Early signs of struggle for economics and higher ed’s future: more growth versus degrowth

Recently I had two meetings on the same day which resonated with each other in an interesting way.  Both sessions were with academics, a dean and a professor.  They expressed diametrically opposite views on economics and higher ed, and that expressed a dynamic I’ve been tracking.

To be clear, economics wasn’t the subject of either conversation.  We met to discuss other topics.  Yet how we arrange the economic world came up organically in both.

To explain: in our conversation, as we discussed institutional resilience and strategy, the dean expressed firm support for continued economic growth. This was in general, not just for their institution, but for the economy at large.  Regular GDP gains, increases in corporate market caps, growing market sizes all benefited that campus in this view.  The institution depended on GDP going up each quarter.

The professor, in contrast, detected and approved of an opposed way of thinking, both within higher ed and in the world at large. Zero growth, degrowth, circular, and donut economics were finding an expanding audience and that’s a fine thing, in their estimation. Some of the deepest problems our society experiences, notably income inequality and the climate crisis, stem from our current economic order of perpetual growth. Changing course, even reversing economic progress, was ethically the right thing to do, in this view.

I have a lot to say about each point.  We can dive into economic modeling, consider industrialization’s ideologies, reach back to Malthus, and more.  Today I just wanted to share that pairing and explain why it moved me.  I’m curious what people think. I’d also like to plant this flag for later work.

It’s not a surprise to see professors and administrators on opposite sides of a question, of course, but I don’t think institutional politics are the main driver here.  Instead, I think we’re seeing many people question present-day economics (call it neoliberalism, late capitalism, very late capitalism, democratic capitalism, or whatever you like).  Partly this stems from the life experience of younger generations, who didn’t receive the anti-socialism Cold War era programming of their elders, and whose experience of capitalism has included some disasters, like the recessions of 2008 and 2020.

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At the same time there’s a kind of escalating restlessness in much of the world, a sense that the present order is not only flawed, but is responsible for awful things and isn’t likely to change course on its own. We see that with antiracist activism, which changes various entities (states, businesses, populations) with racism in multiple forms, and calls for both past reckoning and present reform.  We see it in the United States with rising labor activism, from an uptick in unionization after decades of decline, plus whatever the “Great Resignation” actually turns out to me – at the very least people not accepting jobs they deem low in compensations.  Perhaps this plays a role in the current protests in Iran and China.

This kind of wide-ranging skepticism of the present order also appears within climate activism, the bounds of which far exceed what most people once viewed as “environmentalism.” I suspect more people are realizing just how extensive decarbonization is as a project.  Depending on their situations and perspectives, they connect it not only with their electrical bill but also with diet, travel, work, entertainment, gender identity, political parties, generational feeling, and more. Recognizing the sheer, mind-boggling size and complexity of the topic lets us review and rethink these related topics… which unavoidably leads to the economy, among other things.

Back to higher education: this opposed pair of ideas is present within academia, beyond these two contacts, albeit not in a very public way. The dean I spoke with represents a fairly popular view in higher education, although one perhaps more often held without a lot of discussion.  American colleges and universities are, broadly, privatized to various degrees, and therefore financially depend on a growing economy to pay for growing expenses.  Further, as academia prepares students for careers,  in a growing (for now!) population, and we want to elevate students’ economic status, the economy needs to grow.

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  Additionally, unless we want to bank on downward mobility, the economy has to grow to make room for the upwards sort. Again, I don’t see professors and librarians eagerly celebrating quarterly GDP estimates, but this pro-growth idea seems to lurk beneath the surface of our debates and actions.

From the other side, I don’t hear much in the way of nogrowth or degrowth arguments in my conversations and readings of colleges and universities.  I’ve found antecedents and allied ideas, like criticisms of consumerism for years.  Increasingly, I’m also hearing criticisms of and objections to capitalism as a whole, especially among younger academics. There is academic research into anti-growth schools of thought; I don’t know how widespread this is in curricula.

How far will this opposition go within higher ed and the world at large?  Perhaps campuses become sites of loud contestation between pro- and anti-growth movements, with repercussions in institutional strategy and our communities.

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  Or maybe each will remain discussions within disciplines.  I’m not sure now.

I’ve been noodling on a related book project about a closely related point, at a history of ideas/direction of civilization level. The emerging debate I’ve identified in this blog post may fit neatly into that.

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  More on this later, if it develops.

What are you seeing in terms of pro-economic growth and its opposition in your slice of the academic world?

(photo by Christian Weidinger)

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8 Responses to Early signs of struggle for economics and higher ed’s future: more growth versus degrowth

  1. Jay Collier says:

    I’m very interested in this topic, Bryan, at the very least to help elucidate the no-growth perspective that could be in the future for many more colleges and universities — especially those dependent on corporate funders and donors — that aren’t yet experiencing it.

