As U.S. universities embrace the New Gilded Age, what institutions will help us to grow a better society?

Suffice it to say that American higher education, as a general proposition, is embracing the values of the New Gilded Age. A growing number of American colleges and universities are degenerating into career training centers, touting unpaid internships while charging sky-high tuition, neglecting the liberal arts, and loading up on well-paid administrators and exploited adjunct faculty while shedding full-time professors.

These trends are disturbing in and of themselves. Moreover, they raise a challenging question: If universities are heading in this direction, what institutions, structures, and networks will help us to blend research, theory, and service toward creating a better society? And how do we create decent, paying, sustainable jobs to support this work?

Of course, the fate of the public intellectual in higher education has been a subject of debate for some time now, especially since the 1987 appearance of Russell Jacoby’s important book, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. Among other things, Jacoby posited that sharp trends toward narrow specialization in academic scholarship were creating a professoriate that is less relevant to the major public issues of the day.

Yup, one could argue that part-time college teaching jobs, unpaid internships, “non-stipendiary” fellowships, and assorted volunteer gigs offer outlets for expression and creativity. And between individual blogs, sites like The Huffington Post, and free websites, there’s no shortage of online venues for publishing or sharing one’s work.

The problem is that most people have this weird need for food, shelter, and clothing. “Exposure” and “contacts” don’t pay for those basic necessities. A little bit of job security wouldn’t hurt either.

During the coming months, I will devote some space to exploring this and related questions, incorporating a variety of new and emerging voices on public intellectual life in this plutocratic, New Gilded Age. In doing so, I’ll be talking about educators, researchers, activists, practitioners, writers, artists, and others who share a common, understandable concern that our society has no place for them.

As a central part of this inquiry, we need to consider strategies for change. Is it possible to reverse the bad course taken by so many standard-brand universities? Or do we have to think about creating new, sustainable entities that embrace a different, better set of values? If so, how do we go about this?

***

To the many readers who follow this blog because of its focus on issues such as workplace bullying, employee well-being, workers’ rights, and the like, stick with me on this one. Research and ideas matter, including within the realm of dignity at work. However, mainstream academe has not been a major driving force in calling for a more humane workplace, which means that we have to identify, support, build, and create the institutions that are eager to do so.

5 responses

  1. With the advent of universities for working adults, intellectual explorations have diminished to standardized syllabi that can be taught by “facilitators”. This has changed the face as well as meaning of the word, university. I couldn’t agree more when you say, “charging sky-high tuition, neglecting the liberal arts, and loading up on well-paid administrators and exploited adjunct faculty while shedding full-time professors.” Even textbooks are standardized or compiled into online texts. Whatever freedom faculty once had over intellectual property, methods of instruction, and free speech in the classrooms has diminished radically.
    I don’t have answers to your questions. I only have more questions. How can we possibly encourage critical thinking and concern for our humanity when the higher education experience itself has diminished into a cookie cutter, assembly line production? I fear this is exactly what corporate America has dictated so they can count on running sheep in and out of their businesses, exploiting, then tossing out those who do not comply. Workplace bullying plays a huge role in this entire scenario.
    Corporate university’s keep getting richer at the expense of tax payers. Graduates try, and often fail, to keep their heads above water with the cost of living, raising families, and trying to keep up with student loan payments indefinitely. What once may have been thought of as a way to help employees become educated to earn better wages and employers hiring well educated workers has diminished into nothing more but another way to fund corporate greed. Adjunct faculty do their best but they, too, must comply with the company line…whether the company/university is for profit or non-profit. They are in it for the money, not for the sake of educating human beings.

  2. This is an incredibly important topic, David. Your hero (and mine) John Kenneth Galbraith, thought that the universities could lead social change in a progressive direction. He was right at that time. But unless we reverse this, the Universities will, as you suggest, become little more than appurtenances serving the needs of the plutocrats of the New Gilded Age. Thanks for taking this on.

  3. Bullying issues are certainly not mutually exclusive from universities. Achieving helpful research into practice transitions and socially progressive reforms needs to be demonstrated from the ground up. Some universities embody everything that is harmful about bullying – focus on funds, marks, results results results, how many articles published, how many students with firsts etc; human resources playing to the big gun only and quashing student dissent; and absolutely no rights or recourse for students/interns/grads to stand up to academic bullies. An academy does not a socially progressive, kind and caring, thoughtfully intelligent model make. So yes there is a huge way to go in this domain.

  4. Counter and possible evidence is in the debate about the use of SATs for college entrance. Slowly higher education institutions are valuing the softer skills. hmmm. To connect—this could lead to producing and valuing a counter culture to the bullyboss.

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