A public university is a democratic necessity


POSTED: Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In 1987, I came from India to the U.S. for graduate study because I loved reading and writing and the life of the mind. I wasn't sure how long I would stay. Years and a Ph.D. later, I am still here. I had discovered the world of the American public university.

Here is the simple fact: Even with all its faults, the American public university — committed to a broad liberal education and to advanced research in fields ranging from astrophysics to religion — is an amazing place. It is under attack now, but in its glory days for several decades after World War II it was a place where the restless human hunger for knowledge and exploration was honored in ways still worth remembering. More prosaically, the mission of the American public university was to educate students for work and citizenship regardless of their capacity to pay. It would not be an exaggeration to say that it was an essential engine of democracy.

Now something is rotten in the state of the university. I have seen the rot spread in a large state university on the East Coast, and now I'm afraid it has appeared here at the University of Hawaii. The name of the rot is corporatization, and here is how to recognize it: the exaltation of only a certain kind of revenue-generating research over student instruction and study in a variety of subjects; the importation of top-down corporate management models; the expansion of administrative positions (and salaries); an erosion of faculty and student participation in governance; and a retreat from the heroic idea of the university as a place of learning and intellectual exchange.

Don't get me wrong, the public has the right, indeed the responsibility, to hold the university accountable. But let's make sure we pose the right questions to an institution such as UH, which not only adds significantly to Hawaii's economy but also to its public life.

In a time of crisis it is good to explore alternatives. But, hard as it might be, it is also good to remember democracy's interests are not all short term. The storm at the University of Hawaii is not just about pay cuts and health insurance premiums. It is about what vision will prevail — the university as an adjunct to the corporate world or as the vital heart of democracy.

The American public university system is still the envy of the world. I know because I hear this envy whenever I return to India. The talk there is all about how to emulate the American system. Isn't it ironic that the loudest calls here are to dismantle it?

The question is not whether Hawaii can afford a broad public university system, but whether it can afford to be without one. It is a question for the governor, the Legislature and the university administration.


S. Shankar is a professor in the University of Hawaii English Department and director of the Center for South Asian Studies.