Why position “abolitionist university studies” in opposition to “critical university studies”? – Trevor Griffey

The invitation’s argument that critical university studies “is haunted by its allegiance to a ‘crisis consensus’ fueled by nostalgia for the apogee of the postwar public mass university” does not accurately describe CUS’s most exemplary works.

In Jeffrey J. Williams’s 2012 Chronicle of Higher Education article that tried to label two decades of scholarship critical of the privatization of U.S. higher education as “critical university studies”, he lists three books from the 1990s as key to the development of what he was calling a field. One of those books is Academic Capitalism (first by Slaughter and Leslie, later revised by Slaughter and Rhodes), which has inspired a small subfield of scholarship on higher education administrators’ constant search for more revenue. The book argues that 1) university administrators are enthusiastic rather than reluctant agents of the commercialization of higher education, and 2) that public universities are part of the neoliberal state rather than mere vestiges of progressivism or the New Deal order. While critical of neoliberalism, the authors of Academic Capitalism state clearly in the book’s first chapter that “returning to the public good knowledge/ learning regime would be problematic because it had an unacknowledged side. In the 1945-1980 period, much scientific and engineering research [in universities] depended on Department of Defense funding for weapons of mass destruction.”

The invitation’s argument that critical university studies is informed by a politics of nostalgia for the so-called golden age of capitalism also seems to be based on an ungenerous reading of Christopher Newfield’s book, The Great Mistake. This is the book that the invitation’s authors are clearly criticizing in their footnotes for appealing to what “we have somewhat snarkily referred to [as] this white, middle-class, and sorta-liberal formation… the ‘concerned-dad audience.’” The Great Mistake is also criticized by Boggs & Mitchell for being part of an “administrative-managerial tendency toward prescriptive nostalgia.” Newfield is clear in his previous book, Unmaking the Public University, that racism and sexism pervade higher education— and that defunding public higher education was a repressive response to student movements, the enforcement of anti-discrimination law, and the growing diversity of college students. So his advocacy in The Great Mistake to reverse the decline in public spending on higher education could hardly be labeled as a desire to return to the days when free college depended upon robust military spending, before federal anti-discrimination law or ethnic studies.

It seems that what AUS proponents are inaccurately labeling as nostalgic is actually a certain kind of reform politics. As I understand the AUS critique, if an institution is borne of racial capitalism, as the modern university was, then reform of that institution without overthrowing racial capitalism itself is either impossible, undesirable, and/ or insufficient. My guess is that many reformers would concede the last point– that what they propose is insufficient– and that the greater friction in the age-old debate over revolution vs. reform as applied to higher education is whether reform is even worth fighting for.

I welcome the provocation that the decommodification of higher education– the main activist project of critical university studies, and the demand that has served as single greatest entry point for anti-capitalist activism in the U.S. in the past four years– is only beneficial to the degree that schools are radically transformed. Higher education continues to be a site for the reproduction of the ruling class for a system that makes war, labor exploitation, and environmental catastrophe profitable. The job training it provides should be paid for by firms instead of workers. And the massification of higher education since the 1960s used promises of social mobility to turn post-secondary schooling into a system for warehousing and profiting from the vulnerability of the underemployed, the unemployable, and the downsized.

Critical university studies has insights to provide about this complex system, especially through its close study of the management and political economy of institutions. But its analysis of how the decommodification of higher education can realistically happen has arguably been inadequate. Discussions of radical pedagogy have largely existed at the margins of this scholarship. And on revolution, for better and worse, it has been silent.

About the author:

Trevor Griffey, PhD is a lecturer in Labor Studies at UCLA and Labor Studies and U.S. History at CSU Dominguez Hills. He currently serves a faculty delegate to the UC-AFT Local 1990 executive board at UCLA, and Chair of Membership and Organizing for the California Faculty Association at CSUDH.

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