By Ira Harkavy and Rita A. Hodges
America’s current wealth distribution, with the top 1 percent holding 16 times the wealth than the bottom 50 percent (roughly $34.23 trillion compared to $2.08 trillion), is at odds with the idea of a fair and just society.
Other inequities laid bare and exacerbated by COVID 19 are similarly stark and troubling, including historically-based, market- and policy-supported racism.
Business Roundtable’s 2019 redefinition of the purpose of a corporation, in which 181 CEOs committed their companies to benefiting a range of stakeholders, including employees and communities, not just shareholders, is evidence that there is a growing public sense that something must be done.
Recently, leading foundations, including Ford, Hewlett, and the Omidyar Network, have developed initiatives designed to promote a reexamination of capitalism and find a successor to neoliberalism with its emphasis on privatization, deregulation, and a reduction in government spending.
The American Rescue Plan and President Joe Biden’s big and impressive infrastructure bill will turn the tide and begin to redirect capitalism for the better.
Producing a truly more humane and effective system will also require changing American higher education. Research universities in particular are sources of new ideas and discoveries, incubators for business and technology, cultural and artistic centers, and local, national and global economic engines.
As anchor institutions, they have the potential to be sources of stability and permanence in partnerships with government, the private sector, community members and community-based organizations to revitalize local neighborhoods and schools.
Most important, they teach the teachers and the teachers’ teachers, across all subjects, thereby, powerfully shaping the learning, values, and aspirations of students from Kindergarten through graduate school.
For over 30 years, universities have helped shape neoliberal, free market approaches to the economy, which reflected and accelerated the commercialization of higher education.
By prioritizing commercialization, higher education institutions have legitimized and amplified the widespread sense that the exclusive purpose of an undergraduate education is to gain career-related skills and credentials for personal financial benefit. Student idealism and civic engagement have been strongly diminished as students see their universities abandon academic values and scholarly pursuits to function as if they were competitive, profit-making corporations.
Education for profit and narrow economic self-interest are contrary to the historic public purpose of American colleges to educate students, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, with “an Inclination join’d with an Ability to serve.” With the development of the research university in the late nineteenth century, the public purpose was expanded to include creating knowledge to improve the human condition.
Commercialization has not gone uncontested. A large number of colleges and universities, including our own, have also focused on educating students for democratic citizenship and improving schooling and the quality of life in the communities in which they reside.
Service learning, engaged scholarship, community-based participatory research, volunteer projects and neighborhood economic development initiatives are some of the means that have been used to create mutually beneficial partnerships designed to make a positive difference in the community and on the campus.
Higher education has also made extraordinary contributions during the pandemic, including serving communities in need, providing health care to the sick, and developing medical treatments and vaccines.
Given the societal need, these efforts are clearly insufficient. The neoliberal university holds sway as the dominant model with negative repercussions across society, including for education and the economy.
What is to be done to help develop democratic civic universities that can help substantially change capitalism for the better?
To begin with, higher education institutions will have to do things very differently from the way they do them now. Changes in “doing” will require them to recognize that as they now function, they — particularly research universities — constitute a major part of the problem, not a significant part of the solution.
Foundations, corporations, and the Biden-Harris Administration can also contribute by supporting higher education institutions that engage their range of resources (academic, human, cultural, and economic) with their local communities in respectful, collaborative democratic partnerships that work to eradicate injustice and racism on campus and in the community.
Support would be based on what might be termed the “Noah Principle” — funding given for building arks (producing real change), not for predicting rain (describing the problems that exist and will develop if actions are not taken).
Such a step would certainly not solve the problem of the neoliberal university and its support of market-driven capitalism, but it would be an essential place to start, rewarding education for citizenship and the public good instead of education for profit and private benefit.
The violent insurrection against the Capitol Building and the Republican Party’s ongoing denial of electoral reality and assault on voting rights highlight the necessity to educate young people for ethical, empathetic, engaged citizenship.
Benjamin Franklin once again put it very well: “. . . nothing is of more importance for the public weal, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue. Wise and good men are, in my opinion, the strength of a state: much more so than riches or arms, which, under the management of Ignorance and Wickedness, often draw on destruction, instead of providing for the safety of a people.”
Dr. Ira Harkavy is the founding director of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships and adjunct professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and chairs both the Anchor Institutions Task Force and the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility, and Democracy. Rita A. Hodges is associate director of the Netter Center and executive secretary of the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility, and Democracy.