US democratic institutions, always profoundly imperfect, are clearly in crisis. The chasm-like inequities laid bare by COVID-19, the visible and ongoing killing of Black Americans, and the violent insurrection at the Capitol encouraged by an outgoing president are powerful recent indicators. These developments are also signs of deep and chronic problems, including:
- Increasing economic, political, social, educational, and health inequalities
- Increasing racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia
- Increasing attacks on science, knowledge, and democracy itself
- Declining trust in nearly all major institutions
Many things, obviously, contribute to the current situation. Among the most significant is neoliberal capitalism, with its emphasis on privatization and deregulation. Government, business, foundations, schools, hospitals, and large nonprofits have not effectively countered it.
So long as market-based neoliberalism largely defines our economic system, these institutions will fail to provide effective public service and education. Opportunities for economic advancement and meaningful participation will continue to be stymied, reinforcing the shift of income and wealth to the top that we’ve seen in past decades—and have only accelerated since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Higher education is at least as responsible as any sector for the continued (even if fraying) dominance of a neoliberal economic system. Creating a more humane, inclusive, and productive economy will therefore require major changes in US higher education.
The Social Responsibility of Universities
Research universities are perhaps the most influential institutions in US society. They develop new ideas and technologies, incubate businesses, serve as cultural and artistic centers, and are engines of local, national, and global economies. As anchor institutions, they often engage in partnerships with government, the private sector, and community-based organizations to revitalize local neighborhoods and schools. Most important, they teach the teachers—and the teachers’ teachers—across all subjects, powerfully shaping student learning, values, and aspirations from kindergarten through graduate school.
Why have supposed centers of enlightened thought not only helped formulate, but also adopted and promoted, neoliberalism? Truth be told, many if not most universities have lost their way, embracing private gain and economic advancement over what are supposed to be their core purposes of educating ethical democratic citizens and advancing knowledge for the public good.
Education for profit and narrow economic self-interest are contrary to the historic purpose of US colleges to educate students, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, with “an Inclination join’d with an Ability to serve.” Franklin’s call to service was echoed in the founding documents of hundreds of private colleges established after the American Revolution, as well as in the speeches of many college presidents.
That orientation found expression in the subsequent century in the Morrill Act of 1862, which established land-grant colleges and universities whose purpose was to advance the mechanical and agricultural sciences, expand access to higher education, and cultivate citizenship. With the development of the research university in the late 19th century, higher education’s purpose expanded to include creating knowledge to improve the human condition.
Of course, university history is hardly all about progress and democracy. Land acknowledgements recognizing the dispossession of Indigenous peoples and slavery projects by universities (including our own) have helped to connect past policies and practices to the racism and inequities we see today. The history of US colleges and universities nonetheless strongly supports our claim that the public—indeed, democratic—mission is and should be the primary mission for higher education.
For more than 30 years, however, universities have helped shape neoliberal, free market approaches to the economy that reflected and accelerated the commercialization of higher education. They have been and remain, as economist Andrew Seal put it, “one of neoliberalism’s indispensable nodes.”
The Rise of the Neoliberal University
Although Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian economist, is acknowledged as the academic champion of neoliberalism from the late 1930s through the 1940s, it was the economist Milton Friedman and his colleagues at the University of Chicago who took Hayek’s mantle and successfully promoted and advanced neoliberalism from mid-century on. The elections of Margaret Thatcher (1979) and Ronald Reagan (1980) as national leaders served to consolidate this economic paradigm in public policy.
The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, passed under Jimmy Carter just a little over a month before Reagan became president, encouraged universities to pursue patents and earn profits for their discoveries. Despite the potential for supporting local economic development, Bayh-Dole and related measures led colleges and universities to act like capitalist enterprises, profiting from ventures spun off from faculty research.
US politics continued to reinforce this turn toward commercialism. Backed by Reagan and leaders of both parties who followed, tax cuts and market-based ideology contributed to decreasing federal and state subsidies, rising tuition levels, a shift in federal education support from grants to loans, and the transferring of costs to the individual consumer—all of which defined higher education as a private benefit.
Neoliberalism valorizes education for profit, not virtue; students as consumers, not producers of knowledge; academics as individual superstars, not members of a community of scholars. These developments reflect what Derek Bok, a former Harvard president, termed the commercialization of higher education, which contributes to an overemphasis on institutional competition for wealth and status and distorts the values and ambitions of students.
When institutions prioritize commercialization, their behavior legitimizes and reinforces the pursuit of economic self-interest by students and amplifies the widespread sense that college is exclusively for personal benefit. Student idealism and civic engagement are strongly diminished when students see universities act like competitive, profit-making corporations. Commercialism and the development of the neoliberal university not only foster an environment in which higher education is seen as a private benefit rather than a public good, but they also simultaneously contribute to rising economic disparities both on and off campus and the underfunding of higher education.
Returning to a traditional liberal arts model, in which the university is detached from society, fails to counter the neoliberal university. On the contrary, while the traditional liberal arts college precedes the advent of the neoliberal university by many decades, its disciplinary focus and emphasis on elite and elitist education similarly work against core democratic goals such as diversity, inclusion, and equity. Higher education needs to offer equitable opportunities to all students in accordance with their talents and aspirations.
