The Chronicle Review

The University Is Not an Aristocracy

So why do we value selectivity over social mobility?

Andrea Ucini for The Chronicle Review

May 20, 2018

Recently I was awarded a new title — I am an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Day to day, nothing has changed; this semester I am teaching the same classes I taught a year ago, at the same institution, on the same schedule. But now I’m on the tenure track. The sequence of precarious work that has constituted my career and plagued my generation has shifted, for me, to at least the opportunity for stability.

When I received the call in which I learned that this would happen — it was late last year — an unexpected swell of sentiment rolled over me. Less than relief, less than a rational sense of astonishment, that call left me with a sensation of gratitude for the opportunity to serve — to serve the people of Colorado, to serve the state.

I had never been asked to serve before. I came of age in the time of September 11 and the Iraq War, and the president told us to shop. But there was more in play now than novelty.

More particularly, I thought of my grandfather. He was born not far from where I live, on a farm without electricity. He was smart. He hoped to attend college, and a nearby business school accepted him with an eighth-grade education plus high marks on a correspondence course. His father, who had 13 offspring to account for on a tenant-farmer income, decided to help him.

I regularly hear students, colleagues, and administrators refer to themselves as elite, as if this were uncontroversial.
Then came a hailstorm one afternoon when they were out in the fields. The ice-rocks fell and fell. There was nothing they could do. The hail tore the season’s grain crop to shreds and mush. My great-grandfather had to tell his son, through the tears that for once he failed to hold back, that the college idea would not work out.

When I think of serving the state of Colorado, it means serving his state.

His whole life after that, my grandfather watched the consequences unfold. He perceived men with fancy degrees but less competence climbing corporate ladders faster than he did. He bought books full of indexed, opportune quotes from Shakespeare and the classics to pepper his conversation with in lieu of having been taught them. But he did well enough that his three kids could go to good state schools — in the 1960s, a time when state college was adequately subsidized to be in reach for multiple siblings in a one-income family. Compared with today, it was close to free.

I see hailstorms all over again in my classrooms. First of all, they are present in who is not present; the percentages of Latino and African-American students at CU Boulder, for instance, are about half those of the state population as a whole. (The percentages are even lower in the faculty.)

And the storms are present in what divides my students. Many come from well-off families, but often the most driven, least conforming minds are caught up working to support their schooling. I hear their eagerness in class, when they are awake, but then I see the effects when I add up the grades. The fact that a student may also be a full-time assistant manager at a downtown clothing store is not part of the calculation. Nor are the students’ mounting debts, which can constrain their life choices for decades. What claims to represent their achievements on paper simply fails to do justice to what they are really accomplishing. And that is when they make it to the end of the semester; sometimes a hailstorm, in one form or another, gets in the way of that.

I want to be able to serve the state better. I want to be able to serve more of the state.

Less than 5 percent of the university’s budget comes from the legislature of the state whose name it bears and whose elected regents govern it. And we are far from alone. Public universities all over the country are being expected to behave more like private businesses. Tuition nationwide has risen far faster than families’ incomes — by more than 50 percent in Colorado since 2008. It costs about $30,000 each year to be an in-state student at CU Boulder and $50,000 for those from elsewhere.

University people have internalized this. I regularly hear students, colleagues, and administrators refer to themselves as elite, as if this were uncontroversial, even in a populist era when elitism is not doing higher education any political favors. We aspire to selectivity and winning sports teams more than to enabling social mobility. The truth is that most of us are not economically or otherwise especially elite. Nor can what we do in universities operate for long as an income-generating business like any other. Our job is not to be elite, by some contrived measure, or to outcompete the competition. It is to serve.

My other grandfather was a professor at a state university, a devoted and decorated teacher of orbital mechanics and an early environmental activist. He left a more lucrative career in industry to do it. I once heard him express a longing that I might have the privilege of being a professor too, a longing that at the time seemed about as remote and quaint as a wish that I would succeed him in the horse-and-carriage business.

Somehow, it worked out, and I am starting to understand why this profession meant so much to my grandfathers. Universities are precious institutions that make space for the free inquiry that our politics and markets alone would not know how to value. A hailstorm, or other circumstances beyond our control, should not be allowed to stop those who seek to experience this.

Nathan Schneider is a journalist and an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. This essay originally appeared in America: The Jesuit Review.