Digital Learning Blog

Critical University Studies: Rethinking Academia from Within

by | Jun 3, 2024 | Digital Learning Blog

In 2024, as debates intensify over the legitimacy, fairness, and value of higher education, a new academic movement is bringing analysis and balance to a discourse increasingly vulnerable to partisan posturing. “Critical University Studies” (CUS) looks at the evolution of universities since the 1970s, exploring social and economic issues such as academic freedom, student loans, labor relations, community engagement, and the treatment of students from different backgrounds. CUS also examines the historical shift from a strong public model of higher education to an increasingly privatized one, as well as the role of universities in enabling class stratification and ethnocentrism.

The roots of CUS can be traced to early 20th-century thinkers who critically examined the modern university. Prominent among them was Thorstein Veblen, whose works discussed the influence of monied interests on academic culture. Upton Sinclair followed suit in detailing market values in college and university management. Continuing this tradition in more recent decades have been books like Jennifer Washburn’s University, Inc. (2005) exploring the commodification of college degrees, Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works (2008) addressing campus wage disputes, and Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012) detailing the challenges facing diversity programs in fulfilling their promises.

Also appearing in 2012 was the publication commonly credited with the formal acknowledgment of CUS as a distinct field: Jeffrey Williams’ “Deconstructing Academe: The Birth of Critical University Studies” in The Chronicle of Higher Education.1 In that essay, Williams highlighted a rising trend of academic discontent that began in the 1990s, focused on the commercialization of academia, the precarious nature of academic labor, and the troubling rise of student debt. Recently bringing CUS up to date, Vineeta Singh and Neha Vora wrote a 2023 summary of the contradictory ways in which universities not only serve educational purposes but also function as extensions of state and neoliberal ideologies. Their research underscores how higher education institutions have been enmeshed in the fabric of national and global politics, often reinforcing existing social hierarchies and economic policies that favor the elite.2 Through their analysis, Singh and Vora reveal how universities can act as both sites of resistance and conformity, where challenges to the status quo are simultaneously raised and neutralized.

Encouraging CUS scholarship is a growing list of publishers with monograph series on the new research area. These include Johns Hopkins University Press, Palgrave Macmillan, and Berghahn Books, among others.3 The recently released Johns Hopkins title Is College Worth It? Class and the Myth of the College Premium by Richard Ohmann and Ira Schor exemplifies this new publishing trend in delving into concerns over the commodification of higher ed.4 The book takes issue with the widely held assumption that higher education guarantees economic prosperity and a better life. They refer to this as the “college premium.” Ohmann and Schor assert that this belief masks the formation of class stratification while sustaining people’s faith in competitive capitalism. They additionally link this commodified view of college degrees to broader shifts within higher education that prioritize profit over educational ideals.

Further exploring conflicting university agendas is Ariana González Stokas’ Reparative Universities: Why Diversity Alone Won’t Solve Racism in Higher Education, in which the author encourages campus diversity initiatives to expand their efforts despite recent push-back from “anti-woke” partisans.5 Stokas argues for a reparative approach that goes beyond mere inclusion in introducing her concept of “epistemic reparation,” which involves recognizing and addressing the historical and ongoing injustices that have shaped the university system. Stokas calls for a transformative process that not only acknowledges these injustices but also actively works to amend them, thus fostering truly anti-racist educational environments.

As CUS continues to expand, it encourages a rethinking of the foundational purposes and strategies of higher education. This field invites educators, students, and policymakers to engage dialectically with the structures and practices of universities, questioning how these institutions can be reimagined to better serve the ends of equity and justice. This dialogue within CUS is not merely theoretical but carries practical implications for the future of education. Most importantly, CUS urges a fresh discussion of the roles universities can play in creating a more equitable world.

Integrating scholarly insights with a historical consciousness, the new discourse of CUS goes beyond reactionary critique to imagine the university’s potential as both a mirror of societal values and a resource for greater fairness and inclusivity. The resulting conversation holds the potential to reimagine educational values and objectives on the interest of positive societal change.

1 Jeffrey J. Williams, “Deconstructing Academe: The Birth of Critical University Studies.”
2 Vineeta Singh and Neha Vora, “Critical University Studies.”
3 Johns Hopkins University Critical University Studies, Palgrave Critical University Studies
4 Richard Ohmann and Ira Schor, Is College Worth It? Class and the Myth of the College Premium
5 Ariana González Stokas in her book Reparative Universities: Why Diversity Alone Won’t Solve Racism in Higher Education

About the Author

David TrendDavid Trend
Professor, Claire Trevor School of the Arts

David Trend is a Professor in the Department of Art at the University of California, Irvine. Before arriving at UC Irvine in 1997, Trend was dean of Creative Arts at De Anza College in Cupertino, CA, where he developed multimedia partnerships with schools and corporations in Silicon Valley. Prior to that, Trend was graduate program coordinator in the Inter-Arts Center of San Francisco State University. During the past fifteen years, Trend has been a frequent consultant for foundations, state arts and humanities councils, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Trend’s teaching draws connections among the fields of cultural studies, critical pedagogy, and media analysis. Courses he has taught at UCI include Language and Vision in Everyday Life, A Culture Divided, Issues in Media Violence and Fear, Seminar in Cultural Activism and Radical Democracy, Issues in K-12 Education, and Media, Art, and Technology.

In recent years, David has played a vital role in supporting DTEI faculty development programs. He and Megan Linos, DTEI’s Director of Digital and Online Learning, received the 2022 Confronting Extremism through Community, Thriving and Wellness award, which supported 40+ faculty and graduate students cultivating a DEI-A culture in the classroom via the first Inclusive Teaching Institute in Spring 2023.