Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them is a great book – you should buy it, read it, teach it, and recommend it to your friends. In an increasingly crowded field of books about the ills of contemporary higher education (many of which I also like), this one is particularly strong for its insistence on a systemic, political-economic analysis and its refusal to offer overly simplistic answers. In what follows I offer a discussion of the book’s argument and successes along with two critiques of elements that I think weaken its claims.
The core argument is that the reconceptualization of higher education as essentially a private good, benefiting the specific students individually as opposed to society generally, set in motion a cycle of decline that has resulted in greater inequality, lower quality, and intellectual fragmentation. This private-good paradigm both emerges from and facilitates reduced public support for public universities; that, in turn, encourages students and parents to make (often incorrect) decisions about education, choosing professional and “practical” options they think will result in individual gain. That leads to declining support for core liberal arts and STEM intellectual experiences — and continues the cycle. And in the process it encourages further privatization in a self-defeating search for more private dollars.
The book is based on Newfield’s vast experience in higher education and very meticulous research into the arcana of university budgets, public and semi-public debates and discussions, and conversations with key actors in the process. An important strength of his approach is this multifaceted information. Anecdotes about higher education administrators laughing at the idea that public support might grow (really!) combine with careful economic and institutional data analysis to support the key claim that the privatization paradigm and the material reality of privatized public education go hand in hand. Therefore the quality and equity issues that plague public universities cannot in fact be solved without attacking that paradigm head-on and replacing it with a full-on claim as to the public value of higher education.
In the wake of the 2008 recession, state support for public universities dropped precipitously. Newfield documents universities’ responses; the version from Wisconsin (pp. 156-7) serves as an example:
As the crisis was settling in, the head of the Madison flagship campus focused on gaining more autonomy from the state rather than on explaining why she needed more money from them…. A few years later, the “autonomy” idea turned up as a proposal from Governor Scott Walker, where it was predictably accompanied by a call to cut the university system budget another 12 percent over two years.
In response, the University of Wisconsin’s managers did not clearly state that such cuts would permanently damage the university. The new Madison chancellor said they needed more time to implement the cuts and also said, in defiance of basic arithmetic, that autonomy would allow efficiencies that could compensate for the loss of state funding. Administrative correspondence obtained by a newspaper showed that the university’s senior managers were focused on getting their autonomy, even it if cost them a public funding cut. The concept of public funding was a big loser.
There are other examples, from the UC, Cal State, Arizona State, and other universities. I suspect those familiar with other major public universities, particularly those with high academic aspirations, will find these familiar. “Public universities,” Newfield writes, “came to judge tuition levels not by the level required to supplement state appropriations but by the levels set by private colleges” (157). Most public university leadership chose to insist “that academic quality was being protected and that tuition hikes did not affect financially vulnerable students, thanks to high financial aid” (205), a claim Newfield successfully debunks.
I do have two critiques of the book: one relatively minor, the other more significant. The relatively minor critique is that too much of the evidence comes from California, and the UC System in particular, and is used uncritically to generalize to a very heterogeneous public higher-education landscape. This is nowhere near as egregious as Ginsberg’s extrapolation from Johns Hopkins to all higher education, but it is significant. California is, well, different in many ways. It features two distinct university systems, a very large research university system, a wacky state taxation and budget model, and not one but two of the nation’s top-ranked public flagships. Newfield does bring in other universities, but like his use of California, they are all one-off; there’s no systematic attempt to figure out how different public universities are different, how they succeed and fail differently, or whether there are models that do better or worse at achieving the accessibility, intellectual heft, and equality he’s looking for. (I happen to think the UNC system, and Chapel Hill in particular, would come out on the high end of such a systematic attempt.)
The other critique is of a theme that has become one of Newfield’s trademarks: the claim that sponsored research costs universities, requiring institutional subsidies and thereby impoverishing research in what he calls SASH (arts, humanities, and qualitative social science) disciplines. The core of this claim is that Facilities and Administration (F&A, or Overhead) funds provided by federal funders are never adequate to fully fund the actual costs of that overhead. After a few silly anecdotes about scientists prevented from buying printer paper on their grants (do English professors not need printer paper?), Newfield then relies on NSF and university budget data to claim that between 9% and 20% of universities’ outlays for research are uncompensated by federal funders, so must be made up by institutional funds. These funds, he claims, often amount to nearly 100% of institutional research expenditures, which leaves 0% for institutional support of SASH and other research that doesn’t attract extramural funding.
