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Higher Education in the New Gilded Age

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Higher education in the 21st century, especially at elite institution, is basically a hedge fund operation, building up enormous endowments while not spending any of it on anything that doesn’t generate more profit. People have long said they want higher education run like a business and now it is. So you have this kind of scenario:

Stanford has the world’s third-largest university endowment, valued in 2018 at $26.5 billion. Yet it is crying poverty to explain why it can no longer provide yearly $1.7-million subsidies to its acclaimed press. The announced cut, which became public in a Faculty Senate meeting on Thursday, has confounded and outraged faculty members and other press supporters, and is seen by many as a backhanded way of closing the scholarly publisher.

“This is a reprehensible moment for one of the richest universities in the world and a diminution of intellectual inquiry. It really boggles the mind,” said Woody Powell, a Stanford sociology professor, a former member of the press’s editorial board, and a current adviser to it.

Whether or not the Stanford administration intends to strike the press’s death knell, said Peter Berkery, executive director of the Association of University Presses, “what’s being proposed will have that effect. There’s no right-sizing … you’re eliminating the press.”

A week ago, Stanford’s provost, Persis Drell, presided over a meeting of the university’s humanities and social-science chairs, said faculty members. She informed them that an advisory budget committee had decided to discontinue the $1.7-million subsidy (really $1.5 million in available funds, said the press’s director, Alan Harvey) that the administration had allotted during each of the last three years. Drell asked those present if they thought the money would be better spent if it went instead to graduate fellowships, which have been limited in recent years.

The department chairs puzzled over what they saw as a non sequitur, which they said was like asking them to choose between campus security and the English department. Moreover, they observed, the amount would support only three fellowships.

Worried emails started circulating, and by Thursday hundreds of signatures had been gathered on letters in support of the press from the anthropology, English, history, and other departments, the law school, and other groups. The letters object to the cut, to the abruptness and narrow circulation of the decision, and to ostensibly putting the decision in the hands of faculty members who lack experience in managing academic publishing.

Once again, the endowment is $26.5 billion. Billion. This is a drop in the bucket.

What’s more is that schools such as Stanford demand at least one–if not two–books from historians for tenure. But there are increasingly no university presses to publish those books. I guess it all goes really well with turning all of our schools–even our elite ones–into vo-tech programs and feel-good courses for capitalists. Get rid of the presses, get rid of history professors, get rid of the humanities. Capital wins.

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