Swarthmore College

The fact that the public university is privatized is now impossible to avoid. At public flagship campuses, privatization means that the gap from state disinvestment has been filled with money from private donors, the pursuit of seemingly lucrative (but actually costly) grant funding, and other cost-saving measures. But what does this mean for other public campuses, especially ones that, unlike flagship campuses, tend to serve predominantly historically underrepresented groups? In their new book Broke: The Racial Consequences of Underfunding Public Universities (Chicago, 2021), Laura T. Hamilton and Kelly Nielsen investigate how the defunding of public higher education has created a multi-tiered system that accumulates underrepresented students on campuses that have fewer resources than flagship campuses with disproportionately white student populations. They focus on two institutions within the University of California (UC) system – UC Riverside and UC Merced – to describe how neoliberal logics and the seemingly contradictory push for access have created a novel institutional form—the new university—and to portray an institution, like Merced founded in 2005, that distinctly has never not been neoliberal. 

Our Associate Director, Andy Hines, spoke to Laura Hamilton, Professor of Sociology at UC Merced, and Kelly Nielsen, Senior Research Analyst at the Center for Research and Evaluation at UC San Diego, in early March 2021. Over the next several weeks we will publish their discussion about the book’s arguments, interventions, and composition. This week’s excerpt explores Hamilton and Nielsen’s definition of the “new university” and “postsecondary racial neoliberalism,” considers the impacts of competitive logics between units in institutions, and reflects on how historical infrastructure on campus can disrupt the smooth functioning of neoliberal managerial dictates. The next installment will discuss how policing on campus relates to this political economic framework, as well as the benefits of scholarly collaboration across rank. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.


Andy Hines (AH): There are a couple of terms in your book that I think may be unfamiliar to some of our readers that are crucial to understanding your work. In fact, your approach to these terms marks one of the book’s most important interventions. Could you discuss and define the “new university,” as well as post secondary racial neoliberalism? Could you also reflect on the ways that those terms are related in your argument? 

Kelly Nielsen (KN): The new university is an institutional form. It is a response not only to the defunding of public postsecondary higher education, but also to the status competition that makes up the postsecondary universe. It consists largely of research universities that rely heavily on a predominantly historically underrepresented student body to generate revenues and to compete.

New universities are not all new. To the contrary, apart from UC Merced, they are often quite old institutions and they have gone through a process of transformation where they have embraced their predominantly underrepresented student body as a way to attract revenue to keep the university going, both for survival and for reimagining what it is to be a high status institution.

Laura Hamilton (LH): These institutions are all over the country and there are increasing numbers of them. Some examples include Arizona State University; University of Central Florida; University of Illinois at Chicago; University of Maryland, Baltimore County; University of Houston; and George Mason. There are already a lot of these schools and we expect that they will increase in number because of the shift in racial demography, the growth of the wealth gap, and the decline in fertility rates. Basically, there are only so many affluent, racially and economically privileged, domestic or international students, so states are going to need to start serving other populations more aggressively in order to stay afloat.

KN: Yes, these institutions respond to the growing pressure to be accessible that comes from outside of these institutions, mainly to have their enrollment reflect the population of states. The response to this pressure is to not just expand access, but to market this diversity and to turn it into different kinds of revenue, whether through diversity-related grants or through the production of promotional material that will attract students and donors.

The trouble is that this pressure to make campuses more accessible contradicts the exclusivity associated with high status in universities. Many elite universities argue for their status based on large numbers of applications and a low acceptance rate. But institutions like Arizona State or UC Riverside come along and counter that argument by saying that high status means accepting many students and giving them the best possible education. This is flipping the script on accessibility and exclusivity, though with the underlying challenge of needing to generate private revenue.

LH: This is a good point to talk about postsecondary racial neoliberalism. Schools are in a difficult bind with the current financial structure of higher education. We’ve moved away from a public system that is primarily public-funded to a system that is primarily funded by private sources of donor funding, whether that donation is tuition from families and students, philanthropy, investment returns, or corporate sponsorships. That system is the neoliberal part of the term and comes from the idea that we should deflate public spending on social welfare. I note that this deflation happens right as Black and brown youth begin to clamor for greater access to the system, especially research universities.

There’s the deflation part and then there’s the intensification of private market competition for the funds that Kelly has mentioned. The problem is that postsecondary racial neoliberalism rests on the idea that individuals and organizations should “earn” their financial rewards in a competitive marketplace. But this really just does not take into account the continuing centrality of race to accessing opportunities and resources in the U.S. These non-redistributive structures not only create gaps in wealth for individuals and families, but also organizations. 

