Where we’re going, what we’re doing, how to keep higher education an attainable goal for all

English professor Chris Newfield gave a talk yesterday evening at the McCune Conference Room on the future of public universities, as well as the necessity of low tuition and face-to-face learning in order to foster egalitarian access to higher education.

Hosted by the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, the talk, entitled “What Are Universities For?,” focused on the issue of rising tuition rates and growing class sizes as well as how such obstacles can restrict the opportunities of incoming public university students and even the students already enrolled in these institutions. In his talk, Newfield appealed to an ideal of public universities that lead to socioeconomic mobility and promote a broadly well-educated public.

According to Newfield, the funding of public universities is a key factor in maintaining the quality of education that is provided to today’s American college students.

“We are in the middle of a huge battle to define the university of the future,” Newfield said. “My concern is that this amazing and transformative system — this public system — continue to be available for current generations that have different origins, different demographics.”

Newfield also referenced the original intention — or, as he called it, the “initial boom” — behind the creation of a public university system, which he said has gradually eroded since the 1970s.

“The basic concept behind the initial boom was that the publics would be as good for students as private universities,” Newfield said. “So if you went to Cal State Northridge, you would have similar — not identical, but similar — chances as people who went to Stanford.”

In addition, Newfield said the lower price point of public institutions would result in a lower burden of student debt; nonetheless, lower tuition would not be a point of discrimination.

“You would not be part of a lower caste, educationally, in terms of the education and knowledge you were getting and in terms of personal development,” Newfield said.

However, much of that has changed over the past 30 years, according to Newfield. The professor referenced ever-increasing class sizes and the “catastrophic” boom in aggregate student debt, which has tripled or even quadrupled over the last 10 years and acts as evidence of an overall decline in the United States’ public higher education system.

Newfield said the key to pushing back against these trends is engendering a cultural shift in how a university education is viewed by the public. Instead of focusing on the job prospects provided by a university education, Newfield said students should focus on the benefits of self-development and the formation of creative capabilities that higher education can engender.

“Student activity should focus on their own intellectual development … less around checking the boxes for all the classes and reproducing activities required for individual classes, but rather around their education as an intellectual project fostering their own intellectual maturity,” Newfield said.

First-year sociology major Nancy Hernandez, who attended yesterday’s talk, said she agreed with Newfield’s emphasis on intellectual learning that focuses on overall self-improvement and enlightenment, as opposed to simply pushing for the degree. Hernandez said her parents are supportive of her choice to pursue a major on the basis of personal happiness and intellectual development, rather than on employment prospects.

“My parents believe that whatever makes you happy, you should follow,” Hernandez said. “You’re here to gain knowledge, not just to get a job that’s going to pay you so much and you won’t even be happy. We learn to deal with people and be creative, and I do believe that it’s very important to have this education.”

Film and media studies professor Constance Penley, a member of the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center who helped organize the talk, said her hobby involves studying the history of the University of California school system. According to Penley, a UC scholar “almost has to be an activist” for the plight of public higher education issues and concerns.

“I’ve spent an awful lot of my career on understanding the University of California,” Penley said. “If you’re a University of California professor, you have your campus, but you also have relations with all the other campuses, and part of that is our common advocacy for higher education.”

Like Newfield, Penley said the importance of higher education can be seen through individual intellectual development.

“How … we return to or make anew the value of higher education is to learn — to cultivate intellectual and personal development before any kind of utilitarian, practical uses for that education,” Penley said.


A version of this story appeared on page 3 of Wednesday, February 5, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.