10/24 Christopher Newfield, "The Innovation Conspiracy: Ruin and Rebirth in the American University"
Guest Writer: Robert Mejia

Thursday, October 27, 2011

[On Monday, October 24, the Unit for Criticism hosted “The Innovation Conspiracy: Ruin and Rebirth in The American University,” a lecture by Christopher Newfield, professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The below contribution is from Robert Mejia. The event was the third and final celebrating the Unit for Criticism’s thirtieth anniversary.]

Christopher Newfield’s "The Innovation Conspiracy: Ruin and Rebirth in the American University"
Written By Robert Mejia (Institute for Communications Research)

Though familiarity may make our walks across the quad appear to be regular and mundane, we must remember that the discourses involved in sustaining a campus like the University of Illinois are anything but. I can recall my first experience of the quad, looking over it from the Illini Union Hotel and thinking, "here is a real college." Even though the space is hardly free from the excluding effects of class and race, the relatively free flow of bodies and the spontaneous interactions that emerge as a result is symbolic of the democratic promise of a public university. And so it was fitting that Christopher Newfield described his own morning walk through the quad when he began his October 24 lecture, "The Innovation Conspiracy: Ruin and Rebirth in The American University"—the last of the Unit for Criticism’s three 30th birthday celebratory events.

Those of us familiar with the campus know that the quad is often a crowded walkway fraught with various charitable and not-so-charitable organizations vying for our attention, or at least spare change. In this regard, the quad again functions as a physical manifestation of the state's disinvestment from the University. As Newfield noted, though public investment in education has declined since the 1960s, enrollment at research institutions like the University of Illinois and the University of California has quadrupled over that same period.

Public divestment from higher education poses an ongoing threat to the ability of public universities to uphold the promise of a democratic society. However fraught the promise may be, the public university system is a more accessible site for intellectual development and the maturation of social responsibility than private alternatives. Public research universities, for instance, reach over twice the number of students as private research universities and at only half the cost per student. If we are to continue to believe that public access to education is the cornerstone of a democratic society, then public interests cannot be left to private entities.

And yet, this is precisely what is happening. Universities, according to Newfield, are caught within the "death spiral" of an "innovation conspiracy." The conspiracy does not indict innovation itself, but rather the pretense that innovation is antithetical to collective modes of existence and vice versa—particularly the assumption that bureaucratic institutions like government and the research university resist innovation. Newfield's ideas on the individualist character of innovation are modeled on the legacy of Joseph Schumpeter. He notes that even though universities invest millions of dollars in innovation—wired and wireless campuses, for example—the notion that innovation must be foisted on them by outside entrepreneurial forces persists.

The key steps of Newfield's "cycle of decline" show how loss of public funding leads to privately funded initiatives that, while often good in themselves, do not serve the core educational mission—even though the result of sustaining them is typically increased tuition. As the public finds itself paying more for less, the result is a new cycle of public defunding.

To elaborate just one point in the cycle, universities raise tuition for multiple reasons one of which was the subject of Newfield's 2009 article in the journal Profession. The scenario Newfield describes is one in which universities lack the support to cover the overhead of grants. At the University of California, for example, the difference between net research funds and the total costs of research is a gap of 720 million dollars. (Grant recipients who hand over money for overheads to the university do not always realize that these overheads are insufficient to cover costs.) These uncovered costs must be covered from state funds or, failing that, student fees and tuition. This occurs at the same time that state funding is declining and private fundraising cannot be used for core operations. The examples of rising tuition Newfield cited showed increase of as much as 400% in the last two decades, compared to 250% for healthcare costs.

Though the solution is complex, Newfield suggested that a good starting point is transparency. Budget transparency is a crucial part of the picture, but it is not the only one. Another goal is to rearticulate education as a public good—an idea Newfield believes enjoys public support despite the increasing privatization of public education through high tuition and, thus, decreased access. In a less predictable light, Newfield urges teachers to make educational labor (their own and that of their students’) more transparent. This includes teaching as well as research. As Newfield drew a picture of pedagogy as a kind of professional craft, using the example of his own teaching and advice in a teaching abroad program, I was reminded again of the Illinois campus. At various spots along the engineering and main quads, placards can be found documenting the social contribution made from individuals and/or departments, such as Wilbur Schramm’s contribution to the establishment of NPR and PBS, or John Bardeen’s contribution to the invention of the transistor. These placards, as we know, are not enough.

How does one enact Newfield’s recommendation that we make our pedagogical practices visible? He argues that this can begin with the simple practice of documenting the learning process that transpires within the community of a public university. In the teaching abroad program in France, Newfield asked each student a question to help him or her formulate a research goal. Most students, he reported, had never been asked to describe the kind of research that might appeal to them—much less to create a research project springing out of these interests. When students are encouraged to think of themselves as scholars, and not as students taking one more step toward their ticket to a profession, the potential for making the collective gains of education visible becomes apparent. Teaching (and research) should be practiced as a form of education labor guided by a craft ethos. The benefits of education can be articulated beyond the acquisition of career credentials: as laying the foundations for a more democratic society.


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Chris Newfield said...

Thanks very much for this overview, and many thanks to a great UI audience for an excellent discussion afterwards.