Christopher Newfield’s latest book, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, deserves to be the centerpiece of a serious, sustained public discussion about the place and function of public universities in American society. Students today find themselves in an inverted relationship: paying far more and getting far less, an arrangement that exacerbates income inequality and the viability of the American middle class.
Newfield, a professor of literature and American studies at UC Santa Barbara, has an insider’s perspective on the damage privatization has wrought in public higher education, and he makes the argument — with clear, persuasive writing and well-marshaled facts — that applying a corporate mentality to what should be a public good hasn’t worked for student learning or quality teaching.
After decades of willing cooperation from politicians, policy makers, and university administrators — including budget cuts and staggering tuition increases — public universities no longer see their mission as providing a good that produces both public and private benefits. The idea that publicly funded higher education benefits the larger society has been replaced by a belief that such education is primarily about individual economic gain.
The American Funding Model that Newfield describes in detail is “producing the worst of both worlds — costs for students that are too high and spending on instruction and research that is too low.” In Newfield’s view, today’s students need more personalized instruction and direct feedback than public universities are able to provide; while this situation hurts all students, it is particularly hard on students of limited financial means.
Along with razor-sharp analysis of what is wrong with public universities, Newfield offers solutions about funding, teaching, and learning, and he is relatively optimistic that the solutions can be achieved because there is recognition, on the part of people of diverse political persuasions, that a university education has become too expensive and students are being saddled with unmanageable debt.
The Great Mistake is likely to become a seminal work. One can only hope that the book is read and discussed by policy makers, politicians, students, parents, and anyone else who believes that developing educated, creative, and engaged citizens is our best chance to solve our collective problems.