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Review: Robert Samuels, Why Public Higher Education Should be Free: How to Decrease Cost and Increase Quality At American Universities

Higher education is in a state of crisis. The mania affecting the academy is profit, slashing the price of labour, increasing class size, destroying the tenure system with full-time non-tenure track and adjunct-proletarian labour, and increasing the power and size of the administration-ruling class. Student tuition always increases even during prolonged economic stagnation. Student debt skyrockets as millions begin their occupational lives underwater in debt. Athletic programs drive the agenda with million-dollar babies as coaches and athletic directors while 34,000 with earned Ph.D.s are on food stamps to supplement subsistence wages. (Clare Goldstene, Dissent, August, 2013) Online courses and for-profit universities, although non-profits are becoming indistinguishable from for-profits, waltz through accreditation reviews despite their e-everything approach to higher education. While student-centered patois dominates websites and slick institutional advancement images, the reality is different. Robert Samuels serves as president of the University Council–American Federation of Teachers within the University of California system. In Why Public Education Should Be Free: How to Decrease Costs and Increase Quality at American Universities, he attempts with some success to describe and provide policy recommendations to reestablish undergraduate-student learning as the primary objective of postsecondary education in the United States.

His thesis is that elite-research universities dump large numbers of vulnerable undergraduates into large-lecture classes which fail to educate. Students learn nothing. They take standardized multiple-choice exams, rarely interact with professors, and learn not to learn but merely to score well on inane tests that provide no feedback on writing or critical thinking. There is a lack of intellectual stimulation or engagement between instructor and student. The large-lecture classroom, however, is a cash cow generating huge profits for the corporate university with the majority of teachers serving conveniently as exploited labour who are either contingent non-tenure track or graduate students. As tuition rises, increase revenue goes to star-faculty trophies, stadiums for alumni to drink beer and cheer on non-salaried athletes, and the expanding bureaucracy of ineffectual administrators. Shared governance and academic freedom are eviscerated with 70% of all faculty appointments off the tenure stream. The goal is profit for the few with the majority from students to instructors in economic turmoil.

Samuels is appropriately concerned about undergraduate instruction although he focuses almost exclusively on research universities within the ten-campus University of California (UC) system. His call for a transformation in teaching does resonate beyond the coast: replace oppressed graduate-student lecturers and part-time teachers with more tenure-track positions. Cease producing unemployable graduate students with terminal degrees whose job prospects are bleak because of corporate academe’s replacement of tenured faculty upon resignation, retirement or termination with graduate and non-tenure track faculty. Yet several of Samuels’s otherwise constructive recommendations reveal an authoritarian approach to higher ed that contravene his stated agenda of returning to a student-centered, faculty-centered university where quality education with academic freedom and shared governance is restored as the true mission of the university. It is a contradiction.

He recommends for example that the federal government mandate that full-time faculty teach most undergraduate courses. While certainly a desirable goal, the precedent of the federal government dictating to universities who should teach their classes is untenable in a democratic society. The very sovereignty of a university as a self-governing polis would be destroyed if a central government could exercise such unwarranted influence in staffing and assigning faculty courses in this manner.

Samuels avers that the Rate My Professor website is a good source in studying student criticism of the contemporary university. The website is frequently visited by students or even non-students who have not taken a class that is being rated and by professors who serially self-evaluate for purposes of promotion, reputation, and garnering adequate enrollments to keep their careers alive. Even the author concedes Rate My Professor attracts “disgruntled students.” What is astonishing is that this inane instructor-rating website is considered viable for measuring the pulse of student discontent when one can examine non-compromised student evaluations produced over a period of time for an instructor or the professoriate within an institution.

In his book, Samuels advocates the videotaping of every university class because he claims student evaluations and occasional peer-review visitation are insufficient in the assessment of teaching. He cites a Harvard plan to videotape “many of its professors” to improve teaching but expands that idea with a call for comprehensive taping of all courses. While videotaping a class to improve teacher performance is unexceptionable, the author does not specify who would study the film of all these classes and determine an instructor’s quality of teaching. He merely states that “experts [should] examine the quality of education.” (135)  Beware of the “expert” if there is such a thing in evaluating teaching quality and leave the peer-review, student-evaluation system alone. We don’t need another class of “experts” examining all the classes taught in America! Teachers are not the problem but their lack of academic freedom, large-class sizes, job insecurity and deteriorating morale across academia are. One wonders what the impact of such universalized videotaping would have on the spontaneity and free-flow of ideas in the classroom. Privacy is sometimes indicated for professors who are concerned about the lack of academic freedom and an Orwellian desire to root out real teaching that challenges the status quo.

Samuels is accurate in describing many students as passive note takers who avoid engaging an instructor because of class-size, an emphasis on rote learning, and insipid instruction. Yet the author’s fondness for autocratic solutions exacerbates the problem. He assigns an F grade to any student “caught” using a computer in class for purposes other than note taking: “[I]f they surfed the web during class, I would be sent a message, and they would fail the course.”(102) Students are adults; they pay our salaries or most of us who teach at tuition-driven institutions. Their attention during class needs to be earned not coerced; if students wish to surf the web that is their business if not disruptive as a cell phone ringing or talking to another student. The objective is to improve teaching and the search for the truth, not threaten students with zero credit for a course who may respond to an emergency text message or even look up a word or concept to understand better a lecturer who rarely accepts questions from students during class.

