“The Lincoln Project” is a report issued by the Academy of Arts and Sciences examining the state of public research universities in the US. While I have not met a single colleague teaching at a public research university who has read it, it is nevertheless a significant document. It offers the reader a glimpse of the way administrators and policy makers at the highest level see our future.
I spent several months this past summer reflecting on the report, comparing notes with friends, and reading other thoughtful assessments. Having taught at both private institutions (Boston University, Bennington, Harvard) and at a public university (UMB), I’ve had a chance to see and participate in the different cultures of each.
The study succeeds at identifying both the problems faced by public research universities and the mainstream approaches to responding to them. By putting my experiences at UMass Boston in a larger context, the report suggests a deeply troubling anti-democratic trend which, I believe, undermines values I once took as foundational to our national identity.
From my perspective, the report is potentially disastrous for public research universities. It is ideological in the extreme. It seems to surrender to a destructive status quo which it has only superficially analyzed. At times, it reads as though it had been commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce. While it claims to offer a blueprint for achieving excellence in, and expanding access to, public higher education, it reads more like a template for accelerating its privatization, dismantling what many of us have always regarded as one of this nation’s most glorious achievements. I used to boast to friends from abroad about the quality and availability of our institutions of higher ed. I fear those boasts now sound like PR.
What’s missing in the report is an analysis of why exactly the “traditional financial model for funding…is now outdated.” The absence of a more probing examination of how and why, in such a strong economy, state support for education in general, and higher education in particular, has dropped so precipitously points to what I’m guessing is one of the report’s undeclared agendas: to push public institutions into ever closer relationship with private entities, which is to say, ultimately, corporations. I have witnessed the progress of that trend in small ways as well as large. When a well-intentioned administrator described students as customers, the characterization concretized how radically the attitudes toward and understanding of the goals and purpose of institutions of Higher Ed had changed in the last several decades.
There are some things the report seems to take for granted, and others it seems to avoid. Here is the opening paragraph of the report’s conclusion: “As the financial model of public research universities changes, driven primarily by diminishing contributions from the states, these institutions must find ways to respond to their pressing needs while also building for the future. The Lincoln project has focused on the universities as the principal actors….”
Let’s consider that paragraph’s opening sentence: “As the financial model of public research universities changes….” Why exactly has the financial model changed? And why has it changed in this way? The material and formal causes of the change may have been the financial collapse of 2008, as the report suggests, but the efficient and final causes surely reflect the desires of the wealthy to shape society according to their preferences. If followed, the report’s recommendations will tend to solidify rather than erode class distinctions.
Tiered dormitory housing for students wanting more amenities is becoming commonplace. Suddenly the opportunity the college experience used to provide, of giving kids from different class backgrounds a chance to mix, was supplanted by an undergraduate version of a gated community.
While lip service is paid in the recommendations to an increase in support from the state and federal governments, the primary burden is indeed put on the institutions themselves. But these institutions are called public for a reason. They are the creations of the state. The report encourages them to emulate—and therefore, unavoidably, imitate—private institutions. This is comparable to a gradual privatization of Medicare or Social Security. It sets a dangerous precedent.
Instead of emphasizing the importance of maintaining high academic standards and a curriculum that promotes what liberal arts institutions once proudly declared as their mission (the creation of an educated citizenry capable of independent, critical thinking), in its recommendations for how public research universities should respond to the dramatic decrease in state and federal support, the report focuses almost entirely on financial issues: It emphasizes first of all “establishing cost efficiency targets” and the importance of forming alliances with other institutions. It then urges public universities to explore new revenue streams ( the report adds “consistent with the fundamental values of public research institutions” yet I don’t see those clearly articulated anywhere; indeed, given the report’s touting of a successful collaboration with Raytheon, the weapon’s manufacturer, I had to wonder just what those values might be); it also suggests an enhancement of “advancement and development activities within the institutions…” (a push toward seeking public/private partnerships); and it invites them to “signal to the business community that universities are willing partners” in their enterprises. The recommendations also “encourage governing boards to pursue the expertise needed to adjust to new funding models” (i.e., let MBAs do to universities what they have done to the medical field with HMOs?). Finally, universities should “provide comprehensive financial aid to low-income in-state undergraduate students” (which, it would appear, can only be done after doing all of the above, and more).
When the report recommends that state and federal agencies work “together with philanthropic partners” to “provide transformational support for university faculty,” I think of the Koch brothers making decisions about who does and does not receive tenure at George Mason (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/05/us/koch-donors-george-mason.html). After all, if donors endow a chair, why shouldn’t they decide who sits in it? The Times story goes on to say: “In academia, such influence is viewed as inappropriate, partly because it may pressure professors to produce biased research, undermining the credibility of their work and spreading incorrect information to students. That may be particularly problematic in the interpretation of data and construction of models in areas of economics that affect federal tax policy or regulation.”
