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The Present and Future of the University: An Interview With David Theo Goldberg

David Theo Goldberg speaks at Californovation 2007. (Photo: guategringo)

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In a wide-ranging conversation at McMaster University on March 15, 2012, Grace Pollock, the director of the Public Intellectuals Project, interviewed the internationally renowned race theorist David Theo Goldberg on the changing nature of the university, the role of public intellectuals, the pressing problems facing the university today and the challenges it faces in the future. Both Goldberg and Pollock are deeply involved in rethinking the many problems the university now faces, and what it means to provide a new language and set of understandings in order to meet existing and future challenges to making the university a relevant democratic public sphere in a world of shifting power, economics, technologies and possibilities. -Henry Giroux

Grace Pollock: What would you say are the most pressing issues facing the university today?

David Theo Goldberg: It’s a mix of at least two things – and they’re connected. They register in different silos, you might say, but they are deeply connected. The first is, obviously, the kinds of cuts that universities are facing, which are both targeted directly at the universities and also just a function of the overall cuts facing social life generally by various states produced by a mix of policy, bad management and political ideological awfulness. So, that’s on the one side: the cuts are deep and across the board. And the shift in state formation that the cuts are speaking to, that’s politics, right?

The moment of the welfare state, from roughly the end of 1920s to the beginning of the 1930s (in a way, it started even earlier in some states), through the turnabout post-1973, just to put a date on it, has been about refiguring the state in the face of the emergence of – and the proliferation and increasing power of – a kind of neoliberal vision of what life should look like. I was going to say social life, but I hesitate even to say that; I mean, it’s the undercutting of the social, precisely.

The cuts have been very significant. Education became a significant site of investment for the welfare state. In a way, welfare and education were two sides of the coin: the way of getting off welfare was to get people educated, and the way to continue to produce an effective economic system that would enable welfare to continue would be to have an educated public, and that went along with having an educated public as the basis of democratic civility.

So, those things were deeply connected with each other, and as a consequence, education, in a variety of ways (in terms of investment), benefited enormously – as in the time of the late 1950s, early 1960s, of the expansion of university systems across the world, in all sorts of places, an increasing number of academics, an increasing number of people going to universities. So, the educational budget became an increasing proportion of the overall budget: perhaps that and warmaking were the two dominant spheres. So, when cuts kick in, universities are the places – and welfare programs – where the cuts really get made, and so there’s considerable suffering. That’s the one side of it.

The other side of it is a consequence of these staggeringly large cuts. I can speak to the University of California, which is probably leading the way here. The cut in the past year was $750 million from the entire budget of the UC system – it’s the size of a campus, basically. The overall size of the University of California’s budget is $19 billion, so you can say, “Well, okay, that’s not so much – five percent?” But it’s $750 million of $3.5 billion dollars of state support; the rest is not state support. So, you’re talking about 25 percent, not 5 percent, and it’s a very significant 25 percent because it is what pays wages, what pays operations for buildings and so on and so forth. So, the numbers are staggering.

Alongside – both in the wake of those cuts but also tied to this transforming vision of what the university should be doing – there’s this restructuring. The cuts are falling hard on the humanities, precisely because the humanities, in some ways wrongly, have been seen not to be revenue generators in the same way the sciences are, even though the revenues that the humanities generate are usually in the form of student fees, but the revenues the sciences generate are seen as external fundraising. Chris Newfield, for example, has written fairly extensively about this.

Those cuts to the humanities have meant that there is an inordinate pressure – and it is as much conceptual as it is economic – in how one thinks about what the humanities does. And those who want to hold onto an older vision, a kind of conventional vision of humanistic research, are swimming against a very strong stream, a very strong current, and I think it’s a losing proposition at this point.

Maybe you could talk a little bit more about the Humanities Research Institute at the University of California (UCHRI) and the kind of work it is doing. My understanding is that part of that project is to highlight the contributions the humanities can make to all the work being undertaken at the university, across the campus.

The University of California is a fairly complex organization. It is ten universities, nine research universities. The largest have more than 30,000 students. There are close to 200,000 students (undergraduate and graduate) and about 30,000 faculty and staff. So, it’s a big organization.

