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On the Strangling of the Public University


This piece by Bady and Konczal is essential reading. A teaser:

When Reagan assumed office, he immediately set about doing exactly what he had promised. He cut state funding for higher education, laid the foundations for a shift to a tuition-based funding model, and called in the National Guard to crush student protest, which it did with unprecedented severity. But he was only able to do this because he had already successfully shifted the political debate over the meaning and purpose of public higher education in America. The first “bums” he threw off welfare were California university students. Instead of seeing the education of the state’s youth as a patriotic duty and a vital weapon in the Cold War, he cast universities as a problem in and of themselves—both an expensive welfare program and dangerously close to socialism. He even argued for the importance of tuition-based funding by suggesting that if students had to pay, they’d value their education too much to protest.

It’s important to remember this chapter in California history because it may, in retrospect, have signaled the beginning of the end of public higher education in the United States as we’d known it. It’s true that when the Great Recession began in 2008, state budgets crumbled under a crippling new fiscal reality and tuition and debt levels began to skyrocket. It was also in the context of the California student movement that the slogan “Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing” first emerged, in 2009, when students occupied campus buildings in protest against budget cuts, tuition hikes, and staff cutbacks, and were crushed by the same kind of overwhelming police force that was later mobilized against Occupy encampments across the country. But while university administrators have blamed budgetary problems on state legislatures—and scapegoated individual police officers, like the now-notorious (and former) UC-Davis “pepper spray cop,” for “overreactions”—these scenarios are déjà vu all over again for those with long memories. When Mitt Romney urges Americans to “get as much education as they can afford,” or when university administrators call the police as their first response to student protest, it’s Ronald Reagan’s playbook they’re working from.

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