Provocation on Chapters 2 & 3 in Part I: The Political-Economic Context of Public Higher Education, in Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier, Austerity Blues: The Crisis in Public Higher Education

Fabricant’s and Brier’s Chapters Two and Three from Austerity Blues accomplish two remarkable goals. First, they succinctly describe and contextualize the development of the public university system during the latter half of the 20th century. Second, and more importantly, they analyze how post-war economic and political challenges shaped the development of public universities, particularly CUNY (and UCAL). The reading ends with the observation that public universities after the tumultuous 1960s and 70s would come under attack from austerity and neoliberal policies.  These two chapters tackle wide-ranging issues but three stood out the most to me. (The questions for the provocation are within the following three sections; I apologize if there is any confusion.)

First, the post-war fears of veteran unemployment and subsequent unrest and interest in molding citizens, employees, and scientists of the future drove the state and federal governments to heavily invest in higher education. It was a matter of furthering American excellence at home and dominance abroad. In light of this goal, what type of education would be privileged/sought after by the state? If the purpose was to grant educational opportunity to veterans, then how did public educational institutions respond to the influx of students who were different than the target population? What happens if these students are not interested in the aforementioned goals and values of public education? Did aiming to solve the particular challenges presented by nearly 8 million veterans/new college students limit how public universities approached latter challenges?

Second, the comparison between the creation and growth of the UCAL and SUNY/CUNY, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s demonstrates how institutions react to internal and external pressures. There are two developments I thought were crucial to each system. One was the development of the UCAL “multiversity” system and the other the CUNY BHE’s master plan. Can the multiversity program be considered a bridge to the later neoliberal/austerity policies? How does the multiversity impact how and what education receives money and attention? For CUNY, the emphasis on maintaining tuition-free education seemed to have backfired as the university attempted to grow. Now we have an emphasis from politicians and activists on affordable education (and from some quarters, tuition-free higher education). What does the development of the public university system in New York tell us about where funds should derive? Should the state bear all or most of the burden or should students share some if it for the good of all?

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