, almost everywhere. In the broadest terms, the university’s position as simultaneously inside and outside society, simultaneously participant in and observer of society – always precarious – has been eroded. With the exception of a few hold‐outs the ivory tower has gone. We can no longer hold a position of splendid isolation. We can think of the era that has disappeared 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, and on whose terms?

In this essay I examine the twin pressures of regulation and commodification to which the university is subject (→Market and Regulatory Models), propose a vision of the public university (→An Alternative Framing), position that vision within different national contexts (→University in the National Context) and then within a global context (→The Global Context) before concluding with the assertion of critical engagement and deliberative democracy as central to a redefined public university (→What Is To Be Done?).

Market and Regulatory Models

We face enormous pressures of instrumentalization, turning the university into a means for someone else’s end. These pressures come in two forms – commodification and regulation. I teach at the University of California, which had been one of the shining examples of public education in the world. In 2009 it was hit with a 25% cut in public funding. This was a sizable chunk of money. The university has never faced such a financial crisis since the depression and it was forced to take correspondingly drastic steps – laying off large numbers of non‐academic staff, putting pressure on already outsourced low‐paid service workers, furloughing academics that included many world renowned figures, introducing management consultants to cut costs and increase efficiency. Most significantly it involved a 30% increase in student fees, so that they now rise to over $10,000 a year, but still only a quarter of the price of the best private universities. At the same time, the university is seeking to increase the proportion of students from out of state as these pay substantially more than those from in‐state. There has been talk of introducing distance learning and even the shortening of the time to degree.