There’s a lot of forensic accounting going on here, and I think Newfield makes untenable assumptions to reach those high numbers (20% unfunded, 100% of institutional outlays). Most important here is the accounting for what universities pay for research that is not extramurally funded. Lots of that is implicit; professors spend their time, paid by university funds, on research and scholarly inquiry all the time. They do it with computers, office supplies, and sometimes dedicated funds that don’t count as research expenditures but are university resources spent on research and scholarly activity.
Throughout the section on extramural funding, Newfield implies that universities would not be doing the research if it weren’t for that funding. The counterfactual is that, absent NIH, NSF, etc., science professors just wouldn’t do science, or at least wouldn’t do the science they now do. But the experience of not-externally-funded scholars elsewhere in the university suggests dramatically otherwise; science faculty are going to do science! So an alternative counterfactual is that, absent NIH, NSF, etc., institutional funds would have to foot 100% of the bill for science. In that light, even the 20% figure looks like a great bargain! In fact, I don’t think either of these counterfactuals is right, but I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to imagine that universities have a core commitment to supporting science, and that sharing some or all of that cost with federal funders is a reasonable strategy given the high costs of science. Newfield does finally acknowledge that the accounting he spends many pages exposing isn’t necessarily illegitimate (p. 94-5), but the admission is grudging and a long time coming.
That emphasis is puzzling because, unlike the rest of the book, it’s really not necessary to the overall argument. Each other piece of evidence goes directly to the devolutionary cycle (p. 36), but it’s not at all clear to me why the external-funding claims support that argument at all. Newfield seems motivated mostly by public statements like one he quotes from a University of California “Myths and Facts” document:
A federal grant for laser research can’t be used to fund a deficit in the English Department. A payment for a surgery in a UC hospital can’t be redirected to fund graduate students. (95)
Newfield is, appropriately, indignant about the presumed deficit in the English department, when deficits are made up in STEM departments as well. But his greater claim that in fact the English department is subsidizing STEM is based on treating institutional funds in two conflicting ways. When they pay for English salaries and overhead, they are treated as external income from tuition and state funds: fees paid for English professors’ work. But when they pay for STEM salaries and overhead, they are treated as internal funds. Newfield is right to call out the PR machine’s implication that STEM pays for itself and English doesn’t, but he’s wrong to interpret this as an internal subsidy.
More importantly, that account masks a much bigger problem with reliance on external funding: its intellectual costs. Funding rates are already very low, and today’s “skinny budget” contains draconian cuts to those low budgets. All that means that scientists will be spending more of their time trying in vain to attain funding instead of doing science. (Grant applications are the beginnings of science, yes — but only when high-quality applications are likely to be funded.) Furthermore, the bottleneck by which such an enormous majority of science is funded by just a few agencies raises the prospect of an intellectual monoculture; heterodox inquiry is unlikely to flourish under such concentration. I think it would be better for science and for SASH disciplines for universities to find ways to fund more research across the disciplines internally. That would insulate scholars from the political winds of science funding and allow universities to exercise local leadership and strategy over the priorities and content of research. And that, in turn, would be good for the full range of university disciplines. I’d rather see Newfield pursue ideas like that than continue the needless competition between STEM and SASH.
As I said, though, this criticism is distinct from the core argument of the book, which remains very well argued and strongly documented. One can — indeed, I do — reject the strong claim about research funding and still accept the overall argument about the devolutionary cycle. It’s an urgent case, made very strongly. And the final chapter, which details how to emerge from that cycle, is crucial. In that chapter, Newfield refuses simple or short-term fixes. We can rescue the public university, he says, only by promoting and defending the status of education as fundamentally a public good. There’s lots of data and a great argument for that defense here. The final chapter offers that defense, along with a prescription for a virtuous cycle stemming from the public-good argument and resulting in greater educational quality, less social inequality, and better economic and social outcomes. It’s a compelling case and an important vision.