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Austerity Blues

, 320 pages
September 2016



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Austerity Blues

Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education


Public higher education in the postwar era was a key economic and social driver in American life, making college available to millions of working men and women. Since the 1980s, however, government austerity policies and politics have severely reduced public investment in higher education, exacerbating inequality among poor and working-class students of color, as well as part-time faculty. In Austerity Blues, Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier examine these devastating fiscal retrenchments nationally, focusing closely on New York and California, both of which were leaders in the historic expansion of public higher education in the postwar years and now are at the forefront of austerity measures.

Fabricant and Brier describe the extraordinary growth of public higher education after 1945, thanks largely to state investment, the alternative intellectual and political traditions that defined the 1960s, and the social and economic forces that produced austerity policies and inequality beginning in the late 1970s and 1980s. A provocative indictment of the negative impact neoliberal policies have visited on the public university, especially the growth of class, racial, and gender inequalities, Austerity Blues also analyzes the many changes currently sweeping public higher education, including the growing use of educational technology, online learning, and privatization, while exploring how these developments hurt students and teachers. In its final section, the book offers examples of oppositional and emancipatory struggles and practices that can help reimagine public higher education in the future.

The ways in which factors as diverse as online learning, privatization, and disinvestment cohere into a single powerful force driving deepening inequality is the central theme of the book. Incorporating the differing perspectives of students, faculty members, and administrators, the book reveals how public education has been redefined as a private benefit, often outsourced to for-profit vendors who "sell" education back to indebted undergraduates. Over the past twenty years, tuition and related student debt have climbed precipitously and degree completion rates have dropped. Not only has this new austerity threatened public universities’ ability to educate students, Fabricant and Brier argue, but it also threatens to undermine the very meaning and purpose of public higher education in offering poor and working-class students access to a quality education in a democracy. Synthesizing historical sources, social science research, and contemporary reportage, Austerity Blues will be of interest to readers concerned about rising inequality and the decline of public higher education.

Michael Fabricant is a professor of social work at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the vice president of CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress. He is the author of Organizing for Educational Justice: The Campaign for Public School Reform in the South Bronx and the coauthor of The Changing Politics of Education: Privatization and the Dispossessed Lives Left Behind. Stephen Brier is a professor of urban education and the coordinator of the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy program at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the cofounder of CUNY’s American Social History Project and the coauthor and coproducer of the ASHP’s Who Built America? multimedia curriculum.

"Austerity Blues is a must read for people engaged in public higher education and an important addition to Critical University Studies."

"They [Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier.] 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 leaves readers wanting to know more about the forces that have facilitated this trend... Fabricant and Brier’s analysis raises important questions about the kinds of political change that will be necessary to reverse the austerity policies that they describe and what it will take to realize those changes. As such, this book establishes a powerful agenda for future research."

"Austerity politics have fundamentally altered American public higher education; yet, its influence has largely escaped public attention. In the true spirit of scholar-activism, Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier shine a bright light on these changes, calling them out without romanticizing public education. Every policy maker and leader in higher education needs to read this book from cover to cover before undertaking educational 'reforms,' and every student, staff member, and professor must consider its arguments as we seek to understand the uncertainty we confront today."

"Austerity Blues is a very fine book, well written and well argued. The wide-ranging scope of the topics it covers and its historical perspective are brilliantly synthesized into a compelling narrative indictment of the social and political consequences of disinvestment in higher education. It is a major contribution to knowledge and will be a landmark publication in the debate over the future of public higher education in this country."

"Written by two of the most highly qualified figures in labor studies and higher education, this book highlights the devastating impact of austerity by close examination of the rise and fall of two large state systems, New York and California."

"By synthesizing the whole array of threats confronting public higher education as we once knew it, Fabricant and Brier make a powerful contribution to our understanding of how educational access for ordinary Americans has narrowed. The general erosion in the quality of life for working and middle-class Americans is accompanied by and partly shaped by an erosion in opportunities to learn and develop, often camouflaged behind austerity politics."

"Austerity Blues is a must read for anyone interested in the crisis of public higher education. Fabricant and Brier place the crisis within the overall context of the neoliberal agenda aimed at privatizing public goods, and conclude that the movement to save public higher education must be part of a broader movement for social and economic justice."

"Austerity Blues raises many crucial questions about the purposes of public higher education, pervasive (and growing) inequality, and the consequences of divestment and austerity politics. Most importantly, it ends by asking: "What's next?" And in that question, it urges each one of us to individually and collectively think about the future and our contribution to that future."

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