Education

Higher Ed’s Cult of Growth

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Higher education is fanatical about growth. Institutionally, colleges strive to increase their enrollments, campus acreage, and endowments. As a sector, higher ed is marketing itself to ever more students, expanding online, and padding the ranks of administrators. In lockstep with the business world, colleges have also framed prosperity as necessarily tied to economic growth. Institutions broadly champion the goods of profit, development, and technological innovation. They present themselves as essential to the building of individual wealth and broader societal and economic advancement. As Barack Obama put it in 2014 at Northwestern University (which over the course of a decade expanded its research funding by nearly half a billion dollars and its campus by 3.5 million square feet), “This is a university that is brimming with the possibilities of a new economy — your research and technology; the ideas and the innovation; the training of doctors and educators, and scientists and entrepreneurs. You can’t help but visit a campus like this and feel the promise of the future.”

But within academe there is an increasingly robust body of scholarship that questions this line. Drawing on the legacies of the Club of Rome’s 1972 report “The Limits to Growth” and the work of the Franco-Austrian philosopher André Gorz, some scholars view economic growth as unavoidably harmful to the environment. Both an activist movement and an emergent academic field, “degrowth” or “post-growth” adherents are broadly interdisciplinary. Degrowth’s champions include Giorgos Kallis, an environmental scientist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona; Kate Soper, a philosopher and cultural theorist at the University of North London; and the economic anthropologist Jason Hickel, also at the Barcelona university. Along with other scholars and activists, they oppose the dominant thesis that economic growth and prosperity are indivisible.

As environmental crises multiply, interest in their arguments is heating up. Numerous books on the subject, several published by Verso, a leftist publishing house, have emerged in recent years. The International Degrowth Conference (in its eighth year) is being held this month in The Hague. An interdisciplinary group of lecturers and researchers has recently started Degrowth, a peer-reviewed journal devoted to the subject.

The latest contribution to the research area is The Future Is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism, by Matthias Schmelzer, Aaron Vansintjan, and Andrea Vetter (Verso). An expanded translation of a German book published in 2019, it theorizes that capitalism is entangled with unsustainable growth and advocates a society decoupled from both economic and environmental exploitation. The authors argue that economic growth, among other offenses, “destroys the ecological foundations of human life and cannot be transformed to become sustainable.”

As an alternative, Schmelzer, Vansintjan, and Vetter — an economic historian, a gentrification scholar, and a transformation researcher, respectively — propose “a radical reorganization of society that leads to a drastic reduction in the use of energy and resources.” Crucially, their intervention frames capitalism itself, not resource exploitation, as the root cause of climate change (and accordingly calls for compensatory anticapitalist interventions). As Schmelzer told me in an interview, “that growth can be separated from planetary ruin is a capitalist ideology that we’ve been taught since the 1970s.”

Naturally, degrowth has its opponents. Noam Chomsky has said that “solving the climate crisis requires growth.” The leftist economist Branko Milanovic is skeptical of consumers’ willingness to retreat into “ecological Arcadia” at a time of peak consumption and individualism. MIT’s Andrew McAfee has labeled degrowth “the worst idea on the planet,” suggesting, dubiously, that wealthy countries have been successful “decoupling growth from pollution.”

Despite this criticism, the degrowth discussion is spreading into the mainstream — it has been discussed, albeit critically, at the World Economic Forum and written about in the pages of The New York Times and The New Yorker. This attention speaks to the increasing frustration with politics as usual.

Despite degrowth’s rise as a scholarly topic, colleges and universities have failed to engage with it. On the face of it, this might make sense. By multiple metrics, colleges are static or contracting. Enrollment has been ebbing for years. At elite universities, enrollment has been kept low for generations. As Andrew Ross observed in this publication, the period of high-profile international-campus openings, which began some 20 years ago, has cratered, driven by disappointing revenues, political conflict, and, perhaps, the pandemic-era shift to remote teaching. Why worry about degrowth? It may be happening naturally.

But a college’s position in society goes beyond its material conditions. Despite contractions and stagnations, colleges are deeply complicit in the capitalist paradigm of economic growth and remain enthusiastic advocates of growth in ways that accelerate climate change. Across nearly every aspect of our sector, public and private colleges alike have supported unsustainable and directly harmful forms of expansion. They have championed the financial and tech industries, venerated entrepreneurship, and jockeyed with each other over private-equity opportunities and other unsustainable investments. Taken cumulatively, it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that American colleges and universities are in the thrall of what Jason Hickel calls “the cult of growth.”