The humanities have felt under duress, increasingly because the now not-so-new but still quite recent president – who was a chancellor at the University of Texas and came to UC to be the president of the University of California – would say dumb things like, “How is the English Department going to pay for itself?” The English Department pays for itself through the students it attracts. It does signal that smaller programs are under duress, and cuts have forced unfortunate administrative mergers rather than taking it as an opportunity to rethink how one might actually do the sort of work that the humanities traditionally does, or should have done, well, which is a reflection of what it means to be human and all that goes with what it means to be human: culturally, reflecting on one’s condition at a given point in time, what it amounts to be human at a given moment – because that conception changes over time – who gets to be human; who doesn’t. Those sorts of large questions.

So, for me, the humanities is and always has been about meaning, value and significance – anything and everything related to the production, conception, interpretation, configuration and critique of meaning, value and significance, wherever those things occur. So, the humanities is literally about everything and always has been about everything. The sciences emerged out of philosophy, after all, as a way of inquiry, a way of knowing.

I am very much for a capacious humanities, one that is deeply in conversation with its natural interlocutors in the sciences, the social sciences, the arts and the like. And that’s what the UC Humanities Research Institute stands for. One of the major things we’re facing at the moment – I mean, I have a not insignificant grant from a national foundation – is on the humanities and changing conceptions of work. So, one of the things we’re doing is to look both at how work has changed as a consequence of the digital, as a consequence of changed social, economic and technical transformations serving the world at large, and the impact that that is, and should be, having on how we think about the humanities, on literally translating ourselves to ourselves. What does it mean to work today? How have the modes of work altered from times past? Where does work seem to be going? What does it mean not to have work in these sorts of circumstances? And self-reflexively through thinking back on, and into, the humanities.

The humanities have operated somewhat historically in a kind of hermetic, individualizing mode. I like to think of it as an auteur theory of production: you think great thoughts and you think them on your own – well, it doesn’t occur that way. So, how ought we to be reconfiguring the humanities and what impact will that have on how we configure institutionally what gets done in its name and how it gets done in its name? Disciplines, programs, thoughtful notions, knowledge configurations and so on.

I think we’re in a moment of profound structural shift in the academy generally, and in the humanities. So, I try to say, “Hey, one has to pay attention to this.” We’ve been used to French departments, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German and English standing on their own. I really think that moment’s over. I think the pressure is on both because the numbers – we see this at the University of California, in Texas, and elsewhere – the numbers just don’t warrant it in budget-cutting modes. “You’ve got six majors and you want how many faculty? Eight? So, it’s 1 and a half faculty per major? How does that work?”

So, there’s enormous pressure to close down, which would be a crying shame because one’s losing (and it’s hard to get back what you lose) centuries of various significant knowledge formation that if you don’t pay attention to it, is just going to literally disappear. But that’s not to say, “Oh, we have to save the French Department with six majors in it.” What it is to say is, “What is the question we want to ask ourselves about a reconfigured mode of doing this kind of work into which French might configure? How do we, at this point in time, re-conceive European Studies – in our time, for our time?” Not in a presentist kind of way, but drawing on its history, of what it was and what it is and has come to be now. To put into conversation French, and German, and Dutch, and Spanish, and Italian, and to do it not just in a languages or cultures kind of mode, but to draw on history, and classics, and philosophy, and film and media studies, and so on, to get a complex way of thinking about Europe today which would excite our students. Students would gravitate to a program like that, in a way they’re not gravitating to French.

To what extent does public perception, then, also play a role? You’re talking about student enrollment, that interest in these particular disciplines is dwindling. Is that also a concern?

Yes. I mean, it’s profoundly linked to a notion, to a form of legibility. Students are registering for English because English is a global language; it provides them with certain kinds of skills. Although, even there, the kind of critical reasoning and cultural capital that comes from that is not so systematically done. I think we could be a bit more systematic in how we deliver that so that it becomes more legible to students. But they don’t see French, or German, or even Russian as being relevant to their lives: “Why am I learning that language if I’m not going to use it?” Or, “I might use it to go on vacation.” And, “I’m spending a lot of my time and energy – not to mention an increase in public university fees – to have to get there, so I’m going to be much more instrumentalist about what I’m undertaking.”

It is interesting that a vice president of Google said last year that out of the 6,000 people they would be hiring this year, 80 percent of them will have backgrounds in the humanities. They want well-rounded, culturally savvy, multilingual employees because they’re a global business. They get it, and we don’t. So, what is it that they’re getting that we’re missing, and how do we reconfigure? What do we do not to simply service them, but to provide an interesting critical engagement around these sets of questions and be systematic about the form of tension we bring?

