Astra Taylor in The New Republic:
The coronavirus pandemic did not cause the current crisis like an unexpected blow to an otherwise healthy patient; it has exposed and exacerbated an array of preexisting conditions, revealing structural inequalities that go back not just decades but centuries. Capitalist imperatives and racial exclusions have distorted and damaged our education system since its inception. America’s universities were built on a corrupt foundation: The theft of indigenous territory and the owning and leasing of enslaved people provided much of the initial acreage, labor, and capital for many of the country’s most esteemed institutions. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862, the year before the Emancipation Proclamation, handing over millions of acres of stolen land to found universities that shut out Black people, with few exceptions. The Morrill Act was part of a concerted effort to modernize the economy. Indeed, the research university and the business corporation developed in tandem. Racism, commerce, and education have been bedfellows from the beginning. If we want a real cure for the present crisis, we must change how our institutions of learning are funded and governed, so that they might embody a deeper, democratic purpose at long last.
The coronavirus pandemic may well usher in a period of catastrophic destruction, but difficult revelations can also be a spur to insight and action. Though increasingly stratified, segregated, and costly access to higher education is not the only possible future we are racing toward, it is the default—the destination that aligns with our past and present trajectories. In order to forge another path, we must engage in a deeper form of accounting. Beyond finding a way to balance university budgets in the midst of global depression, the challenge is to acknowledge and repair past mistakes and ongoing inequities, thereby making our higher education system, for the first time in our troubled history, truly public.