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Ending The Community College Stigma: A Response to Dr. Williams 3

(In our previous post, we began to explore the ideas of Claire Goldstene. In this post, we dig a little deeper into some of the history she wrote about. If you’d like to read the first post in the series, click here. If you’d like to download all four of the posts in this series in a single document, click here.)

Goldstene roots the beginning of this trend in a strategy developed for the national Chamber of Commerce in 1971 by then-future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, who was responding to what he saw (in Goldstene’s paraphrase) as “a ‘broad attack’ directed against ‘the American economic system’ at universities across the country…jeopardiz[ing] the ‘strength and prosperity of America and the freedom of its people.’” While Powell was careful in that memo not to call for measures directly attacking academic freedom, the measures he did call for, like threats to university funding, often amounted to such an attack nonetheless. Contemporary examples of such threats, along with the ideological battles that swirl around them, are not hard to find. There is, however, one contemporary threat to the funding of public higher education that is presented not as a threat at all, but rather as an unavoidable consequence of the economic times in which we live. As Ronald Brownstein reported last year in The Atlantic, “public colleges and universities in most states [now receive] most of their revenue from tuition rather than government appropriations.”

Politics aside for the moment, this shift from government (public) funds to student (private) funds as the primary source of public higher education’s budget is something to which institutions like ours have no choice but to respond. It’s one reason why OCC’s President Robinson so enthusiastically promotes the “value proposition” offered by community colleges over and against the one offered by four-year institutions. “Value proposition,” of course, is the language of the marketplace, framing students as paying customers and institutions of higher education as businesses that must compete for their dollars by offering the best return on investment—i.e., the most efficient/cost-effective path to graduation and a degree that will lead to increasingly profitable employment.

As educators, many of us do not like thinking about the work we do in these terms. Yet we do ourselves a grave disservice if we pretend that these terms are not how this country has been defining for some time now the field on which institutions like ours must operate. That’s why we, as a union, are committed to doing our part to see that initiatives like dual enrollment and Guided Pathways are implemented with the academic integrity necessary for them to succeed, both as sound business decisions and effective educational practice. At the same time, though, we should not lose sight of the fact that this particular way of understanding students as our customers has a history, and that this history is not one of economic downturn and the need for austerity measures. Rather, it is the history of an ideological battle, in which the public value of public education itself is at stake.

As Nancy McClean tells it in Chapter 7 of her recent book, Democracy in Chains, this history begins with the response crafted by political economist James Buchanan to the campus unrest of the late 1960s. Buchanan recognized that, regardless of the merits of any particular group’s demands, it was the economic structure of the public university itself that enabled both students and faculty so easily to disrupt the institution’s functioning. As Buchanan understood it, the problem with public higher education was that neither students nor faculty were in any meaningful financial way accountable to the institutions of which they were a part or to the taxpayers who funded those institutions. This is McClean quoting Buchanan:

  1. those who consume [the university’s] product [students] do not purchase it [at full-cost];
  2. those who produce it [faculty] do not sell it; and
  3. those who finance it [taxpayers] do not control it.

Buchanan’s solution was “to stop considering colleges and universities as public resources” and to see them instead as an industry. “The cure,” McClean goes on, “flowed from the diagnosis. Students should pay full-cost prices, and universities should compete for them as customers….” (104-5). Buchanan’s goal was to implement a new socioeconomics of higher education that would immunize colleges and universities, and by extension society at large, from the disruption of campus protests and the intellectual work by which those protests were fueled. Essentially, his reasoning went, “if you stop making college free and charge a hefty tuition, ideally enough to cover the entire cost of each education…students will have a strong economic incentive to focus on their studies and nothing else—certainly not on trying to alter the university or wider society” (105). 

The inevitable consequence of understanding higher education as an industry, of course, is that once the market the industry serves begins to exert this kind of pressure, the industry itself will have no choice but to reorganize themselves in response. Indeed, you can see that reorganization taking place at institutions all over the country, as higher ed boards and administrations move to eliminate, or at least seriously weaken, those fields of study where the potential return on a student’s investment is not so obviously a profitable one.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this came in 2018. In the aftermath of then-Governor Scott Walker’s Wisconsin Act 10, the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point proposed eliminating 13 humanities and social science majors in favor of programs “in areas with high-demand career paths.” Other examples are not hard to find. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that colleges nationwide lost 651 foreign-language programs over three years. In other places, there have been discussions about eliminating programs like Anthropology, Women’s Studies, Africana Studies (also here and here), Philosophy (and Theater at the same link), and English.

While this kind of reorganization obviously limits the academic choices available to students—in that it both removes certain majors from consideration and restricts the scope of the elective interests students might pursue—it also fundamentally delegitimizes the research and scholarship done by faculty in the eliminated or “reorganized” departments. Indeed, it calls into question the inherent value of the disciplines those departments represent. Take a step back from the economic realities to which this kind of reorganization is ostensibly a necessary response, and it’s hard not to see Buchanan’s strategy at work. Those departments and disciplines most likely to be targeted, after all, the humanities and social sciences, are also those that most often and most explicitly, as Goldstene puts it, “challenge accepted norms [and] help shape national dialogue underlying political, social, and economic policy.”

It’s hard to overstate just how thoroughly racist and elitist Buchanan’s strategy was, how passionately he opposed the defining values of the community college mission: access, responsiveness to community need, and equity. Indeed, it’s worth reading McClean to understand more fully just how happy Buchanan would have been for the overwhelming majority of the students we serve at NCC to remain excluded from the national dialogue Goldstene talks about. In fact, the community college stigma is in some ways nothing more than a Buchanan-like response to the fact that we dare to say no to that exclusivity. As Matt Reed put it in a column that he wrote for Inside Higher Ed, however, rejecting exclusivity needs to be about more than a community college’s value proposition. It also needs to address “the much larger set of issues” with which our society continues to struggle “around race, class, [we would add gender and sexual orientation] and the conflation of privilege with prestige.”

Implicit in asking what it means for community colleges to address these larger issues is the question of the faculty’s role within the institution, both as those charged with the pedagogical, scholarly, and creative work that is at the heart of the academic enterprise and as those who, in and out of the classroom, most directly interact with students on a daily basis. Indeed, as higher education has come to rely more and more on adjunct faculty—who have for some time now been doing most of the teaching at community colleges nationwide—the question of the role faculty play in the academic lives of their students has itself become the subject of scholarly inquiry. It’s worth examining what some of that research has found.

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