The End of the University as We Know It?

by Sharon Stein

The long-term effects of the coronavirus on higher education are still unfolding, alongside other emerging, overlapping political, economic, social, and ecological crises. Thus, it is difficult to say anything for certain about the ‘post-COVID’ future of higher education. To use a metaphor of the weather, what we are currently facing may only be a category one or two hurricane; more severe storms are likely to come.

Yet this has not stopped countless commentators from offering their analyses, predictions, and even prophesies about what changes we will see, what the virus ‘means’ for higher education, and how we should respond. In addition to blogs, podcasts, and opinion pieces, I have already seen several calls for submissions to edited volumes and special issues on the topic. Analyses have dissected institutional responses, offered broad projections about the effects of declining enrollments and economic losses, and traced the devastatingly uneven impacts of virus-related institutional closures and adjustments. Others offer more overtly politicized calls to action and specifically to reclaim the ‘public good’ function of the university, rooted in the recognition that crises are often mobilized toward regressive reforms and ‘disaster capitalism’, and thus, seeking to push things in the other direction. For instance, in a widely circulated piece in the New Yorker, Corey Robin writes “The coronavirus has seeded a much-needed conversation about building a more equal society. It’s time for a similar conversation about the academy.”

Many of these responses have been informative and thought-provoking. Yet most of them – even the most radical of proposals – seem to be rooted in an implicit investment of hope in the continuity of the university, in one way or another. I suspect that to challenge this notion of hope is to invite dismissal and be deemed irrelevant, defeatist, or even dangerous, perceived as aligning with decades of efforts to privatize and dismantle public higher education. While there is rather unanimous agreement that naïve hope is bad, we are told that critical hope or radical hope or educated hope is needed, perhaps now more than ever. To consider the possibility of the end of the university as we know it is therefore to be understood as, in part, calling it into being. We are discouraged from even putting it on the table as just one of many possible higher education futures. But try as I might to avoid it, I feel called to sit with this possibility.

Before I proceed, I should note that when I say “we” and “our” in this text, I am not presupposing a universal “we”. Instead I am referring, in general, to those of us who study and work in universities. This “we” also generally (although not perfectly) aligns with those of us who are engaged in what we might call “low intensity struggles”, as compared to those in “high intensity struggles.” Broadly, in high intensity struggles, peoples’ safety, well-being, and continued existence are directly and consistently threatened by the same violences that sustain our universities and the larger system in which it is embedded. In low intensity struggles, people’s wellbeing and safety are not directly threatened by structural violence; while they might face certain struggles – for instance, job precarity, lack of access to certain services, or feelings of anxiety and depression – their continued existence is not systemically targeted. The patterns I identify in this text are primarily exhibited by those in low intensity struggle.

Calibrating Our Critiques

Much of my work is focused on mapping different approaches to a shared issue of concern. I often frame this work as mapping different ‘theories of change’, with each theory being made up of a diagnosis of the problem, and a subsequent proposition in response. We often assume that theories of change are coherent, meaning that propositions will line up neatly and logically with diagnoses. Yet this is not always the case. In fact, in the face of growing political, economic, and ecological instability and uncertainty, I find more and more that there is a misalignment between the diagnosis and the proposition offered. In particular, I have recently encountered more diagnoses that name the severity of the overlapping challenges we face, and link current crises to the colonial roots of our system and institutions, including universities.

From this diagnosis, I generally expect that what will follow is a proposition that the reform of these institutions is neither practically viable nor ethically desirable; that while we do need reforms to reduce harm in the short-term, ultimately, we need to face the fact that our system and its institutions will fail, and fall — along with the way of life that, for many of us, is the only one we have ever known. In this case, relevant questions might be: What should we be doing as we await this fall? What are our responsibilities to each other in this decline? How can we soften the fall, and what can we learn from this failure? What do we want to take with us as we welcome something new? How can we prepare for what might come after, without projecting our desired certainties and securities onto the unknown, and thereby smothering still emergent possibilities? However, when it comes time for this dire diagnosis to translate into a proposition, instead I find that often people continue to seek solutions from within the same system and institutions that caused the very problems they have just diagnosed so eloquently.  In this case, our propositions are calibrated in a way that betrays our diagnoses. It turns out that we cannot not want (in the words of Gayatri Spivak) to save our universities.

