When Emory University president, James Wagner, made a plea for restraint in contentious debates about the future of higher education he appealed to history. The history he chose to appeal to is shocking. Building on the U.S.’s “three-fifths” compromise, which famously enshrined blacks as 3/5 of a person into the legal and cultural coda of a nation built on an ideal of individual liberty, Wagner puts forth his vision for academic guidance during turbulent times for higher education. In it he says that the compromise between the North and South over the political value of a slave is an example of “pragmatic half-victories” that keeps in its sights a “higher aspiration”. It’s a tasteless allusion at an institution built with profits from slave labor at any time but particularly during black history month. Still, it is an allusion that reveals a lot about similar debates being had about the future of higher education. If we can, for a moment, suspend distaste to extend Wagner’s exemplar for compromise to its logical end we can ask: who, in the ideological debates over higher education, are the slaves?
That is to ask, what is this debate Wagner characterizes with such incendiary historical references a debate about really? There are the tried and true positions on who is being oppressed in academe. Education disruptors argue that recalcitrant, inefficient university models are holding hostage innovation, progress, and economic growth. Others would argue that low wage contingent labor – adjuncts and contract teaching labor – are fueling the lower classes in the academic prestige hierarchy. It’s been said more than once that adjuncts are often working for “slave wages.” Students are profit centers with their lucrative tuition payments and keep the university machine humming along.
Innovation, adjuncts, students: all possibilities but none feel quite right. The problem lies with Wagner’s construction of a contentious debate. For a debate to be had, there must exist two opposing ideologies. There was but one guiding ideological principle at work as the North and South battled over the measure of a black body. That ideology was a commitment to maintaining cultural, political and economic hegemony for whites at the expense of black humanity and lives. The regional elites of the North and South merely quibbled about their share of the hegemonic pie, not that the pie was rotten with strange fruit. That is not a debate. It is competition.
Similarly, education disruptors aren’t debating the merits of credentialing. They are arguing for a cut of the credentialing profit pie. While some adjuncts and faculty advocate for a truly democratic revolution of higher education, many more are arguing for a return to sinecures and privilege. Students get a little trickier. Students at places like Emory are treasured assets and becoming harder to come by all the time. Aspirational, well-prepared students with the means to pay almost a quarter of a million dollars for a college credential are a precious commodity. They are made more precious by the millions of others who will never be students at a place like Emory University.
I suspect Wagner believes himself to be in an ideological battle for a more perfect liberal arts University. In this belief he casts as his opposing ideologues those who are not, in fact, opposing him at all. Just as the real ideological counter in the “compromise” between the North and the South was the enslaved, the real counter to Wagner’s ideological debate are those for whom the debate isn’t ideological but material: people who are unlikely to ever grace the hallowed halls of a place like Emory University.
For prestige to work, for hierarchies to be built, for universities like Emory to remain solvent and relevant they must protect and defend their role as places where elitism is reproduced. Wagner’s isn’t a debate over democratic ideals of education. It is a debate about who will serve the needs and interests of a shrinking class of aspirational middle class students. As they become fewer, the pressure to become more elite only heightens. That means being more selective, adopting more status markers, and brutally jettisoning any part of the university that does not serve the immediate needs of the elites, their markets, their tastes, and their cultural and political positions.
In idealizing either position of the disruption debate, we should not ignore that higher education has a critical role not just in building the idyllic learned citizens but also in reproducing cultural and economic elites. A college does not become prestigious, after all, by producing the best critical thinkers in the world so much as it becomes designated as elite by how well it admits those who will go on to define what constitutes critical thought. When prestige is a function of selectivity, it is difficult to argue that the ideological ground of higher education purists is as pure in intent as they say it is.
As the structure of opportunity appears to be changing in the U.S., higher education can choose to engage its role in perpetuating inequality or it can embrace its potential for challenging the inequalities that produced them. As universities like Emory adopt corporate innovations like MOOCs and private sector partnerships as status markers, there is a real challenge to the University as the means of producing opportunity, be it real or illusory. That strikes me as a real ideological debate and it is one that almost no one is having.
What Wagner revealed with his slavery allusion, I believe rather unintentionally, is how ideologues in higher education debates conceive of the spoils. If slaves were a means to an economic and hegemonic end, then education credentials are not conceptually altogether different to those with the authority to have the debate. That distinction matters. As the 3/5ths compromise was for slaveholders an ideological debate as opposed to the material reality of the enslaved, this higher education debate a matter of something altogether more than just an ideological battle over who will control the means of production, whether that be cotton or sheepskins.
No one Wagner conceived of in his missive represents a true opposing ideology for the actual battle over the soul of higher education. There is a squabble among those at elite institutions over who will remain elite and who will control who becomes elite but it’s not a battle of opposing ideologies, only competition for spoils. Wagner is casting his bucket with the reformers. He does so as if reluctant, as though his hands are tied by forces beyond his control. He didn’t make the rotten pie. He’s just trying to get his team as much of the rotten pie as possible.
He casts those who would resist the inevitable corporatization of the university as his ideological sparring partners. But they’re not, not really. If you are arguing over which departments should be cut rather than why efficiency and accountability regimes are right or desirable, then you’re no more Wagner’s ideological opponent than the North was the South’s.
In his artless slavery metaphor Wagner inadvertently revealed the ludicrousness of elites battling for who will be more elite when the entire structure of opportunity is changing around us to produce so few real contenders for social mobility as to make the proposition of choosing among them downright foolish. The credential is only as good as the belief in the promise of the mobility it affords. Right now, both are in jeopardy. If the myth of a college degree, any degree but preferably a prestigious degree, dies then the rest of this is just moving deck chairs on the Titanic. And I believe faith is fading fast, almost as fast as the reality of education being a vehicle for social mobility and that is fading pretty fast.
The hope of mobility and the belief in education as the vehicle for providing it is the pie we should be debating. Ideological debates that dance about the edges of the real issue punt not unlike the three-fifths compromise did on reconciling the U.S. with her great stain. So while Wagner’s rhetorical appeal to slavery as a shining example of ideological compromise is ill-advised, logically fallible, and culturally clueless it is useful for understanding how elites view themselves and the rest of us. Enslaved bodies are not at stake and symbolic matter cannot and should not be equated to horrors of slavery. But there is a real debate going on, materially and ideologically, and those with the authority to have the debate are choosing not to engage it because doing so means questioning their role in perpetuating the inequalities of a system from which they benefit.
This is how you get to a place where you can offer up as an example of political expediency and virtue a debate among slaveholding political elites about the value of a black human life. You remove people and humanity from the equation, you identify with the victors who scored the most spoils, and you narrow the debate to those who would only debate with you how the pie should be divided and never where the pie came from.
Something in the pie ain’t quite right and its not all the pie’s fault.