If we’re about critical reason, teach them how to reason critically. If we’re about cultural capital, don’t hide that underneath, “Oh, I’m going to teach you another course on Shakespeare.” You can use Shakespeare in a really interesting way to do just that – and get students excited both about Shakespeare and the critical literacies that they’re acquiring. There are fantastic – there’s a Maori film on re-enacting “The Merchant of Venice” set in Maori terms, Bizet’s “Carmen” set in Cape Town called “U-Carmen eKhayelitsha” – contemporary invocations of classical expressions of European culture that completely transform how we think about them.

Are we talking now about a wholesale institutional shift in terms of the culture?

I’m afraid so, yes. It is daunting. I mean, obviously one doesn’t just come in and sort of turn things on their heads. I think the biggest challenge is getting faculty to recognize not just the problem, but to recognize the opportunity. To get excited about the opportunity and to reinvent themselves in relation to the sort of conditions that they’re facing in a way that would excite both them and, as they get excited, their students.

Broadly speaking, do you think there’s another way in which the university has to conceptualize its role in terms of the interventions it makes in society as an instrument of social change?

Absolutely. The university, in very staggered ways, has been attuned to publics largely as a point of fundraising. That’s its interface with the public. Nobel Prize winners will be trundled out and great researchers of medicine will be trundled out to say, “Look what great work we’re doing; this will make a significant difference to your life! Now we’re passing round the hat, give us your charitable contributions.” Obviously, in the current mode we’re in, that’s not an unimportant thing to be doing.

Roughly a third of populations in economically developed countries go to university. A university faculty person, in the classroom and in conversation with people, can have an enormous impact on generations and how they think about their world. So, one is engaged with publics, but it’s only behind these closed doors. Being more open – the turn to open universities – is enormously important. Now, increasingly with digital technologies, you get the likes of peer-to-peer universities and other fab schools, idea factories and so forth. The landscape is shifting dramatically. There’s an opportunity in that landscape to have an enormous impact on thinking about one’s world critically, on bringing about change in the world, on education factories transforming the way teachers think about the classroom – the interface between the kind of data we have about a world, and the world itself.

Even if one becomes a banker, this means thinking differently about banking than bankers tend to do. It’s a transformation in the way in which one thinks about the world, getting students to think about the world they’re entering and to shift it away from a radical commitment to profitmaking over all else. There’s nothing written into the universe that says corporations have to make profit at the expense of everything else or the rest of us. That’s not to say, they can’t make profit, I mean, there might be some virtues in reinvestment and so on. But what is that for? If it’s profit for its own sake, what’s the point? And to get people to understand it’s not just, as Foster Friess would put it, for wealthy individuals to found their own museums – I mean, why should it just be one man’s vision rather than a collective undertaking on the part of the betterment of society at large?

With the development of social media and all of these new digital platforms, how critical is it that universities, faculty and students engage these technologies in the work they are doing?

I think there are two sides to that question. On the one hand, it is absolutely critical. We do, in small ways anyway – nobody works without a computer today. Show me a faculty person who doesn’t use Google every single day – they probably shouldn’t be in the university. There’s already transformation in our social practices of intellectual life. That’s on the one side: getting faculty and retraining faculty with what those technologies can bring – they’re instruments; they make things possible. They also probably change some things not for the better, and we ought to be wary of that. But they open us up, and so also our students, to a dramatically different way of engaging with each other 24/7.

It also puts pressure on the conception of expert-driven knowledge, of the teacher at the front of the classroom being the authority. That’s under considerable duress and makes some people feel very uncomfortable. So, the faculty become – and have to see themselves as becoming – facilitators. That’s not to say they don’t have a more developed and extended sense of knowledge in a given subject than their students. But teaching transforms from the front-of-the-classroom, top-down, talking-head kind of formation to something more participatory, more connected and engaged. Your role as a faculty person “expert” changes in that relationship. If the relationship changes, your role changes. So, it means getting faculty to recognize both the importance of the technology and the transformation in their capacities and their roles – and what effective teaching or learning is.

We like to draw the distinction between education and learning. Education is kind of “speaking at you,” and learning is participatory, interactive, peer-to-peer, passion-driven, interest-driven. It’s teasing out the interest and then developing on those interests to get people impassioned about what it is they’re learning and how they’re learning. What it gets them and gives them. So, the two sides of the technologies: to use a technology in order to better enable learning to take place in these transformed ways. The flipside is getting faculty to understand that they have to change their mode of engagement.

There seems to be enormous potential for public intellectual engagement to take place in order to change the nature of learning in the classroom.