My interest here is not in the lack of coherence between diagnosis and proposition, as coherence has always been more fantasy than reality, but rather in what lies beneath this calibration. Why is it that we can have so much ‘knowledge’ about our current predicament that suggests our universities, and the larger system within which they are embedded, are beyond reform, and yet we still turn (and often, run) away from coming to that conclusion? I suggest that the reason for this disjuncture is not an informational or intellectual one, but rather an affective one that is conditioned by the socio-historical context in which we find ourselves, and the habits of being that are fostered by that context. To face the full implications of our critical analyses would be too threatening to the colonial hopes, desires, and futurities that we continue to hold dear. When the price of admitting the full depth and magnitude of the mess we are in feels too high – for instance, because it would require grappling with the possible end of our livelihoods within the university, and the possible end of our perceived ‘purpose’ as scholars and teachers – we revert to (often unconscious) modes of denial or disavowal. Even when intellectually we are not satisfied with this denial, we are generally unwilling and unprepared to face knowledge that challenges our perceived entitlements, and that does not fit within the modern/colonial parameters of legibility, relatability, and desirability.

Why We Cannot Not Want the University

Higher education is often understood as a site at which the promises of our social, political, and economic system can be justly realized – including the promises of human progress, social mobility, and knowledge as a primary means through which to achieve social change. Thus, investments in the continuity of the university are not just about the institution itself; they are also tied to its (perceived) role in validating and perpetuating a wider system and fulfilling its promises. Because of this, it is difficult if not impossible, for those of us who have historically benefited from that system (at least relatively speaking) to disinvest from the university’s institutional form. Even as these promises go increasingly unfulfilled, it is more common to ask how we might preserve or renew these promises than to question whether they are indeed promises worth holding on to. At the end of the day, most critiques of the university belie an enduring investment in its perpetuation — however much this is accompanied by demands that it be perpetuated in either a slightly or significantly transformed state (Boggs & Mitchell, 2019).

The assumption that the university is the primary site in which modern promises can be fairly and efficiently distributed still has a significant hold on not only the popular but also the scholarly imagination. I have found this to be the case even when people are aware of the university’s deeply racial and colonial foundations; even when they know that the post-World War II ‘golden age’ of the university was subsidized by global militarism and domestic racial capitalism; and even when they have an incisive analysis of the fact that the shift from Keynesian industrial capitalism to financialized neoliberal capitalism has meant growing disinterest on the part of capital to purchase social peace in ways that would cut into its profits, and thus, a growing disinterest by the state in showing a benevolent face that is invested in social welfare and the ‘public good’.

As the promises that were previously more accessible become increasingly uncertain and difficult to fulfil, it becomes harder to ignore the possible limitations of our existing system and its institutions, including universities. Yet this context has also led some people to cling to these promises even more tightly. This makes challenging the benevolence — or at least the redeemability — of those institutions all the more difficult. As long as we still have a choice about whether or not to face the limits of our institutions and the system that underlies them, many people will choose “not.”

If, as Wendy Brown (2015) suggests, we are living in an epoch that is characterized by “civilizational despair” (p. 222), then many (Brown included) will seek to counter this despair by reclaiming their “conviction about the human capacity to craft and steer its existence or even to secure its future” (p. 221). Higher education, through both its promises of “infinite opportunity and upward mobility” (Wyly & Dhillon, 2018, p. 135), as well as its promise that the knowledge produced within its walls will enable us to solve current crises, becomes a prime site at which our ability to craft a future in alignment with our existing desires and perceived entitlements is reclaimed.

