Simon Doubleday March 7, 2019

A Higher Education New Deal

One of the most intriguing proposals in the Green New Deal resolution [H. Res 109] spearheaded by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is that the government should provide “resources, training, and high-quality education, including higher education, to all people of the United States, with a focus on frontline and vulnerable communities”. Indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, women, the elderly, the disabled, and other disadvantaged populations, should be afforded these educational opportunities, the resolution affirms, “so that all people of the United States may be full and equal participants in the Green New Deal mobilization”.

This vision of a revitalized higher education sector, placed in the service of a legitimate national and planetary emergency, invites us to think how we might reinvent our colleges and universities in pursuit of the GND. In fact, 2- and 4-year institutions might serve multiple roles. All of them would require decisive political action and intensive public investment.

First and foremost, in a world that is often reduced to reliance on search engines, they might serve as re-energized research engines focused on harnessing the collective brainpower of faculty and students in order to minimize the risks of environmental and human catastrophe. Federal and state governments could invest heavily in sciences and engineering—the fields which most immediately address climate change. They might also invest in the humanities and social sciences. Failure to do so is surely eviscerating democratic culture and debate.

In my own field, history, the crisis is unfolding on at least two levels. On a macro-level, historical amnesia and misrepresentation provides fertile soil for neo-fascism and other forms of repressive politics, including climate change denial. On the micro-level, shrinking departments with half the number of full-time faculty they enjoyed before the 2008 recession are unable to engage the most pressing issues of our day. Among them: How can students appreciate what a “Green New Deal” might mean without knowing what the original “New Deal” was, and how it transformed American society? How can we understand the impact of climate change on human societies in the light of changes and collapses of past civilizations? How can we evaluate political truth and lies, when history and other humanities/social science subjects are treated as the poor cousins of STEM?

Simultaneously, our universities and colleges might serve as well-funded centers for defining and developing the “community-defined projects and strategies” that H. Res 109 prioritizes. Centers for civic engagement could be amplified in ways that provide a louder and more decisive voice for local communities, a voice that helps to lead the academic projects of the institution. They can serve as mechanisms for rectifying systemic patterns of discrimination against “frontline and vulnerable communities”. Centers for the study of race, ethnicity, gender, and disability, and equivalent units on campus, could be further empowered and placed center-stage; so, too, might academic units concerned with labor and with disenfranchised working-class communities in urban and rural areas who may not always have had the ear of academic institutions.

Just as the GND as a whole can be seen, not as some intrinsically and absurdly left-wing idea but as an idea with antecedents going back to the Alexander Hamilton era and deep roots in American capitalism, a new deal for higher education might in principle appeal across the political spectrum. Much as the Right has come to see the university as a nursery of liberal coastal values, these efforts should be approached as a consensus cross-party project; to the extent that they are not, they should be pursued with even more energy, with respectful dialogue with those who have previously dismissed them as utopian dreams.

The academic good and the public good are symbiotic. Both are imperiled by the status quo. The GND resolution itself lays out the extreme dangers of climate change. We’re also currently mired in something like a Great Campus Depression. Any healthy democracy needs its professional thinkers, and vibrant arenas for intellectual debate. Yet college faculty are constituted by an increasingly small, overworked, and precarious labor force. The lucky few who are awarded tenure-track positions are absorbed by administrative tasks and consumed by email, internalizing demands for high productivity and subject to aggressively anti-intellectual cultural currents (Tucker Carlson’s recent tirade against the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman being the thin end of the wedge). Most faculty do not have time to read The Slow Professor. It is almost laughable: a faculty member in a state facing 41% budget cuts to higher education (Alaska) is charged for an Inter Library Loan book damaged when a 7.0 earthquake tips over their coffee mug. It is potentially tragic: some commit suicide as a result of the mental health impact of overwork. Above all, it is systemic.

The solutions are not individual or departmental. Despite claims to the contrary, there is no lack of “public engagement” by professors or departments; to allocate responsibility in this way, and to justify a lack of investment in the liberal arts on this basis, is a little like blaming sacked automobile assembly-line workers for their failure to persuade the public of the particular virtues of their vehicles. Nor can we place ultimate responsibility at the foot of university administrators, in private as well as public institutions, who often face difficult budgeting issues. The problem is international, and the key solution is to be found through harnessing the power of our state and national governments.

The GND should be more than an icon of partisan virtue, a monopoly of the revived Democratic Party. It offers a potential framework for the reinvigoration of our academic institutions, and for channeling that intellectual energy for the good of our society. In pursuing this agenda in the higher education sector, we should keep our eyes on three prizes: reversing climate change; catalyzing clean, sustainable economic growth; and enabling a full and powerful voice for “frontline and vulnerable communities” in this process. Finally, few institutions within our society are more cosmopolitan than our universities and colleges, or better placed to achieve the stated aim of “promoting the international exchange of technology, expertise, products, funding, and services, with the aim of making the United States the international leader on climate action, and to help other countries achieve a Green New Deal”.