Meranze of UCLA Calls For A New Social Contract


This is in response to a recent post by a fellow advocate for HE reform, Michael Meranze of UCLA.

Hi Michael,

I wonder, what is the disposition of Conservatives and Liberals toward professions? Equally inimical, I suppose? Trump can treat HE the way he does – as can any government – because the current HE model substantially depends on public money. I gather you would like to increase this dependence, since you would like to see increased public funding for this model.

You say, “A new social contract that preserves access, funds quality, and ensures academic and intellectual autonomy must be developed and fought for.” I have developed such a social contract. And as I can, I have fought for it.


It does not necessarily preserve the colleges and universities I believe you think are either required or desired, but it also avoids many of the problems endemic to these institutions – an important one of which is substantial dependence on public (and increasingly, private) funding. Allow me to address the three clauses of this new social contract you call for.

First, if HE were offered under my model there would be as many academics providing teaching, research and community service as the system requires. There would not be 400,000 students on waiting lists to gain entry to Californian HEIs. There would be academics who wish to specialize in remedial education or international students or medieval history. Academic labour would be as diverse as it wishes, drawing equally from men and women, socioeconomic class and ethnic backgrounds. The social contract I have in mind requires it.

Student and academic access to HE are inextricably intertwined - if there are not enough academics, then impaction increases and so does the inequality and immorality you identify.

Second, in my model quality is assured by output measurement of frontline performance – not the current input measurement used by accreditation of HEIs. With objective evaluation and the service of academics a matter of public record (e.g., how many students pass and with what grades) quality is funded at student discretion and monitored by professional association. Those academics that perform poorly will not be hired by students or maintained as members of the profession. The social contract I have in mind requires it.

Quality is a serious issue for HEIs since they operate on exploited faculty and graduate student labor, that are constantly faced with a conflict of interest: If I fail too many students I will not be hired on contract by the college or university next semester.

Third, a professional academic social contract is a viable arrangement for self-governance and self-finance. My model reduces the cost of HE by as much as 75% and places authority for its stewardship squarely in the hands of academics. If academic freedom is challenged, then it can only be by academics in professional association – not the government or private investors that presently fund HE. The social contract I have in mind requires it.

Along with intellectual freedom, the professional model champions another right of academics, the right to earn a living. As I indicated, the model opens the HE sector to all qualified individuals who want to earn a living as an academic. But it does so by correcting the exploitative practices of the current institutional model. Academics would have full control over their own labour and be properly compensated. This is how you can ensure intellectual freedom.

One of the major faults with the current institutional model is that it invites too many unnecessary conflicting interests to the table. It wants institutional and academic autonomy, but they are pitted against one another because, as you say, “[the model is] trapped within the economy of the troll.” It invites union representation, where none is needed, since a profession is self-representative. It invites substantial government oversight, where none is needed, since the professional model dramatically reduces the total cost of HE. The professional model simplifies authority and finance in ways that are simply not possible under the institutional model.

You say the first step is to confront, “the ways that social and economic inequalities as well as a loss of common social purpose have rendered colleges and universities far too much like the dominant culture.” How much leverage do you think the dominant culture would have if the (public) cost of providing HE was reduced by 70 or 80%? How many more students could afford to go to college or university? How many more diversified academics could be put into circulation, when the “obscene and immoral” exploitation of this key labor is stopped?

You want the college and university system to remain public and so do I (my model does not preclude that). But what stares you clear in the face at the moment is the vulnerability of this institutional model. Public, political and economic vagary will always be there to challenge the ideals and functions you (and I) envision for HE.

People, including yourself, are suspicious of professions and with good historical reason. But the one I suggest be formed for HE need not be like those we feel have failed to meet expectations. The professional social contract can be written with whatever clauses we think will ensure a public existence for HE. We just need a little imagination and will.

And anyway, I would much rather be having this fight for HE within my professional model, than the arena in which we now battle. Among properly compensated academics in professional association – not union represented employees of publicly (under)funded institutions – HE can evolve with fewer confounding variables such as Trump-like governments or Madoff-like criminals.

My model is not perfect. But on any measure, I believe it presents a much better solution than maintenance of a model that is open to assault and conflict of interest on multiple sides from without and within.

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