Among institutions’ numerous expansionist commitments, one of the most consequential has been efforts to build endowment wealth by associating with societally harmful and even predatory actors. Over the past several years, many elite private universities (along with the University of Texas system and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor) have expanded already enormously profitable endowments, pulling in average returns of 35 percent in 2021. Washington University in St. Louis, for instance, saw a 60-percent return. Vanderbilt and Notre Dame were at 58 percent and 51 percent, respectively. Such spectacular gains are substantially due to investments in hedge funds and private-equity firms.

The subject of mounting criticism since the 2008 economic crisis, private-equity and hedge funds frequently reduce wages and lay off workers to increase profitability and have become notorious for shorting the economy and investing in exploitative services. As Astra Taylor reported in The Nation, the University of Washington has been linked, by way of its investments in several hedge funds, to the Managed Funds Association, a hedge-fund lobbying group that has opposed various progressive economic policies, including crackdowns on Wall Street tax breaks and student-debt relief. Taylor additionally reported that universities’ relations with hedge funds have additionally led to conflicts of interest, with hedge-fund board members frequently doing business with universities. Endowments are also regularly invested in the fossil-fuel industry and, in the case of Harvard, environmentally devastating agribusiness in Brazil, drawing extensive criticism from divestment activists.

Beyond endowments, colleges and universities have demonstrated fidelity to growth through close relations with wealthy donors, the tech world, and the financial industry more broadly. Many regents and trustees hail from finance, and sometimes represent astonishing conflicts of interest. In one of the most flagrant examples, the University of California regent Richard C. Blum, the late husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, was the largest shareholder, through his equity investment-management firm, in two for-profit higher-education companies at the same time he was voting to curb UC’s in-state admissions by 15 percent. Conservative donors are also striving to transform faculty members into defenders of the free market, and corporations are seeking ever greater influence on campuses. The Charles Koch Foundation, for example, has given enormous sums to colleges over the past several decades, gaining immense sway in the process and even seeking to influence curricula.

Or consider colleges’ amity with Silicon Valley. Inherently premised on radically accelerated growth — as the PayPal founder Peter Thiel once put it, “the only sustainable growth is viral growth” — the tech industry has become an overbearing presence on campus. Colleges have embraced this. They have leapt into deals with ed-tech platforms (along with their surveillance-based profit model), hosted hack-a-thons, and built innovation labs and startup factories like Cornell Tech and the Stanford Venture Studio. Virginia Tech’s billion-dollar “Innovation Campus,” set to open in 2024, helped to lure Amazon’s HQ2, its headquarters-expansion project, to the area.

And yet higher ed’s most consequential concessions to the cult of growth are pedagogical. For decades, institutions have defunded, or sometimes eliminated, the arts and humanities in favor of departments that lionize the goals of capitalist growth. This year the University of Kansas may eliminate 42 underenrolled programs through cuts or mergers, including programs in visual art, Latin American studies, and other humanities fields. Rider University also intends to eliminate 25 programs, mostly in the arts. Last year, citing falling enrollments and a budget shortfall, Marquette University chose not to renew dozens of arts and humanities faculty positions even as it raised $70 million for campus expansion, including a “state of the art” facility for business- and innovation-leadership programs. Indeed, in recent years, universities have spent millions of dollars on business schools, creating luxurious temples of the financial world. Last year Columbia Business School opened a stunning, $600-million campus in Manhattanville designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the distinguished lead architect of the Shed at Hudson Yards. The university touts that its new glassy buildings offer a “bold, one-of-a-kind design that disrupts academic convention and redefines modern pedagogy.”

Some critics might rightly contend that colleges are crucial pillars of local economies, as well as key providers of health care and cultural offerings. However, as Davarian L. Baldwin’s shows in his book In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower, urban universities have long harmed nearby neighborhoods through gentrification, wage theft, and racial profiling by the campus police. Baldwin acknowledges that such universities may offer their communities some advantages, but argues that there is nevertheless a cost “when colleges and universities exercise significant power over a city’s financial resources, policing priorities, labor relations, and land values.” While a different dynamic may play out a rural colleges, and while some local communities may prosper thanks to colleges, it is nevertheless worth considering the global cost of an institution that, comprehensively, valorizes growth without end.

Given these extensive ties to the growth paradigm, change isn’t likely to come easily in academe. As Michael Maniates argued in these pages in 2017, “colleges and universities are not just agents of economic growth; they also depend upon it, which makes it doubly hard for them to envision a post-growth world.” Many colleges have released plans to cut emissions. Some, like Bowdoin and Colgate, have actually achieved carbon neutrality, and hundreds more have set this as a goal. And yet most of those plans are still woefully insufficient: They tend to reproduce moderate and increasingly disparaged models of “sustainable growth” and “green capitalism.”