Both the neoliberal and traditional liberal arts models studiously ignore historically based and market-supported racism, whose devastating impacts in the era of COVID are impossible to deny. Pre-pandemic economic conditions for Black Americans in particular, including lower income and wealth levels, greater food and housing insecurity, and higher unemployment, left these communities also more vulnerable to the economic shocks of COVID-19. The health impacts have been astonishing: life expectancy fell in 2020 by nearly three years for Black Americans and three years for Latinxs (compared to 1.2 years for white Americans). Addressing such problems would be a primary focus of the democratic civic university.
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The Call for Democratic Civic Universities
Commercialization has not gone uncontested. Many colleges and universities, including our own, have programs that focus on educating students for democratic citizenship and improving schooling and the quality of life in partnership with 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 employed.
For example, a core component of the University of Pennsylvania’s civic engagement is the Netter Center for Community Partnerships (where we both work) and its partnerships in Penn’s local geographic community of West Philadelphia to create and sustain university-assisted community schools. University-assisted community schools function as neighborhood centers or “hubs” and develop school-day and after-school curricula focused on solving community-identified, real-world problems. Working with the Netter Center, university-assisted community schools connect Penn and West Philadelphia resources—involving over 3,000 Penn students, faculty, and staff, along with more than 3,700 K–12 students, their family members, and other community members—to achieve improved learning and a better quality of life for all. The Netter Center also collaborates closely with the university’s executive vice president office on community economic development, which includes implementing local procurement and hiring programs, to advance Penn’s role as an democratic anchor institution that works with and for its local community.
To provide another example, Rutgers University–Newark’s anchor agenda integrates academic and economic resources to address five major Newark city priorities: building strong educational pathways (pre-K through 16) for increased postsecondary attainment; strong, healthy, and safe neighborhoods; promoting and leveraging the arts and culture; science in the urban environment; and equitable growth through entrepreneurship and economic development. The school’s Honors Learning-Living Community, for instance, redefines the notion of “merit” and engages intergenerational and interdisciplinary learning communities of students, faculty, and community partners to help tackle pressing social issues in and out of the classroom.
A democratic civic university would involve significant and ongoing engagement of an institution’s comprehensive resources (academic, human, cultural, and economic) in partnership with community members to produce knowledge and educate ethical students with the ability to help create and maintain just, antiracist, democratic societies. In addition, this work of developing and implementing solutions to community-identified problems would function as a curriculum, text, and performance test for a university’s research, teaching, and learning activities.
A democratic civic university would also infuse democracy across all aspects of the institution. Participatory democracy and a culture of democracy, not just democracy as defined by voting or a system of government, would be primary goals.
US philosopher and education scholar John Dewey defined democracy as “a way of life” in which all citizens actively participate in the communal, societal, educational, and institutional decisions that significantly shape their lives. In line with that goal, members of a democratic civic university would treat community residents as full and equal partners. The relationship itself and the welfare of the various partners would be the preeminent value, not simply developing a specified program or completing a research project.
Contributing to the well-being of people in the community (both now and in the future) through structural improvement would be a defining characteristic. The goals of diversity and inclusion are deeply interdependent with community engagement. Both require critical examination and fundamental change of existing practices that perpetuate privilege and inequity.
Where We Go from Here
We believe the following steps are needed:
1. Root out institutional hypocrisy and engage field leaders (faculty as well as senior administrators) to transform their universities.
It is time for a thorough review of the policies, practices, and culture of higher education institutions. Higher education institutions, particularly research universities, are deeply implicated in the racial and social injustices and inequalities that permeate society. Indeed, the extreme poverty, persistent deprivation, and pernicious racism affecting communities in the shadows of powerful, relatively wealthy universities raise troubling moral issues, as well as questions about higher education’s contribution to society.
Students, faculty, staff at all levels, and community members need to call their universities to account—and to task—to do the right thing. This call should be designed to catalyze deep institutional change, including the creation of partnerships between universities and their neighbors specifically designed to achieve more just and inclusive campuses and communities. Such change would radically alter faculty work so that it increasingly contributes to the solution of core community-identified problems such as poverty, health inequities, environmental sustainability, and unequal education. This work needs to also be positively reflected in promotion and tenure.
2. Align public policy to promote democratic partnerships that make real change.
Universities must direct their own resources to partner with local communities in respectful, collaborative, sustained democratic partnerships that work to eradicate injustice on campus and in the community. However, government, which helped create the neoliberal university, can also help dismantle it. Now, as President Joe Biden seeks, at least in part, to move public policy away from neoliberalism, higher education policy too needs to adopt a new lens.
The “Noah Principle” should be a guide—that is, give funding for building arks (producing real change), not for predicting rain (describing the problems that exist and will develop if actions are not taken). This would not solve the problem of the neoliberal university but would help—rewarding education for citizenship and the public good, instead of for profit and private benefit.
3. Advance the democratic mission of higher education globally.
Many contemporary problems, such as the climate crisis—as well as racism and economic inequality—are global in scope, so the democratic civic university must also advance globally. A promising development is the formation of the Global Cooperation for the Democratic Mission of Higher Education, composed of four core partners: the Council of Europe; the International Association of Universities; the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility, and Democracy (which is housed at Penn’s Netter Center); and the Organization of American States. This work needs to be expanded to include democratic-minded faculty, students, staff, and community members working together to create and sustain a global movement to transform higher education.
Now is the time to end the destructive reign of the neoliberal university and create and sustain the democratic civic university that our campuses, communities, and societies need to improve and thrive. Replacing the neoliberal with the democratic civic university should be an institutional imperative for US—and, indeed, global—higher education. The future of democracy depends on it.