Before the pandemic, two researchers buried themselves in a certain type of college – the so-called "new university". It is a public research university aiming for status in national rankings. It is also a campus that has more students enrolled who are racially marginalized and economically disadvantaged. Many of these locations do not have the same wealth that predominantly white research universities have had for a long time. And when a disaster like Covid-19 hits, these colleges don't have the financial cushion to soften the blow to state flagships.
Researchers – Laura T. Hamilton, professor and chair of sociology at the University of California at Merced, and Kelly Nielsen, senior research analyst at the Center for Research and Evaluation at the University of California at San Diego – realized that there would be one soon more of these colleges. Demographic change at the national level will force changes in the racial makeup of the student body at historically white research universities. This requires support from administrators, faculties, staff, and members of the community, as well as responding to student protests. And regional public universities seeking new revenue will try to expand their research. These ambitions, often funded by tuition fees, can have ramifications for campus culture.
Your new book, Brach: The Racist Consequences of Underfunding Public Universitiesshows how some of these consequences occur. Hamilton and Nielsen spent a year with Merced and the University of California at Riverside, interviewing for the book, which was published this month. You spoke to The Chronicle this week about what the transition to a "new university" looks like, what the impact is on students and how Covid-19 exposes these differences. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your book broke examines differences between different groups of research universities. How would you define the key group you call "new universities" for someone who has not picked up the book?
Hamilton: We discussed new universities as research universities serving a large percentage of racially marginalized students, many of whom come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. These new universities are often quite old. As a rule, these are schools that have switched from predominantly white schools to schools with new population groups and regard these racially marginalized young people as the lifeblood of the research university. New universities are particularly poor in resources. The funding structure of higher education has changed so that even public schools are more dependent on private funding. Non-resident tuition, philanthropic investments, corporate donations, donations from others – these schools get less of it. As a result, they often try to do more with less.
Nielsen: They are more or less trying to re-imagine what the status hierarchies of higher education look like. Not only are they serving specific groups of students and trying to make them the elixir of life on campus, but they're also trying to re-imagine what it means to be a high-level university – providing access, increasing retention, persistence and graduation rates, and delivering fair results achieve. They try to turn these into status markers for their institutions.
Why isn't it helpful to put all research universities in the same category?
Hamilton: Higher education has long seen racial and economic segregation. When people talk about it, they often say, "Well, black and Latin American students attend community colleges, regional universities, and higher-level nonprofit schools." But racially marginalized students break into research universities. When they do this, they usually do not participate in their racially and economically privileged counterparts. They usually focus on specific research universities. It is not helpful to group these locations together as they serve very different populations.
With demographic change you write that more locations will take this path to "new universities". What can you expect?
Nielsen: At UC-Merced and UC-Riverside there were conflicts between conservative and progressive students. There is a possibility that such conflicts could occur in other locations.
Hamilton: In Merced, when the school received an HSI award, a Spanish language award, there was a white flight going on. You must bring the faculty with you with this change. The faculty has a lot of racist ideas. One of the things that both sites had to deal with was faculties that felt the school would be of lower quality if they were an HSI. And embedded in that is the assumption that if you are serving brown students, you are somehow not of high quality. They didn't say that, but it's there. You must also bring the faculty with you. Riverside did a good job of helping the faculty change their beliefs or understand their new student body.
You write that part of the community that seeks to work as a "new university" can make students vulnerable in some ways. Sharing their adversities – to show why the work is important – can expose them. How do you do it right
Hamilton: The dynamic of exploitation is a kind of feature of a competitive system in which schools compete for status and private money. All universities, no matter who they serve, in some way sell their students or rely on students to provide them with resources. Elite wealthy schools rely on their students 'tuition fees and their families' donations. In a system where this goes without saying, schools that serve disadvantaged students are put in a bad place. If they use the same model of using their student population to deliver resources, they can take advantage of a group that has already been taken advantage of. Part of the problem is something unsolvable. This is how we built the structure of higher education. It is no longer primarily publicly funded.
