Higher education ‘in crisis,’ California professor says in lecture


A professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara gave a public talk on the framework of public higher education in Regnier Hall on Thursday.

The lecture, titled “What Do Universities Do?: Paths Out of the Continuing Crisis,” traced key current problems in higher education and discussed how a full recovery would work and how voters can benefit from affordable higher education.

Christopher Newfield, a professor of literature and American studies at UCSB, lectured on how higher education continues to be reshaped by social and economic forces. Newfield’s lecture was sponsored by the Department of English and its graduate track in cultural studies.

Newfield began by painting a general picture of higher education’s “plight.”

“One message today is all public universities are unhappy in the same way,” Newfield said. “We face the same problems across the U.S. We’re in this together.”

Newfield said if we can create a conversation about the status of higher education, we will have public support that goes beyond the sports teams that universities are most often celebrated for.

“The path out has short-term strategies, but I think there’s a long-term path we may have to forge,” Newfield said. “It involves explaining to ourselves and also to the public what universities do. We are obligated to become responsible for how the shape of the future university looks.”

Following cuts to higher education funding and tuition hikes, Newfield said the premise of the current situation is that the state will not fund buildings, people or salaries because, while the market term “public” is associated with welfare, the term “private” is associated with hustle.

Newfield said the market consensus shows that adding private funds — and discipline — improves public institutions.

“Markets discriminate on the basis of price,” Newfield said. “That’s the point of them: you get what you pay for. Universities are not private goods. We must not treat them as such, or else we will screw them up.”

Downplaying the university’s public good status, or consenting to privatization, wrecks the university and lowers its social value, Newfield said. Privatization does not support a public good partnership between the university and society — it blocks it.

“People say it’s okay that we have high tuition because now we have high financial aid,” Newfield said. “The problem with this argument is that it’s not actually true. Universities call loans financial aid as much as they call grants financial aid. They don’t know that the financial aid students are receiving is a loan with a 6.7 percent interest rate.”

Newfield said the U.S. is the only wealthy country that has reduced the educational attainment of one generation compared to that of their parents.

“We’re doing a really dumb thing,” Newfield said.

Moreover, Newfield continued, the idea that increased productivity leads to increased hourly compensation is not ringing true. This problem was once suffered only by blue-collar workers — it is now extending to college graduates.

In addition to outlining the problems plaguing higher education, Newfield introduced possible paths to recovery.

“We can’t just keep patching up the framework we have,” Newfield said. “Universities are around to create original and disseminate confirmed knowledge … in the context of an always-evolving professional practice for the full democratization of intelligence.”

Newfield said there is nothing original about the 21st-century skills students should be receiving at college. However, not everyone is receiving that same opportunity.

The best way to decrease educational attainment for people of color and minorities is to take them out of traditional courses and place them in online classes, Newfield said.

“The problem is we’re not doing it at scale,” Newfield said. “We’re doing it at Stanford. We’re doing it at Princeton, writing junior papers, writing senior theses to graduate. We are not doing it for the people who really matter in this country, for the regular folks that are going at scale to public universities — the other 95 percent that doesn’t go to those places.”

Newfield said the conversation starts by going back to the state.

“There is no substitute for the state,” Newfield said. “That’s the ugly conversation we’re going to have to have. It’s facing the music. We’ve tried everything out, and we’ll eventually try the only thing that works. It would just be better if we could do it sooner rather than later.”

Newfield said the key to pulling higher education out of the state that it is currently in is teamwork.

“There’s going to be a lot of disappointment and anger, but we can do it if we do it together,” Newfield said. “It’s not going to be easy, but it will be a hell of a lot easier than what we’re doing now.”