Organizations that are serving predominantly racially marginalized students tend to have a harder time getting access to private revenue, even though they are creative and do a lot of the things Kelly noted in trying to flip the script. These institutions are placed under a lot of financial pressure because, in the United States, we have this idea of merit: a socially constructed colorblind sorting mechanism that emerged to block access claims by marginalized students. Merit has become linked to whiteness and affluence because white families tend to have greater resources to produce the things that schools recognize as merit. This gets mapped on to institutions, too. Institutions that are new universities serving racially marginalized and economically marginalized students get seen as lower status under the current system. That’s partly where those challenges are coming from that Kelly noted. 


AH: Here and in the book you identify the contradiction between the push for accessibility and the logic of individual competition based upon scarcity and colorblind merit. I wanted to focus on one of the many sites where you explore this contradiction at UC Riverside and UC Merced: the question of interdisciplinarity. 

You point out that initiatives in the name of interdisciplinarity can be done well, but you also state plainly, “in the new university…interdisciplinarity is often also a direct response to severe resource constraints.” I also can’t help but think about how the conjuncture of 2020 has led to a significant increase in interdisciplinary hiring largely to address student demand and social perceptions of the lack of “diversity” on faculties, an issue you also discuss. Without sounding too cynical, what is the relationship between interdisciplinarity as a cost cutting measure and the fact that so-called minority studies disciplines are often crucial, if not signature sites of interdisciplinarity on a number of campuses?

LH: When I think about interdisciplinary departments, I think of something a little different than the general push to consolidate units in interdisciplinary hiring or to cut the number of people being hired by using interdisciplinary hires. 

Let me give you an example of what I mean. At Merced, they had limited money and a limited number of positions that they could hire. Rather than making difficult decisions about which departments get which hires, the administration said, “We’re going to do interdisciplinary hires. We’ve got five lines. Fight.” So professors argue over this and ultimately these interdisciplinary hires are placed in departments where they need to get tenure. That’s actually quite difficult if you don’t have an interdisciplinary structure to support you. It is also a way to set up competitive dynamics among departments. Those dynamics means departments won’t collaborate. So, these hires actually work against interdisciplinarity instead of towards it. 

Units on campus that start as interdisciplinary majors or those that represent often devalued and ignored areas of research are different. When you start a major like that and you hire faculty for it, you’re providing support. Our argument was that interdisciplinary research doesn’t work without the support to do it right. There are various schools across the country that have thriving African American and Latinx studies departments. At Riverside there are some of these interdisciplinary departments, but a lot of the energy is connected to the cultural centers that were related to areas of research. But you have to support them. Without that support they are not a silver bullet for financial woes.  

If institutions try to enact interdisciplinary programs without support, then they are going to undercut a lot of their goals, which would be to increase collaboration across fields and to increase faculty diversity. There isn’t a lot of evidence that these programs actually work that way, unless, of course, institutions are investing in these programs or that there are clear equity guidelines for searches. Departments and faculties find ways to avoid hiring people of color all of the time.

KN: This gets back to the character of the postsecondary racial neoliberal institution. When institutions build more competitive structures in order for departments to diversify their faculty, they are participating in the neoliberal turn. At the same time, there is a depoliticizing element to the postsecondary racial neoliberal movement. This means that when an interdisciplinary department is there to increase the representation of different types of work, this is actually a political movement of sorts. An attempt at saving money through a hiring cluster means that there is not an infrastructure in place to support these faculty. This results in depoliticizing their contributions by starving them of resources.

At UC Riverside, the cultural centers that were there to support students were an outgrowth of departments. For example, Chicano student programs was actually an outgrowth of the Chicano Studies Department, which eventually went away. These departments created this other political space to support students even after departments were shuttered. With this built infrastructure, students are supported through cultural centers and other networks that were formed with the community. This means that faculty on campus were not the only people there to support and mentor students. In other words, these departments, cultural centers, and organizations that emerged from political movements or carry a political connotation are, in some ways, the exact opposite of cluster hiring approaches.

AH: Your answer makes me think of an important argument that you make throughout the book: UC Riverside’s origins as a predominantly white institution at its founding in 1954 and up until the 1990s set in place resources and infrastructures that, say, Merced, founded in 2005, does not have. What I hear you describing with regard to interdisciplinarity as it relates to so-called minority studies disciplines is that institutions that can do hiring in existing departments, rather than clusters, can offer more resources to those faculty and students. These departments that largely emerged in the late 60s and early 70s provide the infrastructure to continue the work as it was conceptualized in their founding. Meanwhile, institutions that don’t necessarily have that history or that do not have Black, ethnic, or feminist studies units in place are uniquely susceptible to the neoliberal logic of competition that guides these diversity-based cluster hires. 

