The Crisis in the University

Universities have long enjoyed the pre-eminent position in the social life of cities and, more generally, in the modern public imagination. The 1962 Port Huron Statement, which became one of the founding documents of the Students for a Democratic Society, aptly expresses this view:

The university is located in a permanent position of social influence.
Its educational function makes it indispensable and automatically
makes it a crucial institution in the formation of social attitudes. In
an unbelievably complicated world, it is the central institution for
organizing, evaluating, and transmitting knowledge…. Social rele-
vance, the accessibility to knowledge, and internal openness — these
together make the university a potential base and agency in the
movement of social change.

Do universities still hold this position?

Professor Don Mitchell’s talk “Social Justice and the Sausage Factory: Struggles in and over the University in the US and UK” revolved around the paradoxical situation that universities find themselves in within cities in the present. Are universities still a social force for public good within cities, or, are they increasingly turning into capitalist entities? Based on a collaborative project to study universities across four different urban contexts in the US (Denver/Boulder, Oakland/Berkeley) and UK (Manchester, Glasgow), Mitchell argued that universities continue to be an important social force, but they are redefining the ‘public good’ in the process. Universities remain a social force because there is an ever-increasing flow of teachers and students into urban communities, and the rising student protest is reshaping the urban public sphere. However, amid declining public support for universities, which has intensified under the neoliberal recession, these historic sites of political organizing have tried to reinvent their social relevance by emphasizing commitment to community engagement and socially-engaged scholarship. In reality, though, as Mitchell pointed out, these goals are sometimes neither concretely defined nor seriously practiced.

Women in a sausage factory
“A schoolmaster is a productive labourer when, in addition to belabouring the heads of his scholars, he works like a horse to enrich the school proprietor. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of in a sausage factory, does not alter the relation” –Karl Mark, Capital, Vol 1


Declining public support has combined with massive transformation within the university culture over the last two decades, resulting in the evacuation of the autonomy that allowed these institutions to perform their social function in society. These transformations, according to Mitchell, include an increased push for professorial productivity, the proliferation of online courses, overemphasis on the “student experience” (leading to massive diversion of funds to non-essential services), instrumentalization of research, etc. Financial considerations determine these changes more than social needs. In cities, where universities historically acted as public forums—aside from being economic engines that provided employment and brought business to local economies—universities are now beginning to close themselves off to local communities by redefining universities as “non-public forums”.

The discussion that followed Mitchell’s talk further interrogated the crisis that universities are facing. Comments ranged from how, despite corporatization, universities remained the only Left public spaces in the US to how this crisis might just be a British-American phenomenon. Commentators further asked if the neoliberal restructuring of universities had shifted the emphasis within the universities from the academic imperatives to the administrative-financial ones. Mitchell, speaking from his own experience as a member of the board of trustees at the Syracuse University, pointed out that university administrators too had little control over the broad direction that the universities were taking.

While the optimism of the talk and the discussion was quite helpful in conceptualizing why universities remain enormously important within cities, a few observations might point to why we need to worry more than ever about the transformation of universities. First, on the question of universities redefining  the ‘public good’, for instance, one can extend Mitchell’s argument to see how the transformation of universities, more than just causing a crisis within these institutions, might in fact be putting them in direct confrontation with local communities, especially in poorer neighborhoods. For instance, Columbia University’s plans to expand into Manhattanville in West Harlem, its demand for exclusive control of the site and ultimate pursuit of eminent domain, has sought to destroy local businesses instead of bringing business to the neighborhood. The university officials saw the local businesses as an “urban blight” that stood in the way of New York City’s knowledge-based economy—a much-touted public good.[1] This is a wider issue, and not specific to a single university. Second, while it is certainly true that the flow of teachers and students into the urban community keeps universities vitally important as a social force, there are also unhealthy trends, like the complicity of institutions, departments of economics and individual academics in establishing and maintaining neoliberal hegemony.[2] David Harvey has expressed this failure of universities in the following manner:

The current populations of academicians, intellectuals and experts in the social sciences and humanities are by and large ill-equipped to undertake the collective task of revolutionizing our knowledge structures. They have, in fact, been deeply implicated in the construction of the new systems of neoliberal governmentality that evade questions of legitimacy and democracy and foster a technocratic authoritarian politics.  Few seem predisposed to engage in self-critical reflection. Universities continue to promote the same useless courses on neo classical economic or rational choice political theory as if nothing has happened and the vaunted business schools simply add a course or two on business ethics or how to make money out of other people’s bankruptcies.[3]

Finally, universities have begun to falter on even their basic promise: that they are a vehicle for upward social mobility. As the army of underpaid adjuncts grows,[4] more and more students find it harder to get decent jobs.[5] The crisis is acute in humanities and social sciences. Instead of finding ways to generate support and sustenance for these critical domains of knowledge, we hear exasperation and calls to reduce the support further,[6] or desperate calls from within the academy to move toward non-academic careers.

Given these crises, it is perhaps not easy to determine if universities will be able to make a turnaround or not. Perhaps the bright spot in this grim scenario is that this has been an ongoing affair for over a century now. Corporatization of universities is not new, but it is unlikely that it is ever going to be complete. We might have to contend with the fact that universities might be less than singular forces for social justice, yet they are more than just sausage factories.


[1] For a detailed study of Columbia University’s plan and its consequences, see Steven Gregory (2013) “The Radiant University: Space, Urban Redevelopment, and the Public Good”, City and Society, 25(1): 47–69.
[2] For more on this see John Brissenden “The Academy is the Crisis”[2]
[4] See James Hoff (2014) “Are adjunct professors the fast-food workers of the academic world?”, The Guardian, 24 January.[4]
[5] For instance, read this recent personal account, Patrick Iber (2014) “(Probably) Refusing to Quit”
[6] See Edward Conard (2013) “We don’t need more humanities majors”, The Washington Post, July 30.