The mania of achieving high rankings in national surveys is another example of higher education’s drift from teaching to image polishing. Universities have become marketing engines  with public-relations experts that must score well on US News & World Report’s annual ratings of colleges and universities. Presidents, provosts, and heads of admissions are solicited for reputation scores but not faculty or students. Universities submit their own data that heavily impact rankings. Yet unsurprisingly these academic beauty contests do not measure student outcomes or the quality of teaching but application acceptance rates, average incoming ACT scores, faculty-student ratios and class size. Many research universities disingenuously low ball average class size by including within their faculty count researchers and tenured faculty who do not teach undergraduates in order to conceal the bloated size of their classes.

While instructors in an assessment-crazed standardized environment are increasingly teaching to the test, postsecondary institutions in order to achieve a high US News & World Report score, will game the system and deliberately encourage a surfeit of student applicants in order to reject as many as they can to achieve “elite” selectivity status. Yet the author posits another authoritarian solution that is frankly inane. Samuels’s remedy to this scam that he correctly identifies is, however, federal investigatory oversight of university-submitted statistics in US News & World Report  “books” (sic). Let the Feds determine the “accuracy and value” of the data! (125) It is one thing for secondary-education teachers and administrators to cheat on test scores to preserve funding and job viability. It is quite another for universities to cook the books for marketing purposes. George Washington University was caught in the act and US News & World Report dropped them from the rankings for a year. Self-policing beyond the reach of governmental surveillance is the only acceptable alternative. To suggest government oversight of a magazine’s data of ranking universities is beyond absurd: it is dangerous with significant freedom of the press and the separation between government and university sovereignty implications.

The book’s sources are primarily studies, commissions, and reports within or about the UC system. Samuels’s independent research is limited to informal discussions, conversations, and anecdotal comments from his students. Although the book is titled, Why Public Education Should Be Free, this important and worthy policy recommendation does not even appear until the penultimate ninth chapter. Titles that suggest the sweep of a work are preferable to those that merely describe a small segment of a study. Nevertheless, Samuels’s strongest and most original writing is his impressive recommendation that the United States emulate Finland’s core “principal that every student should be given an equal opportunity to learn.” (132)

In The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels envisioned a transitional period between dying capitalism and emergent communism. This socialist or Dictatorship of the Proletariat stage is transitional. It establishes through robust centralized means a new order that ultimately transforms the mind of the society and renders governmental activity obsolete that withers away. One of the Manifesto’s goals is, “Free education for all children in public schools…Combination of education with industrial production.”  This appeared 165 years ago within this illustrious masterpiece of liberation. Marx wrote the final draft and was well aware that an equalization of conditions was dependent in part upon open access to education. Chattel labour without education was perpetual wage slavery and a proletarian death sentence. While ostensibly limited to secondary education, the principle remains: the state should ensure continuous education for all its citizens in order to afford upward mobility and greater social equality. Finland, which is often cited as an exemplar in Samuels’s work, guarantees free access to education from kindergarten through college.

Samuels argues that the current system favours the rich with tuition tax shelters and 529 college-savings plans. They should be eliminated along with tuition, financial aid grants and loans with its attendant legions of administrators, bankers, and other bureaucrats. He estimates $128 billion would cover free public education for students at community colleges and public universities. Using 2010 data,  there were $35 billion in Pell Grants, $104 billion in student loans, and $86 billion of state funding of higher education. Remove these costs would more than compensate for direct federal funding of public higher education in the United States. Whether his data works as neatly as presented is beside the point. It is sensible and clearly within the affordable range given the $600 billion wasted on the Department of Defense with its monstrous wars: overt and secret across the globe! Of course the United States spends more in “defending” its sham democracy from the latest imagined enemy than it does in establishing real democracy at home. Similarly, universities spend vast sums of money on stadiums, far-flung campus satellites, and swarms of administrators who supervise other administrators with comparatively little left for the instructional needs of their students.

The often cited Jeffersonian advocacy for free public education appears in this work. Thomas Jefferson purportedly supported free public education because it would guarantee true democracy: “it is safer to have the whole people respectably enlightened than a few in a high state of science and the many in ignorance.” (120) Yet is anyone including Robert Samuels struck by the fact that Jefferson held legally mandated, uneducated Africans in bondage throughout his adult life including his eight years as president (1801-1809)? Jefferson’s wealth and power were derived from enslaved persons who were prohibited upon pain including possible torture from reading, writing, and receiving a formal education.

The genre of higher-education critique with its relentless emphasis on data, trends, and elite foundation funded reports can be quite prosaic. Nevertheless, Samuels offers a lively provocative work that is recommended for readers seeking primarily a cogent synthesis rather than an original study of the decline of American higher education. While perhaps most useful for professors in the rarefied air of the UC or research-university domain, there is broader relevance. While this work is not essential reading, most books are not, it illuminates the decline of quality across the corporate, venal world of higher education.


Peter N. Kirstein is professor of history at Saint Xavier University and vice president of the Illinois Conference of the American Association of University Professors. He chairs its Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

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