Last week, Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett was forced to resign after the Associated Press reported that Bennett, in his previous position as state superintendent of Indiana schools, had “fixed” a performance grade assigned to a charter school that was funded by a wealthy Republican backer. The backer, Christine DeHaan, is a multimillionaire who helped champion Bennett’s development of the largest voucher school and charter school program in the country.
The moment cast a new spotlight on a series of scandals in education throughout Indiana that have also engulfed Bennett’s former boss — Indiana’s last governor — Mitch Daniels. In 2012, a local controversy ensued when Purdue trustees hired sitting Republican Indiana governor Mitch Daniels to be the college’s next president, which violated both state law and the board’s code of ethics. Later that year, the FBI designated Purdue second in the nation for reported “hate crimes” among American universities. Just two weeks ago, the school made national headlines when the Associated Press reported that as governor in 2010, Daniels directed his staff to make sure no Indiana schools were teaching the work of historian Howard Zinn. Daniels called Zinn “anti-American” and his A People’s History of the United States “a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history.”
Mitch Daniels is not just a local player. He is part of a national project to dismantle the already-shrinking public sector and subject the lives of working people to the vagaries of the market. His first legislative initiative after taking office as governor was to strip public sector employees — including teachers — of collective bargaining rights. As governor, Daniels cut 150 million from higher education, created the largest voucher scheme for public education in the country, and ended his term by forcing through right-to-work legislation in Indiana. In all of these endeavors, Daniels was a trailblazer for more notorious Republicans like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and proponents of SB5 legislation in Ohio.
It shouldn’t surprise us that Daniels — known for his disdain towards public education and teachers — would be appointed the head of a leading public university. As Edward St. John and Douglas Priest argue in their edited book Privatization and Public Universities, there has been a nationwide drive to privatize higher education since the 1980s. This has been marked by several features: a shift from state tax dollars to tuition and fees to pay for college, increasing support for universities from corporations, and the privatization of university services.
Daniels’ policy decisions at Purdue have only perpetuated his work as state governor. Indeed, his decisions at the state level made him attractive as the ideal candidate to complete the job of dismantling the public infrastructure of a land grant university such as Purdue. The Purdue Board of Trustees witnessed the university’s financial struggle after Daniels made cuts to the state budget, and they even publically projected him as a “cost cutter” who helped balance the books with further cuts. Economic suffering and immiseration at the state level was used to justify similar processes at the university level.
During Daniels’ term of governor, student tuition at Purdue increased nearly 100 percent due to state funding cuts, and student debt reached a record high of $26,000 per student. This past June, he was a keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities. “We need you,” Daniels told the members of the for-profit organization. “I’m only interested in result per dollar charged,” reported Inside Higher Education, “That’s the value equation.”
This worldview has become universalized. Forbes magazine wrote with approval last year of the “stealth privatization of one important American public sector institution: the state university.” According to Forbes, “More and more so-called state universities receive 15 percent or less of their basic operating funds from the state. Thus tuition increases have soared at these schools, even more so than at private universities.”
Traditionally speaking, the public university has been more than a collection of buildings and lectures. It has provided food and housing for students and faculty, its bookstores have served the campus and the local community, and it has provided steady employment to many. Education isn’t the only thing being eroded; these other functions of the university are also suffering.
Across the country, universities are considering privatizing services from housekeeping to bookstores (if they haven’t already). San Francisco State University is one of many seeking to sell its bookstores to big for-profit chains. As the Golden Gate Xpress reported, this move will “Mark the first time in 58 years that [the bookstore] is not run by a nonprofit organization.” Wayne State has a similar contract with Barnes and Noble, who currently oversee the book ordering services for courses. Rutgers University — disregarding opposition from its faculty union — has just signed a seven-year deal with the private company Pearson to increase online degree programs. The move, according to a pro-privatization website, will allow students to “earn Rutgers degrees without ever coming to campus.”
The tuition revenues will, of course, be split between the university and the private company. Universities are even signing deals with private financial firms to allow them to make profit from students’ financial aid. According to California Watch, more than fifty community colleges in the state now pay financial aid on debit cards through contracts with the private firm Higher One, known for “charging multiple fees, aggressive marketing tactics, and privacy concerns.”
This portrait of an increasingly deracinated public education is mirrored at the K–12 level. Mitch Daniels’ attacks on teachers unions and funding cuts to K-12 reflect a national trend to privatize both public education and the training of teachers.
Both Democrats and Republicans project private charter schools as better “choices” for students. This establishes a connecting tissue between the two systems. Recently, the Hunter School of Education partnered with three urban charter school organizations in New York to collaboratively design a teacher preparation program that will lead to teacher certification and a master’s degree in education. Business accounting methods — test scores, the installation of business executives to run schools and school systems — emphasize “test prep” and the funneling of students into jobs as managers and professionals, at the expense of critical thinking and a meaningful curriculum.
The outcomes of these processes are striking: there is now a nation-wide drop in college enrollment — according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a decline of 2.3 percent this year alone.
Unsurprisingly, neoliberalization have disproportionately impacted the African-American community. A change to the federal government’s PLUS loan program has resulted in declining enrollment at historically black colleges and universities. Parents of more than 15,000 families were denied loans last fall. At South Carolina State University, where a majority of students come from families earning less than $30,000 per year, enrollment has dropped by more than 700 students since last year. If students of color are whitewashed out of higher education, is it any wonder that campuses like Purdue are becoming theaters of racial violence, earning them spots on the FBI’s list of hate crimes?
Program after program and campus after campus, universities are being remade, as Daniel Denvir pointed out, “to operate according to the principles that guide multinational corporations.” This means that we no longer “teach students,” but “provide a service to consumers.” Programs that don’t index easily to the market, such as literature, history, or ethnic studies, gradually become “less important” compared to business studies.
Of course this also means that the historians and intellectuals who deem such evisceration of public education absurd come under attack — take Howard Zinn, for example.
But if we’ve learned anything from Zinn it’s that history is not just a chronicle of genocide, drone strikes and incarceration; it’s also the struggle of ordinary people against such injustices. Faculty and students at Purdue have campaigned fiercely since Mitch Daniels stepped into his plush office. Last fall, students wore red CTU T-shirts in solidarity with the striking Chicago teachers and protested at Daniels’ first public meeting on campus. More than ninety faculty members have signed a letter of opposition to Mitch Daniels’ attempted censorship of Zinn. These voices that will not be silenced — these voices make up Zinn’s histories.
So while our university president has called the late historian “un-American,” we — along with Zinn and Langston Hughes before him — continue to work towards “The land that never has been yet — And yet must be,” where education is not sold to the highest bidder, where neighborhood schools are not closed by neoliberal mayors, where Trayvon Martin can walk home safely. Where ideas are discussed in classrooms and public parks — not banned from schoolbooks.