That speaks to what I call a “shift in disposition.” That’s a shift from being introspective and inward-bound – sometimes not unimportant because one wants to withdraw and think and reflect and have time to oneself, and technology has a way of intruding. But, the shift in disposition is from the kind of introverted, within-the-four-walls encounter or engagement with subject matter, to a disposition that is outwards to publics, to an engagement with the world.

It is not without reason that both the role and the structure of the library have changed as a consequence. Think of the way libraries have, for the most part, responded to the challenge: at the best libraries, at the best places, you don’t have to go into the building necessarily, and they become sites where students gather for interaction with one another, rather than a place necessarily where you only get books. That’s not to say books are unimportant – they’re enormously important; I mean, I write them! So, I would hope people are reading them. But the form of the book has changed and is changing in front of our very eyes. One can read online. The kind of reading we do is changed, the way in which we read, the way in which we write.

The form of the public has changed, too, and how one gets to publics has changed. And so, face-to-face – not unimportant – is not the only face of public life that we have today. The radio was there before, then television, now there’s digital media and so on. And it is giving us platforms that allow us a vast array of public engagement and interaction.

Knowledge for its own sake is all well and good and not unimportant. It’s a great gift to have if you’re driven by the Stanley Fish view of the world. But, on the other hand, it’s all the better that you have knowledge for the sake of bettering people around you, in concert with people around you. I think there’s a kind of constitutive responsibility. The university, after all, is about the universal. It is about an engagement with all knowledge, but also, through that engagement, engaging with all people. It is, by definition, and ought to be, heterogeneous. It hasn’t always lived up to that responsibility, from its inception – I mean, the university comes out of the church, after all. But yes, I think there’s kind of constitutive responsibility on the part of the university and its representatives to be about the world, and to be in and with the world, and that means that we ought to engage – we ought to face the world, and in facing the world, to engage each other.

I just have one final question, which is very speculative. Assuming the university is still around in the year 2030, what do you think it will look like?

The university will be around in 2030, I have no doubt. It will still probably be in transformation – I think the shift is going to take a long time. The current round of technology forms, and the new ones set to come online, will put further pressure on the university. I think the university as we’ve known it – the brick-and-mortar kind of university – will no longer be the only (and certainly won’t be the principal) form of post-secondary knowledge formation and acquisition that is available to people. We’re seeing some quite extraordinary experiments through the use of digital media of universalizing kinds of knowledge engagement with each other and the possibilities that’s giving rise to. I think those will only proliferate and accelerate and expand.

The university used to be, for a good while, a principal site for public debate. It’s now far from the only one, so it either has to give that up because it ain’t so good at it – it’s rather kind of narrow – or it has got to change its ways in doing it, in concert with these other things that are going on, if the university wants to have impact on the world we and it inhabit.

The sciences to some degree have been quite good at this: the way in which medicine, or engineering, or computer science represent themselves – “These are all the good things you can get from supporting us.” The sort of critical engagement of public reason that the humanities bring, can bring ought to be brought to the table. Given the poverty of political discourse today, we need it as much as we’ve ever needed it. This is not to go back to an Aristotelian mode of thinking about these things. Quite the contrary. We’ve got to figure it out for our time, how it’s going to work. There are some very smart people who operate within and across the university. They just have to direct their smartness not only to the narrowness of their subject matter but also to the world we all inhabit.

I think there will still be broad distinctions between university faculties probably, but increasingly, I think we’ve got to give up on these rather narrowly cast disciplinary formations, and I think there will be increasing pressure to do that. The world’s challenges and problems aren’t configured according to disciplines, and so these different kinds of prisms – each of which constitutes a part of a problem or a part of a response to a problem – need to be in conversation with each other. And I think you’ll see more of that take place, at least hopefully, not just within faculties like the humanities or the social sciences. The challenge, I think, for the sciences is that the large problems facing the world (sustainability, water delivery, curing diseases, etcetera) are not simply technological problems; they never have been, and increasingly are not. They’re human problems and problems of human praxis, of human behavior. So, they cannot be “solved” until human action is understood properly in those environments. And so, the humanities and humanistic social sciences are absolutely necessary in those configurations. My commitment is to try to move that along.

David Theo Goldberg is professor of comparative literature, anthropology, and of criminology, law, and society at UC Irvine, as well as the director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute. He has authored or edited more than a dozen books, the latest of which include “The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism,” “The Racial State,” and “The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age” (with Cathy Davidson).

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