Critical University Studies

I coined the term “Critical University Studies” in print and defined its scope in a 2012 essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Deconstructing Academe: The birth of critical university studies.” On the sorry state of American higher education, I have published many essays such as, “Debt Education: Bad for the Young, Bad for America” and “Are Students the New Indentured Servants?”, which are part of a forthcoming book entitled Brave New University. I also edit a new series from Johns Hopkins University Press on Critical University Studies


Deconstructing Academe: The birth of critical university studies

by Jeffrey J. Williams

Over the past two decades in the United States, there has been a new wave of
 criticism of higher education. Much of it has condemned the rise of 
”academic capitalism” and the corporatization of the university; a 
substantial wing has focused on the deteriorating conditions of academic 
labor; and some of it has pointed out the problems of students and their
 escalating debt. A good deal of this new work comes from literary and
 cultural critics, although it also includes those from education, history,
 sociology, and labor studies. This wave constitutes what Heather Steffen, a 
graduate student in literary and cultural studies with whom I have worked at
 Carnegie Mellon University, and I think is an emerging field of “critical
 university studies.”

Often criticism of the university seems a scattershot enterprise. A scholar
 from almost any discipline might have something to say about higher
 education, but it’s usually an occasional piece that’s a sideline from 
normal work. There is, of course, a sizable body of scholarship coming from 
the field of education, but it largely deals with elementary and secondary
 schooling. Or it follows established scholarly channels; for instance, it
 might gather and present data about the student body, or it could deal with
 administration, or fill in a segment of the history, sociology, or financing 
of education.

In contrast, this new wave in higher education looks beyond the confines of 
particular specializations and takes a resolutely critical perspective. Part 
of its task is scholarly, reporting on and analyzing changes besetting 
higher education, but it goes a step further and takes a stand against some
of those changes, notably those contributing to the “unmaking of the public
 university,” in the words of the literary critic Christopher Newfield.

To give it a name recognizes that it has attained significant mass and 
signals a gathering place for those considering similar work. “Critical”
 indicates the new work’s oppositional stance, similar to approaches like
 critical legal studies, critical race studies, critical development studies, 
critical food studies, and so on, that focuses on the ways in which current 
practices serve power or wealth and contribute to injustice or inequality
 rather than social hope. “Studies” picks up its cross-disciplinary 
character, focused on a particular issue and drawing on research from any
 relevant area to approach the problem. “University” outlines its field of 
reference, which includes the discourse of “the idea of the university” as
 well as the actual practices and diverse institutions of contemporary higher

Critical university studies is not only academic. Part of its resonance 
comes from its organic connections to graduate-student-unionization and
 adjunct-labor movements. That is probably one reason that it draws literary 
and cultural critics, because those in English and foreign-language
 departments typically do a great deal of introductory teaching (rather than,
 say, working in a labor under one professor on a particular project
financed by grants) and lead union efforts.

In my view, critical university studies emerged in the 1990s, as scholars 
began realizing what was happening to higher education. (In the 1980s, 
influential commentators like William G. Bowen were still predicting rosy 
prospects for the 1990s.) The approach was first suggested in books like
 Lawrence C. Soley’s Leasing the Ivory Tower: The Corporate Takeover of
 Academia (South End Press, 1995), Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins
(Harvard University Press, 1996), and Sheila Slaughter and Larry L. Leslie’s
 Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University 
(Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), all of which analyzed the
 consequences of “technology transfer” to businesses and the rise of 
corporate managerial policies in place of traditional faculty governance.

In the 2000s, critical university studies coalesced with work like David F.
Noble’s Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education (Monthly 
Review Press, 2001), Jennifer Washburn’s University, Inc.: The Corporate
Corruption of Higher Education (Basic Books, 2005), Joe Berry’s Reclaiming 
the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education (Monthly 
Review Press, 2005), Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works: Higher 
Education and the Low-Wage Nation (New York University Press, 2008), my own
”Debt Education: Bad for the Young, Bad for America” and “Student Debt and
the Spirit of Indenture” in Dissent magazine (Summer 2006; Fall 2008), 
Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the
 Middle Class (Harvard University Press, 2008), and Michele A. Massé and 
Katie J. Hogan’s Over Ten Million Served: Gendered Service in Language and 
Literature Workplaces (State University of New York Press, 2010).

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