As I read it, I kept flashing back to key moments in Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition. Not quite the parts that Michael Berube focused on in What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? (having to do with legitimation via paralogy and narrative rather than consensus)--well, at least not immediately. No, the parts that go like this:
The decision-makers...attempt to manage these clouds of sociality according to input/output matrices, following a logic which implies that their elements are commensurable and that the whole is determinable. They allocate our lives for the growth of power. In matters of social justice and of scientific truth alike, the legitimation of that power is based on its optimizing the system's performance--efficiency. The application of this criterion to all our games necessarily entails a certain level of terror, whether soft or hard: be operational (that is, commensurable) or disappear. (xxix)
By terror I mean the efficiency gained by eliminating, or threatening to eliminate, a player from the language game one shares with him. He is silenced or consents, not because he has been refuted, but because his ability to participate has been threatened (there are many ways to prevent one from playing). The decision makers' arrogance, which in principle has no equivalent in the sciences, consists in the exercise of terror. It says, "Adapt your aspirations to our ends--or else." (63)
the process of delegitimation and the predominance of the performance criterion are sounding the knell of the age of the Professor: a professor is no more competent than memory bank networks in transmitting established knowledge, no more competent than interdisciplinary teams in imagining new moves or new games. (53; see more generally "Education and Its Legitimation through Performativity," 47-53)
Yeah, I know, many a digital diploma mill has sprung up from the last quotation, particularly when combined with Lyotard's bizarre semi-celebration of "the temporary contract" (66). But it's the prior two passages that concern me here today. What Meranze helps make clear is that Lyotard's target in The Postmodern Condition is not simply Habermas's commitment to legitimation by consensus, with its "violence to the heterogeneity of language games" (xxv). Actually, it's more specific than that: the supplantation of appeals to truth and justice by appeals to efficiency and performativity. I wonder if by this criterion Lyotard would find the UCOF to be a terrorist organization?
Be that as it may, it's worth noting that Meranze's critiques pick up where Berube leaves off in his discussion of tuition, circa 2006:
your average state university now receives only a token amount of financial support from the state. Institutions like Penn State and the University of Michigan are nearly off the public books altogether, receiving only a tiny fraction of their budgets from state funds. The state provided 45 percent of Penn State's budget as recently as 1984-1985, when in-state tuition was $2,562; that figure is now down to 10 percent, and in-state tuition is $11,508. The correlation speaks for itself. The costs of college, in state after state, have been passed along to individual families, as higher education has gradually been reconceived as a private investment for individuals rather than a social good for the entire nation. (281-282)
That's what "partial privatization" is all about: passing the social costs of public goods onto individuals, leaving students and families to fend for themselves as best they can. If this is fine with you, so be it: you're a conservative or a libertarian. If you think this is a suspect or foolhardy enterprise, you may already be a liberal or progressive. (283)
And if you think it's a terrorist attack on truth, justice, and the heterogeneity of language games, then you're probably a French postmodernist.
Neither Berube nor Christopher Newfield are, but they both argue, in What's Liberal about the Liberal Arts? and Unmaking the Public University, that the attack on public universities and the attack on public institutions of all kinds have gone hand-in-hand in the dominant forms of conservative and libertarian politics of the past generation. What remains to be seen, in both California and New York, is whether some other politics might be possible.
[Update 1 (5:40 am): Sarah Amsler takes on managerialism in British higher ed.]