Austerity and Its Discontents

Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education is a passionate book on higher education. Michael Fabricant, professor of social work at CUNY’s Graduate Center and president of CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress (CUNY’s union) and Stephen Brier, professor of urban education at the CUNY Graduate Center, pull no punches in their account of the rise and fall of public higher education funding. Their vantage point reflects their personal histories, political philosophy, intellectual bent, and the lengthy legacies of the City University of New York, the California state systems, and other public institutions. It is history written on the ground and in the moment, in the midst of a great conflict that the authors believe is not receiving the attention it needs. They work, as do their students and colleagues, in an environment of reduced resources, reduced independence, and greater accountability. They see the systematic withdrawal of resources from public higher education, which they believe is a public good, as unethical and undemocratic.

It is also a book about theory and practice. The authors are social scientists comfortable with the language of the academy. Their argument is a critique of neoliberal policies, resting on six propositions:

  • We live in a time of global economic crisis.
  • The economic crisis has provided the arguments for less equality and more rationing of resources.
  • The rationing of resources has a profound effect on what services are offered and how they are offered.
  • The reassembly of the welfare state is closely aligned with efforts to capitalize public assets.
  • Austerity in services and public goods leaves the poor and those of color significantly disadvantaged.
  • As inequality increases, so does anxiety – and that means greater investment in the technologies and structures of control.

The authors believe that the commodification of education – its withdrawal from the public space – and its relocation in capitalist structures of profit, loss, and competition – are reshaping the very meaning of a college education. The soul of what we do and why we do it as educators is being contested.

The great growth in higher education after World War II and its positive impact on economic and social changes is evidence, the book argues, of the benefit of public investment in education. Many more Americans started to see college as a viable path for career development and personal growth. The cost was relatively small. The outcome was outsize – and decision-makers and the public came to understand higher education as a valuable public good. The democratization  of higher education continued over the decades, with students of color and non-traditional students fighting for seats in the classroom and in the larger political sphere. As the political world changed, however, so too has the conception of higher education as a public good. The turn mirrors the other broad shifts in American political culture as the right has ascended. The book does not focus at those shifts through a historical lens, instead aiming it attention on the years since our most recent financial crisis of 2008. The authors assert that the financial crisis has created an age of austerity (amid much private wealth), leading to a reconfiguration of the welfare state – and in it, the defunding of higher education. The consequences, the book asserts, are greater than the loss of public education. It undermines democratic values.

Fabricant and Brier want the readers to think about higher education generally, but their attention consistently returns to their home institution, the City University of New York, CUNY, and its tumultuous history. They explain the conflicting agendas that led to open admission policies at CUNY, the diversification of its student body, and the place of CUNY within the city’s economic and political ecosystem. More recent conflicts and a lengthy lists of complaints paint a dark picture: the corporatization of academic culture and practice, reliance on underpaid part-time faculty, systemic disinvestment, increased student debt, reliance on technology, heightened pressures of measured accountability, and ultimately, the public university as an engine of inequality. They see a loss of mission. Faculty are locked in conflict with administration and political leaders who fund, or more precisely, de-fund higher education.

Ultimately, the authors want to see a massive transformation in the very language and ideas that are reshaping public higher education. They want “a politics of redistributive investment, emancipatory education, and, most importantly social justice.” They aspire for a better, more generous world. Appreciating their idealism provides a window into their arguments, perspective as tenured faculty, and their hopes for public higher education – and its purpose.

I imagine that the audience for Austerity Blues is education professionals. But I wonder: How can we talk about Fabricant and Brier’s argument with our students and our communities? How do we explain “doing more with less” is shaping our current strategy and expected future? Students want jobs and economic opportunity as the outcomes of college. I regularly hear from parents and friends of my college about graduation and transfer rates. Those served by higher education demonstrate scant curiosity in the funding structures and processes of higher education. Further, I often encounter an assumption of self-interest: since those who argue for more resources for higher education are usually those that work in higher education, we must simply just want more of the pie.

None of this means that we should avoid those conversations. To the contrary: they are valuable and we should have them. The challenge is about framing the conversation differently. What are our common points of agreement? How can we assert that higher education is a shared, collective good? I think that higher education does a poor job explaining itself to the public. We need to do more and better.

I am agnostic on the likelihood of the gigantic transformation that Fabricant and Brier seek. My focus is more prosaic. How do we have these discussions, how do we help our students and communities, and how do we make sure that a shared mission is threaded through all that we do? None of this is easy. To be frank, it is getting increasingly difficult. However, I remain optimistic. It might be naiveté or my temperament, but I see evidence daily of higher education as a public good and as doing good by the public. We need an anthem to go with the blues.

David Potash

One Comment

  1. Juan Salgado is a step in the right direction. Let’s see if we can keep it going. We have to give our constituents reasons to stay in Chicago instead of running away.

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