Two prominent themes in contemporary university affairs — funding and governance — have 17th-century origins.
The English founder of political economy William Petty wrote in his 1662 work A Treatise of Taxes and Contributions that if the purpose of college was to “furnish all imaginable helps unto the highest and finest Natural Wits, towards the discovery of Nature in all its operations” then it ought to be considered a “Publick Charge,” rather than a place “where particular men spend their money and time upon their own private accounts.”
At the time of Petty’s writing, the principle of public funding through taxation had already been applied in the English colonies in North America: in 1636, the assembly of the Massachusetts Bay Colony committed a sum equivalent to a quarter of its tax revenue for one year to establish Harvard College, the oldest of the nine colonial colleges. All of the nine subsequently relied on funding from their respective colony.
In the area of governance, these colleges generally adopted a structure with an outside board and board-appointed administrators, featuring a college president with wide powers. This was derived from the example of the universities of Scotland (St. Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh) in opposition to the model of faculty control that had long characterized the English universities of Oxford (established 1096) and Cambridge (established 1209).
What is the point of this short historical review? From the perspective of opportunist “Left” education reformers, who remain within the limits of the bourgeois education system, one might expect such an account to be followed by a lament on how far the present situation has fallen from the ideals of public funding and faculty governance: the first can perhaps be considered a founding principle in US higher education and the second was an option that was precluded in the US but nevertheless continues to exist centuries later in England’s top universities. A typical statement that is representative of this “Left”:
In the United States, many of the problems in higher education can be linked to low funding, the domination of universities by market mechanisms, the rise of for-profit colleges, the intrusion of the national security state, and the lack of faculty self-governance, all of which not only contradicts the culture and democratic value of higher education but also makes a mockery of the very meaning and mission of the university as a democratic public sphere. (Henry Giroux, Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education, 2014)
In reality, what this history demonstrates are the limited stakes involved in debates centered on policies of university funding and governance. Whether financed by “public charge” or by “private account,” whether governed by the current “stakeholder” groups of administrators or faculty (or — why not? — students), the university in capitalist society will remain a weapon of domination by the capitalist class.
The university as a “democratic public sphere” belongs to the class democracy of the bourgeoisie. What mocks the “democratic” mission of the bourgeois university is not the supposedly exceptional character of the features of the “neoliberal” era, but the facts themselves of social life under capitalism.
Recognition of this simple truth puts one outside the contending positions of the bourgeoisie in the sphere of higher education and the disputes today that are of its world, regarding how it will rally the different sections of its social base through multiple crises, particularly the middle class and the upper layer of the working class. These disputes range from those specific to the moment, such as COVID-19, university reopening, and remote learning, to those that define a longer historical period, such as the renaming of university buildings (with the 2017 precedent of Calhoun College at Yale) and the general issues of the “neoliberal” university, such as the loss of tenure-track positions and the growth of adjunct faculty, rising tuition and student debt, and the uniquely American system of college athletics.
In contrast, revolutionary students must aspire for a transformation of the education system, which transcends the boundaries of 17th century bourgeois ideals: “Our basic thesis on education is simple: where the capitalist mode of production prevails, the university is a tool of domination by the capitalist class. Students must fight for the rights of working people to education, and link themselves to all other struggles of working people, with the ultimate goal of socialist revolution. After seizing political power, the working class must turn education into a tool for demolishing capitalist domination and for completely eliminating exploitation and oppression.” — From the program of the MDSO