One thing Campus could do – Riverside has a really powerful structure of cultural centers. These centers are staffed and have connections with the local community. And one of the things that could be done is to get the leadership into better communication with these centers because these centers are embedded in the local communities.
Nielsen: Having this leadership-community relationship can go a long way, especially when that leadership believes and expresses to others that everyone on campus will receive an equally good education. Cultural centers provide some sort of kickback or review of the leadership's ability to completely shift focus away from the students. If there are things on campus that need to be addressed, they can bring in those community relationships to put pressure on to ensure that the campus is truly working in the best interests of all students.
You write that underfunded new universities are reaching out to marginalized students to increase revenues or reduce costs. Which finding was the most striking for you?
Nielsen: So noticeable on the riverside was the widespread culture of student support. Everyone had the same expectations of world-class research as a UC campus, but the identity served that student body. This resulted in a bigger, more positive campus climate, but also a feeling that the students might be comfortable enough to make demands on their university. The campus really created a self-reinforcing environment where students felt like it was their campus. It was widely used and resulted in tremendous academic success.
Hamilton: I am a faculty member at UC-Merced and have been here for over a decade. The most surprising thing to me was how sparse the resources were. Faculty was protected from knowing how limited was support for staff who are critical to the student's experience and success. Our people at UC-Merced are amazing, but they've done more with the least amount of resources you can imagine. I spent time tailing advisors. Because of the number of students they oversaw, there was no way for these well-trained skilled workers to really do their job well. What kind of bond makes someone feel? To be put in a position where you can't really support him the way you want, I think, is a hard blow. I had people cry when they talked about this reality. Unlike earlier periods in history where you could turn to the government for the assistance you would need, Merced was on your own. They had no staff. I noticed the resource differences, which are not always obvious to faculty members or maybe even administrators.
At one point in the book, Merced is trying to figure out how to make cuts. In your book, you write that one co-worker replied, “Everyone needs to know that the cart wheels will fall off and the spare wheels will fail for weeks. This place is collapsing and nobody seems to mind. “They moved on to a policy called" tolerable under-optimization ".
Marginalized students are perceived as not the squeaking wheel. Those who are privileged tend to have a bigger megaphone.
Hamilton: There was no other way forward. In some cases, they didn't do it well, but you are on a budget. You are in the red and have no other resources. At UC-Merced there was a budget on the one hand, and then a table of positions that people asked for. You can only hit a fraction of it. And every time you add an employee, it means you have to make cuts elsewhere. Most administrators are really well meant. That doesn't mean they are perfect and not make problematic decisions that harm students. But it was more of a calculation, “Good God, how do we proceed?”.
In general, and this does not specifically apply to an administrator at UC-Merced or UC-Riverside, marginalized students are perceived as not the squeaking wheel. Those who are privileged tend to have a bigger megaphone. There is this dynamic. But Merced students, they were clear about their needs. Their voices were important.
With the pandemic, there is a gap between colleges that have plenty of resources to run testing and contact tracing – and schools that don't. Your research was completed before Covid. But how could the pandemic widen the gap between new universities and other research universities?
Hamilton: Student life is very different in a pandemic. Our students are at the forefront. Most work in important jobs or have a family member who is an essential worker. Racially marginalized communities – black or Latin American communities – have been hit by the pandemic. I have students who have lost several family members, students who now mainly care for their siblings while their parents are at work all day. They are trying to manage their sibling's online school. Versus, you know, zooming in with a college student who's in the family vacation home on the east coast. These are just really different realities for our student population compared to other student populations.
There is a good chance that Covid-19, an economic shock, will worsen organizational inequalities. I've heard many complaints from very elite universities about their financial situation, but they have a lot more cushion to rely on. This pillow is not available from Merced and Riverside. How this will look for our schools depends on how the state and federal government react. Whether they can get help into the hands of the schools and students who need it most.