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Hanging Out With Prof Newfield about Unmaking the Public University

Q&A with Professor Christopher Newfield

January 22, 2014

Here are the questions that the students in the Duke/Stanford/University of California at Santa Barbara classes asked before the Google Hangout with Professor Christopher Newfield (UCSB).   You can watch this Google Hang Out on YouTube:  online


Newfield, Christopher. Unmaking the Public University:  The Forty Year Assault on the Middle Class. Harvard University Press. 2011. Print.


(1) The subtitle of your book is “The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class.”  Why do you use the word “assault” and how is the defunding of public higher education specifically harmful to the middle class?  Does defunding public education have impacts beyond the middle class (and in either or both economic and class directions)?  --Cathy

2. I read the book with great interest. The book was published in 2008, the same year that the economy took a huge hit. What has happened to public universities since the economic downturn? Obviously budget cuts have intensified. What were/are the consequences of these cuts in regard to their broader implications? This question also relates to question 1 above.

For more information, in this article Chris Newfield re-examines the theories he proposed in his 2008 book in reference to the more recent climate of 2011-

3. In your book, you often point to the university’s focus on the economic/output potential of future students, which has created stratification in the undergraduate ranks...yielding class sizes from 12-person culanth seminars to 400-student pre-med classes. How can a university not be bonded to the powers of supply and demand? If this were theoretically accomplished, would we be able to preserve the academic quest for knowledge and the hireability of grads?

4. Do you see MOOC’s as answering or aggravating some of the  issues addressed in your book- as far as the educational equality desired by the public, creating broad knowledge, and the financial issues of universities.

5. Smoking gun(s)?  The book casts, or very strongly implies, the (d)evolution of public universities as a direct result of a coordinated, concerted effort by conservatives to squelch a "cultural" threat to their power and power base.  While I tend to agree that conservative media (and most mainstream media is owned by wealthy conservatives) slant dominated public majority opinion, I did not find the few citations, most to people I had never heard of, convincing evidence of a secret conspiracy, i.e. no Koch Brothers conversations like in Wisconsin.  Could you please elucidate the nuances of your thesis?

6. Academic versus Industry?  The book views the subject from an academic background and perspective.  I, myself, have spent most of my career outside of academia and have a different take on how corporate America tends to operate.  (I also have a wife who's staunchly Republican while I'm staunchly Democratic.  But that's yet another conversation.)  With perhaps one or two exceptions, the management I've dealt with, including the CEOs of Mobil and Halliburton, have taken a broad view of diversity and long term perspectives on the evolution of markets, workforce, environment, etc.  To what extent have you been able to probe this other side of the equation?

Reading your work reminded me of a recent story in the news:  (Full disclosure, I get my news from Colbert.) A very good friend of mine used to teach history at UCLA and said that he left precisely because of this disparity that goes unaddressed. His hands were tied. (Speaking of UCLA, related:  There are obviously larger hegemonic discourses at play that perpetuate a veiled sense of concern for ‘standards’ and ‘excellence’ while engaging in pretty immoral and deplorable priorities of greed, sport and segregation by big establishments. Do you think that we are even remotely close to realizing an accountability of those in power by way of disseminating a new collective consciousness of concerned and informed citizens via the internet? Could we really be on the cusp of a new world where collectively owned companies like WinCo really do take down the Walmarts of the world? (

Thanks for letting me go ‘Colbert’!

7. I’m interested in the issue of measuring outcomes.  In the book, you mention that “the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge were seen as nonmarket activities” (pg. 68) and that “The [UC Commissioned Research Report] assumed that the human sciences did not produce knowledge in the conventional sense and did not contribute to the state’s economic development.” (pg 210).  Given that traditional management metrics (like economic ROI) may not capture the value of a university education and research, particularly in the humanities, what would you suggest could be used as a tool to create accountability for colleges?  In other words, if it is inappropriate to use financial metrics, what metrics should we use?  Going further, what would be the best way to allocate capital to institutions (e.g., what should the

