The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them.

Author:Chinn, Sarah E.
Position:Book review

The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them by Christopher Newfield (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016)

Over the past few years there has been something of a cottage industry in analyzing higher education's woes and trying to find solutions for them. Some have been in the "kids today/get off my lawn" camp (most notably Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's grumpy Academically Adrift); others have embraced a self-help, albeit politically aware, vibe (I'm thinking here of Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber's The Slow Professor)-, some have simply drunk the neoliberal Kool-Ade (Gregory Colon Semenza's Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century is a prime example of Jeff Bezos's famous-yet-terrifying boast that "new economy" employees have to work fast, smart, and hard all at once). But only a few of these books have engaged in a thoroughgoing analysis of trends in higher education, especially public higher education, that takes a long, historicized look at where we are, how we got there, and what we can do to change the situation.

Christopher Newfield's The Great Mistake is one of those books. A sort of companion piece to Richard Brier and Michael Fabricant's Austerity Blues, as well as a sequel to Newfield's own 2008 study, Unmaking the Public University, The Great Mistake is a systematic, deeply researched, and clearly written analysis of why public universities have experienced a drop in state investment, student skill levels, and public respect. And although it may seem daunting to read 350 pages of budget analysis, policy critiques, and bar graphs, Newfield whisks his readers through a compelling, if wonkish, investigation of how privatization, corporatization, and student debt have hacked away at the foundations of what used to be thought of as a public good.

While Newfield mentions the glory days of the post-GI bill expansion of public higher education, he doesn't dwell there long, not least because he's aware of how access was parceled out depending on students' race and gender. His focus is on the post-Reagan era (although he traces its roots even further back), the rise of bringing "market solutions" to social services, and the steady--and more recently, precipitous--is investment by state legislatures and governors in the colleges and universities they fund. And he makes a bold claim: "Private sector 'reforms' are not the cure for the college cost disease--they are the college cost disease" (4).

To my...

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