The Ph.D. Program in History

at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York

GC Events







Thursday, December 12, 4:30 – 6:30

ARC Seminar Room 5318

The Graduate Center, CUNY


In the space of three generations, the American system of higher education has been remade, in many ways not for the good. This talk looks at ways to understand current changes in higher education. Sometimes it seems as if they were the result of a crisis like the crash of 2007-8. Or they are a part of the contemporary evolution of social institutions. However, they were not inevitable but created through policy and politics since World War II, ushering in a brave new university of shrunken social services and privatized public life.


This talk will illustrate the stages that contemporary higher education has passed through—one of college students now, as opposed to the previous one of their parents, who might have gone to college in the 1980s or 90s, and the one before that, still present but in distant cultural memory of their grandparents, who might have gone in in the 1950s or 60s, if they attended. Similarly, for a college instructor, the world is very different if they came on the job in 1960 as opposed to 1990, and even moreso if they are coming onto the job now.


One point of the talk is that the university is not an ivory tower or temporary passage but in fact runs through American culture, society, economy, and politics. Indeed, with 85% of younger Americans attending, and more than 2/3 of the previous generation, we live in the Age of Higher Education. I call this “universityism,” and it speaks to class and other social discriminations, and much else in US cultural and social life.


Another point of the talk is that cultural representations give us a window onto the social place of higher education. A further point is these changes are the result of policy, and therefore, if they have aided and abetted the gauntlet of inequality now, they can also change again.


Among the changes are the privatization of research, for the purposes of private businesses rather than public interest; the privatization of student fees and services, through student debt, charge cards, and work; and the privatization of labor, with policies normalizing underpaid, precarious workers rather than sustaining a body of faculty. Moreover, universities have become self-accumulating enterprises themselves, with vast real estate, financial holdings, and other mercantile interests.


The talk will also suggest one direction of the new field of critical university studies. What would a truly democratic or socialist university look like? And why do we rarely hear this question asked, rather than the university of austerity?

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