Author:Samuels, Robert
Position:Teaching Critical University Studies

This issue of Radical Teacher focuses on why we should teach courses and collaborate with students in research in Critical University Studies (CUS)--a handy label, but please take "university" as a stand-in for many kinds of post-secondary institutions.

A Brief History of Critical University Studies

This interdisciplinary endeavor employs history, sociology, economics, and political science to analyze the ways higher education is being shaped by larger cultural forces. One of the historical ironies examined here is that as the public university grows in importance, its support and funding are downsized. This trend forces us to ask how we can educate people in an unequal society and what role universities play in reinforcing the ideological myths that naturalize and rationalize the political and economic status quo.

As Christopher Newfield has shown in Unmaking the Public University, higher education has been shaped by the politics of austerity and by changes in national demographics. According to Newfield's narrative, at the same time more people of color entered into public universities, a tax revolt led to a defunding of these institutions. Then, in order to make up for a loss of state support, these schools had to turn away from their public missions and seek private support for research and other activities. Thus, due in part to the ideology of neoliberalism, the reduction of public funding for higher education was coupled with a more general retreat from welfare state policies and a turn to the free market as the supposed solution to all social and economic problems.

Jeffrey Williams, another leading scholar in Critical University Studies, argues that we now have a Post-Welfare State university system shaped by reduced state funding and a massive increase in student debt. Moreover, as both Newfield and Williams point out, the more students are forced to take on the burden for paying for college, the more a public good is seen as a private good. Since many people now believe that the main reason to pursue a college degree is to get a good job in the future, they do not think they should have to support other people in the competition for a dwindling number of high-paying positions.

The neoliberal university represents both this privatization of public institutions and the use of public funds by private institutions. As Suzanne Mettler illustrates in Degrees of Inequality, private for-profit colleges are now receiving most of their support from federal loans and grants, and so as the publics become more private, the privates become more public. Mettler also emphasizes that both private and public universities are no longer providing social mobility or decreasing economic inequality; instead, higher education now tends to increase social stratification. Due to the way that we fund and rank schools, wealthy students on average go to wealthy institutions with high graduation rates, while low-income students often go to low-funded schools with low graduation rates. Furthermore, as our society becomes more unequal, all levels of education also become more stratified.

Most people--including students--still want to believe we have a...

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