Princeton, for example, has committed to reaching “net-zero campus greenhouse-gas emissions” by the distant year of 2046, but has agreed to only a partial dissociation from fossil fuels. The University of California at Davis, heralded as “the greenest university in the world,” nevertheless relies on controversial carbon offsets. (According to news reports and a company statement, just last month the Dutch carbon-offset business Land Life caused an estimated 35,000-acre forest fire in Spain.) Giorgos Kallis views those projects as tepid at best. As he put it to me in an interview,

Neutrality is a fancy way to pay to clean one’s sins. There is no proof that these offsets really work, and it’s only a guess what related forestation programs do in terms of carbon emissions … The only way to really reduce carbon emissions is to emit less carbon.

Most institutions are simply unwilling to do more than match the nominal, inadequate goals shared by today’s corporations. It is clear, then, that if colleges are to break off their affair with growth, much of this change will have to come from below.

Divestment campaigns at Harvard, Yale, Michigan, and other colleges have often been modestly successful in prompting a retreat from fossil-fuel investments. Last year, following years of advocacy, Boston University pledged to divest from the industry. Unions have also been effective in opposing the factory model of the contemporary college and, by extension, its pro-growth stance. While the most significant victories here have been enjoyed by graduate-student unions, faculty unions have succeeded in effecting change toward less predatory and more sustainable working environments. In 2021 adjuncts in the University of California system won, among other victories, raises, longer contracts, and family leave. Unions in the UC system have also been active in seeking to set climate-change policy on their campuses.

Colleges must also be liberated from those donors and corporations seeking to promote the growth mandate — something they are especially vulnerable to in an era of public defunding. As Kallis explained to me,

The weakening of public education systems, with the reduction of public expenditures on education, with the parallel growth of university businesses based on fees and donations, is part of this continuing story of capitalism that feeds itself by devouring the public to feed the private.

But, here again, there is ingenuity from below.

UnKoch My Campus is a multicampus initiative opposing the influence of the Charles Koch Foundation. Among other successes, in 2015, it helped to pressure Florida State University to limit ties with Koch (though his influence may have been rerouted through the university’s L. Charles Hilton Jr. Center for the Study of Economic Prosperity and Individual Opportunity).

Lastly, institutional degrowth will also entail substantive changes in how colleges approach infrastructure. At countless public institutions, and even some private ones like Howard, maintenance has been deferred on buildings as campuses have drastically expanded in an attempt to draw students and funding. Not only do those expansions misspend dollars that might be used to lower tuition, raise staff and faculty salaries, or, indeed, maintain declining facilities; they also are expressions of the growth mentality that demands expansion over sustainability.

Moreover, despite colleges’ ecological commitments, campus expansion necessarily expands their carbon footprint. As Michael Fabricant, a professor of social work at the City University of New York’s Hunter College and co-editor of Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education, told me, the facilities at his own institution are emblematic of austerity, held “together with Band-Aids and chewing gum.” And yet Hunter College continues to invest in new development as the rest of its campus languishes. “The managers of public universities,” he argues, “serve really at the behest of the electeds” and don’t have the “autonomy or the independence” to effectively advocate for the changes that are ultimately needed.

Activists have occasionally resisted campus-expansion efforts. In 2007 protesters fought the University of California at Santa Cruz’s plan to destroy 120 acres of redwood forest by occupying trees for over a month. Earlier this year protesters gathered at Harvard to oppose its land ownership in Brazil as well as its expansion into Boston’s Allston-Brighton neighborhood (the expansion is going forward, with Harvard making affordable-housing concessions).

Because maintaining our current climate trajectory is unthinkable, the debate on the future of the economy is largely between new strategies that embrace growth and those, on the other side, that challenge it. Most prominent scholars continue to defend growth. The economist Robert J. Gordon claims in The Rise and Fall of American Growth that the vastly enhanced standard of living Americans enjoyed from 1870 to 1970 was thanks to robust economic growth that buoyed both technological innovation and family income. That, since the 1970s, we’ve stagnated is, for Gordon, due not only to diminished growth but also to the unequal distribution of its benefits.

Among many interventions, Gordon advocates switching the student-loan system to an “income-contingent repayment administered through the income-tax system.” He claims that this, among other shifts, would help to redress slow productivity growth. (While he acknowledges that the enormous student-debt load is a substantial burden to borrowers, he implicitly rejects more radical policies such as student-debt cancellation.)

While few academic leaders today are likely to disagree with Gordon, cracks in their arguments continue to form. The Future Is Degrowth recognizes what those cracks reveal — an illusory promise of prosperity. As the book’s authors argue, commitments to degrowth like democratically managing common goods, redistributing wealth, reducing work hours, and lowering our “social metabolism” are the only options left. One item to add to their list: abandoning the notion of the college as an engine of economic growth.

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