Michael Fabricant & Stephen Brier's Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education

Reviewed by Nick Juravich

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In 1973, thirty-three-year-old Dawn Harris addressed the graduating class of Manhattan Community College as its valedictorian. In her speech, Harris thanked “the brothers and sisters at CCNY” who had shut down the flagship campus of the City University of New York (CUNY) in 1969 to demand, among other things, immediate open enrollment across the entire system. She also thanked “those who tried to discourage me” because it spurred her “to make sure that they didn’t count over-thirty, underprepared women with children out.” “I think I did it,” she told her classmates. “I know we did.”

Black and Puerto Rican students march at City College in February 1969

Black and Puerto Rican students march at City College in February 1969

Harris’s graduation marks the pinnacle of public higher education as a democratic project in Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier’s Austerity Blues. At the time, CUNY was “the most open and perhaps the most envied higher education system in the country,” thanks to a decade of struggle by students and faculty. Fueled by the political and social movements of the 1960s, these struggles opened public universities to poor and working-class students, democratized their governing structures, and emancipated pedagogy and curricula from hierarchies of race, class, and gender. Thanks to a “political topography of intense class conflict,” public higher education, in 1973, held emancipatory promise for New Yorkers like Dawn Harris.

Half a century on, as Fabricant and Brier make clear, the state of affairs is far bleaker. No serious observer could disagree: our current Secretary of Education has rescinded protections for campus rape victims, proposed billions in spending cuts, and delayed action on loan forgiveness for students swindled by for-profit colleges while appointing a former for-profit college administrator to police fraud and deception by his old bosses and colleagues. As with everything in the Trump Administration, it is easy to imagine DeVos is an outlier. Like her boss, she is an unqualified billionaire with undisclosed and questionable investments and family ties to all manner of crooks and villains. Her gaffes — such as suggesting historically-black colleges were pioneers of school choice — have made for easy Twitter draggings and late-night takedowns. Dismissing DeVos, however, would be a mistake. Her statements and actions may seem both brazen and scattershot, but her ideology and strategy are the products of a decades-long assault on public higher education carried out in the name of austerity.

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Fabricant and Brier, professors at CUNY and themselves beneficiaries of public higher education, set out document “the systemic current assault on public institutions” while highlighting possibilities for resistance and reform. They draw on a wealth of scholarship and journalism across several disciplines and topics, uniting and analyzing phenomena often examined in detailed isolation. These include the broad structural factors shaping public higher education, the incentives that influence university-level decision making, the ways that austerity policies intensify inequality within university systems, and the role of technology in all of these processes. The resulting synthesis reveals the long history and present extent of the impoverishment of public higher education, and what it will take to “protect the public university as a democratic experiment firmly planted in the public commons.”

Austerity Blues unfolds in three parts: a brief, taut history of public higher education since World War II, a close study of austerity regimes in public universities today, and a catalog of efforts to resist austerity and reimagine the public university as a space of “emancipatory education.” Fabricant and Brier make one concession to specificity, focusing their analysis on California’s three-tiered system of public higher education and New York State’s SUNY and CUNY systems. While the inclusion of Scott Walker’s Wisconsin or Bruce Rauner’s Illinois might have allowed for an even clearer distillation of the ravages of austerity, studying California and New York proves fruitful. Much as Kim Phillips-Fein does in Fear City, Brier and Fabricant demonstrate that the politics of austerity are not limited to the Kochs and DeVoses (and those they bankroll). They have emerged, messily but still lethally, from political responses to crises real and imagined on both sides of the aisle, in liberal cities as well as the heartland.

The authors take care, in their introduction and first chapter, to define their terms and set the stakes. “Higher education,” they explain, “represents a cutting edge of the present reassembly and hobbling of the state.” They lay out this overall process, which has devastated public goods including health care, education, and public assistance, in six parts: 1) a crisis of capital, generated by declining rates of profit, is 2) used to intensify rationing of state services, which 3) leads to growing inequality, which in turn 4) reshapes the content and structure of public goods, the strains on which are then 5) used to legitimate capitalization of public assets, which 6) ultimately results in dramatic disinvestment in poor and working-class communities, particularly communities of color, “effectively defining these populations as disposable.” This clear, dynamic, historical definition is itself a worthwhile contribution to the field. Scholars and pundits (in good faith and bad) have bemoaned the fuzziness of the concept of “neoliberalism,” a world-system analysis launched into popular parlance a decade ago by David Harvey’s Brief History. Much like Phillips-Fein does in Fear City, Fabricant and Brier use “neoliberalism” to describe the current state of affairs, but “austerity” to name and disentangle the ideology, politics and practices that produce the neoliberal order.

Fabricant and Brier chart the emergence of mass public higher ed in two chapters, the first of which is an unromantic look at the rise of public university systems in the postwar era. In addition to the rampant racism and sexism in the administration of the G.I. Bill, the expansion of public higher education itself oscillated between the logics of the market and democracy. Neither proved consistent; in California, the state’s master plan for higher ed promised “to spur the growth of California’s postwar economy,” while in New York State a consortium of private colleges claimed a public university would undermine “free enterprise in education,” even as these same colleges imposed quotas on Black and Jewish students and barred women completely.

Market logic aside, the postwar public university came to be seen as an “essential public good” in both California and New York. It was precisely the “public” in these universities - the students and, to a lesser degree, the faculty — that began to reimagine and democratize them. In the 1960s, California’s Clark Kerr promised to “rationalize and impose efficiencies on educational services and research deliverables” at the “multiversity” (a phrasing that could easily emerge today from any number of reactionary state legislatures). In response, students across the UC and Cal State systems rose up to demand democratic commitments from their universities, leading strikes that won the right to political speech on UC Berkeley’s campus and the creation of the nation’s first Black studies program at San Francisco State. CUNY’s student activism produced open enrollment, radically expanding the reach of public higher ed.