LH: That’s right, though there’s these interesting ways in which both things can be going on at the same campus. Riverside is a good example of that and this relates to the difference between developing a multicultural center to serve everybody and developing community-based centers grounded in equity logics and grounded in communal collaborative push back against structures of oppression. Both of these ideas — the multicultural, as well as the equity-based logics — existed at Riverside. Over time these logics build structures in universities and then new logics, such as those associated with the neoliberal turn, come in and with that the cluster hire arrives, the one-serve multicultural center comes. These institutions that are older have multiple layers of different structures built in different times with different logics and they often compete and aren’t exactly on the same page. 

It’s interesting to see that this didn’t really happen at Merced, because Merced is pretty much only a neoliberal institution given that it was built in 2005. There’s less to push back against that logic here. But at Riverside or other campuses there are structures in place that can be mobilized to push back against those logics.


AH: This is another question about interdisciplinarity, but it is more about your own practice and your own work. You end your book with an appendix on method, particularly on being white studying race. This appendix reflects something broader about your work: you put in conversation the scholarship in Black studies, Ethnic studies, versions of critical university studies, and other forms of humanities-based thinking about the university with higher education studies discourse. What did the humanities-based and minority studies-based work bring to your project that higher education studies doesn’t emphasize? And why do you think that this type of work is not typically engaged in higher ed studies?

LH:  We were really aware of the lack of understanding of race in the higher education scholarship on neoliberalism generally speaking. One could read a whole lot of that work and never see the word race appear, which seemed incredibly insane, considering that with the historical timing of neoliberalism, race is deeply interwoven. 

We were intentional about our turn to race theory already, but this pushed us more and more to excellent work like Racial Formations by Omi and Winant that has race at the center of the neoliberal turn. This material became our grounding literature and just wasn’t there in the higher education literature. This thinking on race offered us a deep understanding of how white supremacy and various economic logics have combined to reproduce race and class inequalities. It also became really important to us in recognizing our own blind spots as white scholars. This pushed us to really delve into this literature and think critically about what this meant for our study at every stage of the work in terms of the questions we were asking as white scholars, as well as informed how we understand where the types of interventions we are making would provide the most support and do the least harm to the communities of color we were interested in studying.

The second part of your question is a bit harder. When interfacing with policymakers, they are more comfortable and more knowledgeable about work in higher education studies. To integrate humanities-based inquiries into the university would bring some of that work in conversation with people that wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable being in conversation with critical race theory. That piece in particular is important to us because we are really interested in challenging structures. In order to do that we had to bring the two bodies of work together. This means we could talk to people in Governor Newsom’s office, State Assembly people, the Regents of the University of California and other public systems by invoking the lingo they’re used to.

KN: I want to mention that one of the books I was reading as we were starting this project was Roderick Ferguson’s The Reorder of Things. It has helped me recognize how the university takes radical initiatives and movements and removes the critical position and turns the rest into a benign part of the organization. This was incredibly helpful for us, especially in recognizing how we saw the university take all of this radical work students were doing and turn it into an institutional initiative that lost the critical parts that would have brought equity into the organization.

I found this to be really helpful to us especially when we went to Riverside and there appeared to be so much success at building a campus culture that was much more supportive and to recognize that there are really hard limits to what can be accomplished in terms of generating racial equity in terms of empowering students.

By looking across the whole organization we were able to look at factors beyond the immediate structure of the university system. Those external factors include its place in the labor market, large structures of domination, financial structures related to revenue generation, and a competition for status amongst institutions. I would not presume to speak back to humanities scholars doing critical higher ed work—they do think through a lot of these problems. But what we were really able to do was to pull a lot of threads together—and this was one of the fun parts of the book for us—to look at the systems of financial markets in higher ed, which allowed us to consult the expertise of our colleague Charlie Eaton, to look at students and radical movements and to identify where the critical thrust of these movements runs into a knot of issues, which we call postsecondary racial neoliberalism. If anything, we produce a guide to say these are all of the things to be attentive to as one sees where the university falls short in attempts to be a radical institution or to pursue dramatic social change based in equity.

About the Author

Andy Hines is the Senior Associate Director of the Aydelotte Foundation. He is the author of Outside Literary Studies: Black Criticism and the University .

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Posts by Andy Hines
March 18, 2021