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The Existential Crisis of the American University

Higher education in the United States rules the world. What's wrong with it?
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New York University's School of Business. (Photo: littleny/Shutterstock)

New York University's School of Business. (Photo: littleny/Shutterstock)

My favorite philosopher (Michel Foucault) wasn't a philosopher so much as he was an innovative historian. Instead of casting his gaze at some well-defined era, Foucault studied the breaks between eras. Why did the model of the way the world works change? Instead of a history, Foucault offered histories. In that tradition, I offer the recent histories of the American university. The first Foucauldian moment, "The Day the Purpose of College Changed":

Sometimes, sea changes in attitude start small, gradually establishing assumptions until no one remembers thinking differently. This is how that happened to liberal education. It’s a story of events on campus and beyond: the oil embargo, the canon wars, federal fiscal policies, the fall of the Soviet Union. On that day in 1967, Reagan crystalized what has since become conventional wisdom about college. In the early 1970s, nearly three-quarters of freshmen said it was essential to them to develop a meaningful philosophy of life. About a third felt the same about being very well off financially. Now those fractions have flipped.

The day was February 28, 1967. On that day, one's philosophy of life took a back seat to a cost-benefit analysis of higher education. Foucault, not the guy that Alexander Nehamas put in the "art of living" canon of philosophers, would have wondered about the paradigm shift. Why now?

After February 28, 1967, domestic migration in the United States shifted. "The migration rates of the young, single, and college educated have been consistently higher than those of the general population since the late 1960s." Coincidence? I think not. The period of the late '60s into the early '70s was a major rupture in the order of things. The Baby Boomers, the offspring of the first American Century, were rising into power. Their world would become everyone's world. Their appreciation of college would define the university for about 50 years.

Fifty years ago this year, Congress passed the Hart-Cellar Immigration and Nationality Act. A product of the Civil Rights era, racial quotas were abolished. This opened the door for highly skilled immigrants from places such as South Asia to move to the United States and participate in the new university geared toward workforce development as well as research. The term "brain drain" was born.

In 40 years time, if I am still alive, I might reflect on today and pick another February 28, 1967. We are in the midst of a major rupture in the order of things. Presaging the second Foucauldian moment, "NYU Eats World: An Alumna Laments the Rise of an Imperial University":

In the 1980s, NYU began gentrifying. The goal was to upgrade from a regional commuter school to a residential research university. Instead of night-schoolers who arrived on the subway, the new freshmen would be suburbanites who paid top dollar to live in dormitories.

There were hubristic dreams as well. The not-so-secret goal was to give the Ivies a run for their money.

Though the rebranding was risky, it was the moment for such a move. All of American higher education was beginning to change. Tuitions started ascending, as did salaries of senior faculty members, and colleges became more concerned with institutional growth than with education.

Within a generation of Hart-Cellar, the university turned away from the Boomers' educational mission toward research and development. Institutions of higher education were in financial crisis. Tuition didn't pay the bills as Boomers aged and the smaller numbers of Generation X sought seats in freshmen classrooms. University presidents were well aware of the looming demographic decline even in the late 1970s. R&D represented an alternative revenue stream. Boomers (well into their careers at this time) needed knowledge production, not education. Gen X got the short end of the stick.

Politically, Boomers still run the fiscal show. A college degree should lead to a job. The university is a factory that produces the talent industry needs. Millennials, who are on the cusp of dictating terms, have amassed debt in the research university that did more to advance talent in India than in Indiana. For now, concerning the public university, the polities of Boomers and Millennials are aligned. State funding trends downwards.

What do Millennials want out of higher education? Beyond research and superstar faculty, universities must offer world-class amenities. The campus is more resort than classroom. Be urban. Be cosmopolitan. That sells. Welcome to the University of Club Med. The art of living has come full circle.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.