As Fabricant and Brier move to an analysis of the recent past, they demonstrate how administrators and elites have retaken command of the public university from within and without. Ronald Reagan pioneered today’s ubiquitous rhetorical attacks on public higher education in his run for California governor in 1966, promising crackdowns on student radicalism and suggesting that faculty work amounted to “intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without.” In New York City, the 1975 fiscal crisis provided financiers and politicians with the opportunity to impose tuition at CUNY and lay off thousands of faculty and staff.

These twin strategies — attacking students and faculty as radical and using short-term budget crises to implement long-term restructurings — have persisted, growing more sophisticated and intertwined in our present. Since the 1980s, public university leaders, doing the bidding of state legislatures, have restructured the educational workforce in ways that mirror the broader stratification of the economy, hiring armies of middle-management administrators to police a growing underclass of adjunct instructors. State higher educational systems have stratified, as well; flagship research universities are propped up, albeit under new terms and management, as evidence of state commitments to the “middle class,” while community colleges and branch campus are left scrambling to survive. In response to these manufactured crises and demands for increased efficiency from state lawmakers, public universities have spent millions of public dollars on new technologies. These “magic bullets” that have enriched private corporations without producing measurable gains for students or teachers. Fabricant and Brier’s chapter on the history of technology failures at major universities is almost laughable for the sheer hubris and foolishness of its boosters, until you remember that the very real costs of these failures have been transferred to students and the public.

As a result, Fabricant and Brier argue, public universities today have become engines of inequality. “The slotting of poor students into the most underfunded institutions of higher education” they demonstrate, results in low rates of completion and increasing debt loads. The decay of these affordable options drives the neediest and most vulnerable students into the for-profit industry, where they are regularly lied to, defrauded, and saddled with even more debt.[1] Austerity is not about belt-tightening, saving the public money, or generating efficiency. Rather, the systematic starving of public higher education is designed to create new opportunities for profit, which generate “many redistributive benefits for the affluent” while saddling universities with spiraling administrative costs and poor and working-class students with crippling debt.

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Seen through the analytics of Austerity Blues, Betsy DeVos’s disparate attacks on public higher education fit together. Attacking student protesters who forced the Obama administration to take sexual assault seriously gins up cultural opposition to “elite,” “out of touch” universities, providing justification for massive budget cuts. As public options deteriorate, for-profit educators step in to plunder the student loan system, saddling their defrauded students with massive debt. It is a vicious cycle that DeVos,Trump, and their allies accelerate to their own enrichment.

Students and faculty protest together for investment in CUNY in March 2017

Students and faculty protest together for investment in CUNY in March 2017

What can be done in the face of such a well-funded and multi-faceted attack on public higher education? Fabricant and Brier’s final chapter and epilogue focus on resistance, and remind us that for all the atomizing effects of austerity on overworked students and adjuncts, it is impossible to bring people together without creating the possibility for collective action. The authors cite myriad efforts brewing across the country, from the unionization of adjuncts to the growing demand for free tuition at public universities and colleges. Slowly and haltingly, these efforts are making gains, and reorienting the rhetoric around public higher education back to the concept of a public good.

Governor Andrew Cuomo had not yet released his plan for the “Excelsior” scholarship when Austerity Blues went to press, but the book helps us to understand this new program as both a response to activist demands for affordable higher education and yet another iteration of austerity politics. As the New York Times wrote in April, Cuomo appears to have “hastily reverse-engineered” the process of drafting a free-college plan “to get the headline he wanted” amid the rising chorus of demands amplified by the Democratic primaries. Cuomo eagerly announced himself as a model progressive, but the plan itself, as finally passed, is essentially a last-dollar provision of aid to a small slice of middle-class students whose families make under $125,000 a year but do not qualify for federal aid. Part-time and mature (over twenty-four) students are ineligible, excluding nearly half of CUNY students. In a sop to the faulty logic of workforce retention, the state GOP added a requirement that students receiving aid stay in-state to work for as many years as they accept the scholarship. No aid is provided for costs of living, textbooks, or transit, all of which keep students from completing their studies. As the president of LaGuardia Community College explained in a New York Times op-ed, this scholarship, like many programs that ostensibly aim to improve student outcomes, is based on a fundamental misconception (if that is the word) of who attends most institutions of public higher education, and the conditions under which they do so.

In concluding her 1973 graduation address, Dawn Harris shifted rhetorically from “I” to “we.” Four years before her graduation, she was unwelcome on CUNY campuses. Today, she would be ineligible for the Excelsior scholarship, rendered “disposable” by the ideology of austerity. And yet, as K. Sabeel Rahman wrote recently in the Boston Review, public goods have a way of overspilling purely economic definitions offered by the ideology of austerity. Over the past century, reformers and radicals have articulated a “democratic conception” of public goods to secure and provide public education, public health, and public welfare. They define these services as “goods that we owe to one another in a shared democratic society” much as Harris defined her graduation as the product of a shared struggle.

As Fabricant and Brier write in their first chapter “capital has been unable to fully solve” the puzzle of privatizing higher education. Despite the immense resources arrayed in the service of austerity, the work of education continues to be collective for faculty, students and staff. If shared classrooms can be translated to shared struggles, these authors believe there is hope yet that emancipatory education will be realized at public universities. As Rahman reminds us, public goods are not so much about “free stuff” as “the stuff that makes us free.”


Nick Juravich is an Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at New-York Historical Society, and Associate Editor of Gotham.


[1] Tressie McMillan Cottom, Lower Ed (New York, The New Press, 2016); Suzanne Mettler, Degrees of Inequality (New York: Basic Books, 2014).