But what if the promises that are offered by the university and the larger system that underlies it are not broken, and therefore fixable, but fundamentally both false and harmful? What if these promises could never be fulfilled for most people, and to the extent that they could, this came at a significant cost to other people and other-than-human beings that were deemed not to matter? From this perspective, perhaps ‘civilizational despair’ is not something to be suppressed or appeased, but rather something to be faced head on, and even cautiously welcomed. But whether we will do so as long as we still have the choice not to is another question.

Facing the Mess

Writing about the tendency of leaders to ignore the ‘worst case scenario’ of possible climate change futures, Spratt and Dunlop, argue for the need “to understand the potential of, and plan for, the worst that can happen, and be pleasantly surprised if it doesn’t. Focusing on middle-of-the-road outcomes [or the outcomes that one deems the most desirable], and ignoring the high-end possibilities, may result in an unexpected catastrophic event that we could, and should, have seen coming” (p. 11). Even if there is only a 5% chance that we are facing the end of the university as we know it, isn’t it worth our attention? As Stefan Rahmstorf writes, “Nobody would board an aircraft with a five per cent risk of crashing.” He further notes, “Defeatism and doomerism is not the same as an accurate, sincere and sober discussion of worst-case risks. We don’t need the former, we do need the latter.”

It is difficult to say in advance what might come from an honest, sober, self-reflexive consideration of the possibility that we might be facing the end of the university as we know it. But perhaps people would be more willing to undertake this work if we remembered that the university as we know it is just one, relatively recent, mode of organizing higher education that became universalized largely through processes of colonization. Other forms of higher education have always existed, and continue to exist. As Fred Moten once said in a conference organized around the theme “Another University is Possible,” the university “is a historical phenomenon that had a beginning, and it ought to have an end.” While many would quibble with Moten’s “ought”, we do not have to agree with that part to consider the possibility of the end of the university as we know it – which would not be the end of higher education, just the end of a particular mode of higher education. Perhaps it is only by sitting with the potential end of the university that we can open up the possibility of higher education otherwise.

Still, an otherwise is not possible if we do not do the difficult work of disinvesting from the promises and perceived entitlements that are offered (if rarely delivered) by the formation of higher education that we currently have, and the larger colonial system in which it is embedded. Disinvesting is not the same as divesting (Agathangelou, 2016). Disinvesting, in this rendering, does not entail removing oneself from a situation by searching for some place that is not compromised (which does not exist) or that offers a ready-made alternative (which belies a continued investment in the same certainties and securities offered by the current system). It does not mean that we should stop working to make life more livable in existing institutions, and in the larger system, for as long as they continue to stand. But it does mean not continuing to invest in their futurity. This would require us to gesture beyond the harmful promises and narrow horizons of hope that are offered by the colonial nation-state, the capitalist market, universal knowledge systems, human exceptionalism, and possessive individualism. Divestment requires that we learn from the many mistakes of a system that is dying, so that we do not repeat them as we look toward the system(s) that will (re-)emerge in its place. It also requires that we recognize that these emergent systems will not necessarily be wiser than the system they replace, and we will likely make new mistakes in the process. Divestment requires that we develop the stamina, maturity, and humility to compost the huge mess we have helped to create, rather than try to transcend it or turn our backs on it in search of an easy exit. And it requires that we welcome an uncertain future without projecting our colonial hopes onto it. In other words, this is a difficult task.

Indeed, the task is so difficult that we generally avoid it – even this avoidance contradicts our intellectual analysis and/or our ethical commitments. However, in the face of a future that is increasingly inhospitable to the perpetuation of the university as we know it, this task feels less and less optional. There is a growing acknowledgement that there is no going “back to normal”, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has made systemic, historical injustices even more glaringly obvious. As we face a growing storm, the flood waters are rising. We can continue to wade for now, but at some point, we may have no choice but to learn to swim. Perhaps that will be the point at which we cannot not want to ask what beginnings might become possible at the end of the university as we know it.

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