The US Congress is poised to classify graduate tuition remission as taxable income and to tax the endowments of private universities. The foreseeable damage is incalculable and likely catastrophic.
Many commentators rightly deride the philistinism (and spite) animating such measures. They correctly argue that ham-fisted reform is a wrong-headed approach to improving universities. It will irreparably harm the research enterprise. It will undermine the university-government compact that yielded technological innovation and undergirded America’s post-Second World War prosperity.
These prognostications are plausible and even probable. Pure and applied science, already reeling from federal budget cuts, will suffer further drastic decreases in funding. The significant financial aid that elite universities provide to less-privileged students, which is funded by the endowment, will be slashed. Prospects for social mobility will decline commensurately.
But are these policies merely a manifestation of a visceral anti-intellectualism? Or is there an underlying logic to this legislative assault?
The Republican majority in Congress has shown itself to be consistent in five ways that explain its seemingly reckless and thoughtless approach to universities. The first is its sceptical stance toward scientific enquiry and its resistance to the authority of scientific evidence, as its approach to climate change research suggests. The second is its anti-cosmopolitan bent, which often degenerates into xenophobia.
The third consistent trait is its hostility to "elites", especially coastal elites where the vast majority of well-endowed private colleges are located. The fourth is its heroic, triumphalist understanding of US history and culture, which treats criticism as unpatriotic. The fifth is its infatuation with deregulated markets.
An appreciation of these five consistent characteristics and dispositions helps to explain Congress’ proposed changes to way universities and their students are taxed. Why should it matter that scientific research suffers if the fruits of that research are suspect and inimical to their worldview? If graduate education is a conduit for foreign students entering and remaining in the US, why not close down that avenue of immigration? If it is chiefly wealthy private universities perpetuating privilege that suffer from such tax changes, is counteracting such a tendency not a public service of sorts?
If universities – especially humanities departments – are bastions of politically liberal scholars intent on puncturing patriotic myths and narrating the misdeeds past and present of the nation at home and abroad, then does America really need to hear such dissonant voices? And, finally, why should universities receive a “handout” through their tax-exempt status while tuition continues its ascent, already massive endowments swell, and student indebtedness rises exponentially?
Ignore for a moment the cant and hypocrisy of such arguments in light of other priorities and policies of the Congressional Republicans. And ignore, too, the values and assumptions underpinning the arguments.
However distasteful they may be to many of us who work in and cherish universities, we must respond and explain instead of merely lamenting the deplorable acts of those who wield political power. Some are easier to respond to than others. Rigorous criticism of existing society, for example, is a core function of the university, protected by academic freedom, and is in no way inconsistent with ardent patriotism.
But in addition to reacting to those legislators who assail higher education, defenders of the private, well-endowed university must ask themselves some discomfiting questions. Have admission policies and financial aid in fact increased social mobility for poorer and minority students or have they enhanced and solidified the advantages of the privileged few? Do the benefits that elite universities produce for society justify the largesse the tax code lavishes upon them or is such preferential treatment an atavism of a particular historical moment that has now outlived its usefulness? Have universities in their own management practices embraced the logic of “scarcity” and “austerity” to the degree that resisting the application of “neo-liberal” principles to them from external sources is nonsensical?
The effort by Congressional Republicans to bludgeon universities through aggressive tax reform must be met by forceful, evidence-informed response and long overdue introspection. Hopefully, defenders of the university, especially the private university, will not waste the opportunity afforded by this crisis.
Gabriel Paquette is professor of History at Johns Hopkins University.