8. What I see lacking in higher education – and in the US educational system in general – is what you are claiming that the conservatives have been actively pushing back against, which are the “cultural” competencies that are not valued in the market place and when they are, they are constricted and made subordinate by Knowledge Management (KM). In my experience, however, in trying to make intentional efforts to have higher education incorporate pedagogical structures that aim to help students cultivate greater sense of self-identity, personal purpose, moral and social development, intercultural competence, mindfulness, collaboration and participation skills – in short the essential 21st century literacies (which have always been essential for human development) – I have found that although university many administrators (not too overly generalize of course) value these pedagogical concepts, many still do not see these concepts as important enough for them to be incorporated into the curriculum with the enthusiasm one might expect since the objective of these concepts is to cultivate human development. In your opinion, what do you think it will take for our society and the higher education as a whole to begin understanding the importance of “cultural” education and have it become institutionalized?

9. Since your book deals predominantly with higher education in the US, you take up the pervasive issue of the impact of nationalist discourses on its development. In light of this and considering the role of “Americanism” in globalization, how do you see the American academy ethically collaborating with other universities around the world? Also, what is your take on the recent, and often controversial, push by many US based research universities to open campuses abroad, especially in Asia?


  I found this a deeply provocative and thought-provoking read. Especially I was struck by Newfield’s argument that the so-called culture wars were decisive as the moment when conservative rhetoric undermined the intellectual foundations of a left, democratic social movement toward inclusive human development. I find this indisputably true.

  From my point of view, Newfield’s analysis demonstrates the importance of knowledge and principled, philosophical reflection to the success of political strategies and goals. My question comes from this perspective. It seems to me that there may be a tension within Newfield’s definition of human development that is worthy of consideration. I suppose this tension need not be resolved, and may well be a productive antagonism within Newfield’s political program. But given that the power of Newfield’s critique rests at every turn on the recognition that broad-scale, inclusive human development is both possible and good, and that clarity of concepts is essential to a message’s communication, I think scrutiny of this particular concept, should it be in tension with itself, is therefore necessary. On pp. 21-22, where Newfield defines human development, he endorses at once a pluralism that validates the multiplicity of cultural knowledge’s sites of production, but then links this to a universalism sponsored by Aristotle and the UN. I quote:

“We can think of human development as a central though largely undiscussed outcome of the liberal arts. Music, dance, theater, literature, sculpture, film and other disciplines normally operated on two different levels. They produced enhanced, even Dionysian, states of cognitive capability that overcame at least for a time the limits of our ordinary condition. They allowed the imagination of a higher permanent state for both individual and humanity as a whole, one that would be more equitable, more peaceful, much smarter, and on a daily basis more ambitious and less defensive. These disciplines also operated on a second level: they produced cultural knowledge about the psychological, interpersonal, and cultural capabilities that allowed society to evolve.”

This beautifully captures my own experience of the arts and humanistic inquiry, but it also seems to depend on a Western conception of teleological development that supersedes the multiple sites of knowledge production that it also supports. And this is where I see a tension in Newfield’s argument: though Newfield’s universalism validates essential concepts such as the human, human rights, freedom to pursue a fulfilling life, and the flourishing of multiple sites of knowledge to these ends, it also seems to imply that awareness and knowledge of that universalism is the absolute non-negotiable, above and beyond the pluralism that it supports. Does this not, then, move Aristotle, the rights tradition, and the story of humanity’s progress implied by this metaphysical picture to the center of the curriculum? Would that move back to the center not be a certain betrayal of post-modernism’s legacy, to the detriment of the culture of difference this argument is supposed to advance?

