When the results of the 2020 election became clear, I exhaled breaths of both relief and disappointment.
The relief was obviously over the defeat of Donald Trump, a singularly malevolent presence without care for the well-being of the country or the people he’s meant to serve, his low character on display on the way out the door as he fruitlessly protests a loss significantly larger than his victory over Hillary Clinton with unfounded charges of “fraud.”
The disappointment was in realizing that my wish for a movement toward making access to higher education open and equitable was going to be much harder to achieve with a Republican or even closely divided Senate. A unified Democratic government seemed poised to take action on issues like reducing student debt obligations and providing funding to higher ed institutions in order cushion losses from the coronavirus.
I am deeply worried about the future of public higher education and the thought that a sympathetic government could swoop in and solve things was tantalizing.
Action on student debt may be coming. Chuck Schumer told Anand Giridharadas that he’d encourage Joe Biden to cancel $50,000 worth of debt for all borrowers by executive action. This would be an excellent move to stimulate the economy as we continue to feel the effects of the coronavirus-related recession.
I titled my book Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education because this is what I want, a system that is sustainable, and that can withstand potential disruptions, like a global pandemic, for instance. I want a system that doesn’t leave students indebted, and where people who hold jobs like my old one (adjunct instructor) can get paid a decent wage. I want a system that fulfills the mission of enhancing the intellectual, emotional, social, and economic potential of everyone who intersects with the institution – faculty, staff, students, and the community in which these institutions exist.
But as I thought about the idea of sustainability, I realized how important it is that these changes require the involvement and consent of all stakeholders.
One of the hurdles to a sustainable future for our post-secondary education institutions is a fundamental lack of trust among Republicans when it comes to our institutions. I discuss this problem in chapter eleven of Sustainable. Resilient. Free. The solution is multifaceted. It is a combination of marginalizing bad faith actors like the Campus Fix, which gins up phony controversies in the service of gathering clicks and page views to keep the money flowing, with making sure that public institutions are able to tell the full scope of their own stories, rather than being tagged with the occasional excesses of elite institutions that soak up so much attention and come to stand in for higher education as a whole.
In other words, less about Harvard, more about the non-elite institutions doing the yeoman’s work of providing opportunities, even as they labor under the yoke of continuing austerity.
Seeing the changes I propose imposed by a unified Democratic government, potentially involving something like overriding the filibuster, would leave it all vulnerable to bad faith, politicized attacks. Making college affordable and institutions sustainable shouldn’t be viewed as a partisan exercise.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m of the firm belief that if the vision I lay out in the book for our public higher education institutions comes to fruition skeptics would be won over. Conservatives go to college too – I’ve had them in my courses for my entire career – and changing how we fund and operate our institutions will make for more efficient and cost effective use of available money.
Our current system literally couldn’t be less efficient and cost-effective. We shuttle hundreds of millions of dollars a year out of the public coffers and into the hands of private interests. We have to do better by our public institutions.
Believing in the importance of institutions was once a hallmark of conservative thought. As an institutionalist myself, it’s one of the reasons I’ve long identified as a “dispositional” conservative. The first things I wrote after the election of Donald Trump was that we were going to need our institutions because it seemed clear to me that as a President he had no interest in maintaining them.
Maybe the era of institutions truly has passed and we will watch our public colleges and universities continue to wither.
I hope not. It would be a terrible loss for the country.
We can choose to secure our institutions for future generations, but for it to happen, we have to do it together.