I am a little surprised that our national experiment in privatizing prisons did not become more of a cautionary tale for educators and higher ed administrators. As you know, far from leading to cost efficiencies, the privatization of prisons has resulted in raising both the cost and the rate of incarceration. Some contracts require states to pay penalties when prison cells remain empty. I can imagine comparable abuses not so much by universities but by lending institutions which profit from student debt. It’s hard for many of us working in academia to keep from concluding that the current remodeling of public research universities is driven by the same interests which have remodeled our national tax structure and which are working steadily to unbraid what remains of our frayed social “safety net.”
I was speaking with a friend and neighbor who used to run Associated Grantmakers in Boston about the current state of philanthropy. She agreed that finding private philanthropic support for liberal arts at public institutions is a losing proposition. In practice, this often amounts to paying lip service to the "moral" argument while really making its case on pragmatic grounds (we train the workforce you will need tomorrow). That allows educators to claim common ground with those who are only persuaded by analytics and numbers. And underscoring the social utility of Higher Ed is almost irresistibly tempting: isn’t the goal of education, after all, to provide students with the tools they need to enter the workforce with a hope of landing a good job?
Cardinal Newman might not have seen it that way. Indeed, he might have recognized it as simply a subtle rebranding of the nominally discredited system of indenture. Because that is what our system of Higher Education promises the poor and the lower middle class.
Do such arguments implicitly undermine the credibility of our claims for inherent value of knowledge. Do we still believe it has any? The erosion of whatever fire wall might once have existed between academia and the world of commerce is an unfortunate development. Indeed, it seems to me close to the root of the corruption permeating so much of our culture. How many Ivy League academics served on the boards of the financial institutions which created the Depression of 2008? Is it hard to imagine that their objectivity might have been compromised by their self-interest?
I worry that what we are seeing is the natural resistance of any elite to the creation of a level playing field which might minimize or erode the advantages they have worked to secure for their own children. In an educational system where the most marketable credentials cost the most money, those with the most money will not see the point of expanding public access to high-quality education. They will therefore institute the kind of low-tax, low-public-expenditure regime that has beggared American public life for nearly forty years. Much better, I’d say, for the universities to go down fighting, insisting that the rich pay their share of the bill for a robust civil society than to try to negotiate terms of surrender, as this report does.
But let us say that public research universities, their backs to the wall, decide to play by the rules proposed by the Lincoln Project. Consider the singular challenges confronting attempts to fundraise on behalf of liberal arts at a public institution serving a majority-minority population.
I was speaking with a friend who teaches at a well-heeled private institution. The majority of his students come from financially comfortable backgrounds. They value the time and resources their residential college can offer them. The college’s Board of Trustees is composed of successful alums whose fond memories of their four years on campus translate into generous support for the institution’s endowment, so that the the college can afford to support a significant number of “scholarship kids.” Now consider how this picture might differ at a so- called public institution which has nevertheless left its students with an average debt of say twenty-five thousand dollars. To earn their degree (and their debt), many of these students had to work two (and sometimes three) part-time jobs without benefits. As they reflect back on their four to seven years as undergrads, they are less likely to smile at the memories, and more likely to wipe their brows in gratitude for having survived the gauntlet.
Elizabeth Kolbert had an excellent piece on trends in philanthropy in the New Yorker last summer (August 27). In it she quotes Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation’s challenge “to openly acknowledge and confront the tension inherent in a system that perpetuates vast differences in privilege and then tasks the privileged with improving the system.” And then he points out how impossible it is for anyone to look into a mirror and see themselves as they might appear to others.
One might have hoped for something visionary from the Academy, something genuinely forward-looking, responsive to the social crises of our particular moment. Instead, we have a conservative, corporate-focused set of proposals which are essentially guaranteed to solidify social inequality. What if the academy had produced a report offering a template for how to achieve what an increasing number of educators and politicians are calling for: a network of free, or nearly free public universities, each equipped with all the resources of Harvard, MIT, or Colgate. It would take only a redirection of a fraction of the Pentagon’s budget to accomplish this and yet we are consistently told the idea is pie in the sky.
Now one might argue that the report is merely “realistic,” reflecting the facts on the ground. But I wonder if a more visionary approach might not serve us—our country, our citizens, our students—better? It would have provided a different set of talking points for university administrators.