11.  Much of our HASTAC FutureEd Initiative is motivated by the conviction that the major stakeholders in higher education--faculty and students--should be leading innovation, not for the sake of profit but because contemporary education is an inheritance from an earlier time and we need to rethinking a range of assumptions, bureaucracies, systems, metrics, outcomes, divisions, disciplines, and requirements (for entrance and for graduation) for a more flexible, adaptive, interdisciplinary world where “relearning” and what Toffler calls “unlearning” are requirements.   Your chapter “The Blame-Academia Crowd” is one inspiration for our sense that these important conversations on educational innovation need to come from inside education, not outside (i.e. legislators, corporations, venture capitalists).  Could you bring us up to date from 2008 to the present on the use of “innovation” as a way of corporatizing and, frankly, exploiting tuition-paying students today?   I’d also like you to talk about income inequality, the way higher education preserves (rather than ameliorates) income inequality.  Finally, can you address the way income distribution in universities mirrors the neoliberal gutting of the middle class.  Although legislators and the public are outraged by tuition costs (rightly) they rarely point to the bloated ranks and high salaries of athletic coaches, presidents, administrators, trustees, and high-finance endowment boards at private universities and probably few in the general public are aware that 70+% of the teaching staff at universities is now contingent or adjunctive.   That is awful for education, but great for some (some) bank accounts.  Some for-profit universities rightly point out that a significant amount of higher education goes not to teaching salaries but to administrative and athletic ones.  When we are outraged by MOOCs, we sometimes act as if higher education is not, in 2014, structurally disposed to its own income inequality.    

12. In the book there seems to be a tension between discussions of race/ethnicity and the middle class, which you point out has increasingly included non-white members. At the same time, you make the point that the middle class is still majority white and only one or two generations removed from the working class (coded as white and nonwhite). You claim that the “cultural” threat to the conservative powerbase is not just about the fact that the middle class has increased in numbers since the second half of the 20th century, but that the increase led to greater diversity in thought/mindset--especially on the issues of race, business, and social benefits. I’m wondering about the racial and class categories in your study in light of racial politics over the last few years since Obama took office in 2008 and then after his reelection in 2012. In what ways would you interpret the last six years, considering the attack on affirmative action and voting rights in particular? Also, considering current demographics in the U.S., I’m wondering whether the “cultural” threat, is really about the changing face of America’s working class. In other words, is the “middle-class” or the would-be theoretical middle class of the future (say 50 years from now) still majority white?  

13. The book portrays a united agenda among “the right” to overturn the progressive social and cultural advancements of the 1960s and 1970s and oversee a soft segregation of society and education through exclusive educational practices and the promotion of a neoliberal “knowledge economy” ideology. Would you please explain a bit about the logistics of this united front? You seem to imply at points in the book that it was/is a consciously shared program among policy makers and business leaders. Or was it rather, like you imply at different points, a diffuse reaction against the civil rights movement? Are the exclusionary and racist educational policies you describe in your book one of the many afterlives of American slavery?

14.  In your book you make note of the use and abuse of “permatemps” or contingent faculty in public higher education.  Toward the end of our MOOC, I’ll be joining the online community in a discussion of institutional change.  I agree with you that “proper public funding should be tied to reversing the growth of adjunct and low-wage teaching staffs” (273).  What do you think is the best way to achieve this goal?  Many public universities simply could not function without large numbers of contingent faculty.  Increased funding for higher education is a difficult political sell.  Is it time to get used to the end of the tenure track?  Or is there a way that we might preserve it and roll back the large numbers of adjuncts that teach most of the courses offered by public universities?

15. I am interested in the ways in which marketing (and marketing budgets) of universities have changed since the publication of your book.  Have the intended audiences (middle class majority) or messaging changed in these advertisements?   After this time Obama (then newly

elected president) has established his agenda on providing higher education opportunities for every child and the social media landscape has grown rapidly.  Everyday I see marketing campaigns for universities online, on buses and television.  How has the visual rhetoric of university marketing changed and developed over the past five years?  And over the larger history of higher education?  What does this visual rhetoric (if anything) tell us about the “unmaking of the university?”  I am interested in this question both in terms of integration vs. demographic as well as evolutions of imagery associations with higher education.   

And an unrelated question: In what ways do you see this work interconnected or not connected to your previous text Ivy and Industry?  

16. If you had just one Humanities MOOC to teach to the world, what would it be?


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