  2. Mark Vickers says:

    Growth is a social construction to which we apply metrics. It neither good nor bad in itself.

    If the entire economy were green and fair, with a minimum of Moloch worship, virtually no one would have issues with growth. On the other hand, if we quickly grew our well educated population by boosting educational productivity (a standard measure of economic success) but at the expense of traditional universities, then your dean might not much care for growth.

    In other words, the debate isn’t really about economic growth per se but about the outcomes of that growth, and those outcomes can vary widely. The key may be to form a consensus (or something close) about goals and then adjust the economy to meet those goals. No easy challenge. But under the right circumstances, growth can serve everyone’s interests.

  3. Ed Webb says:

    I haven’t encountered much of this debate in an overt way here, despite it being a campus with significant energy devoted to sustainability.

    Demographic declines in our traditional markets are met with marketing and recruitment pushes into other areas. Budget shortfalls translate into wage and other austerity, including some shrinkage of faculty numbers, and in that context long-run sustainability comes up—but rarely coupled with discussion of degrowth or similar ideas.

    There is a review of overall curriculum happening at the moment that may lead to a doubling-down on core liberal arts components, but may also lead to “rationalization” of some areas. Again, I have not heard that overtly connected to questions about the future of capitalism. But I’m not necessarily in the right committee meetings to hear such discussions. I’ll attune my listening to pick up what I can.

  4. Teresa says:

    I was just thinking of how oddly strange this Christmas is. I mean–I’m hearing this Christmas music, seeing pages and pages of Christmas shows on my internet stream. Hordes of people are scurrying about in a fomo fashion, trying to make up for the lockdown. But it all feels fake. We just went through something profound, yet we want to completely leave it behind as if it never happened. That’s how much money drives our culture. Just gotta get back to it. Nevermind that housing costs just ballooned out of range of many Americans. I teach in a K-8 school and we’ve lost so many students in the last 3 months because our city has just gotten too expensive. And gas prices, utility prices are also very high Used cars are going for more money than when they were new. I feel like a helpless bystander watching the Ukrainians being abused by a crazy person, like our own crazy person who must have his way and won’t take no for an answer. He’s not done with us yet. We are living in bizarre times. And sometimes I want to boil things down to the most simplistic elements. We are clever animals who still wear our ancestry in our deeds. The men are in a struggle for dominance. The women are trying to overcome their oppression–giving up their dreams to support their love. Over us all are those who have unimaginable wealth. They could end so much suffering. Maybe we could even grow and move on to a better way of being, where everyone had a chance to grow their best life that’s more than chasing dollars and dodging debt. I would like to see things slow down and turn around. We’re leaving too many behind. I’m not surprised by all the violence we’re seeing. People need help. They are acting like animals who nothing left to lose.

  5. Dahn Shaulis says:

    The US and the (human) world never caught on to basic changes in perspective that needed to be made: looking at Quality of Life (QOL) and democracy rather than GDP and capitalism. That’s why we are here today, waiting for the next economic downturn, as a more existential climate crisis lies ahead.


  6. sibyledu says:

    One of the ironies is that the institutions who are most likely to talk about capping growth are the elite ones, and they are the least likely to want to grow for internal and external reasons.

    The growth mindset in higher education was born in the post-World War II era, when the pressing national goal was to educate a rapidly growing population to prepare to defeat the Soviet Union in the Cold War. It was carried along through the 1970s and 1980s on the wave of educating people who had been left out of the first wave of the postwar boom, especially women, students older than 25, and minoritized populations. By the 1990s, the waves of cuts to public support for higher education led higher education leaders to cling to growth as the only way to maintain the status quo. That worked until 2010, when enrollments started falling through a combination of events that we all know about (ever-rising prices, attacks on the value of higher education, precarious young people choosing work and family over education, etc.).

    It took a long time for the growth mindset to be entrenched and it is going to take a long time to unwind it. And most institutions are going to act like this dean: we can get back to the good old days if only we can grow more, which is a problem that is solvable by somebody else (admissions, or marketing, or high school counselors, or state legislators). There are very few people who are thinking in terms of, how can we survive as a smaller institution, how can we align ourselves for a smaller future. The growth mindset serves the status quo: we can be confident in wage increases, or building new facilities, or creating new majors, or increasing our tuition discount, if and only if we can grow, because growth is what’s going to make up for all the other marginal setbacks.

    What is likelier to hasten the end of the growth mindset is being forced to confront it: when institutions see 20% drops in enrollment and they have no choice but to get smaller.

    I hope I’m not right about this.

    • Roxann says:

      Very insightful comment indeed. The growth mindset analogy vs the non-growth mindset is exactly what seems to be happening intentionally right now in many ways. A little while ago, I had been part of a H.E. institution that held open meetings to drive ideas for enrollment including growing new majors etc. This did actually happen over a period of years and now the institution is at an all time high enrollment. The unintended consequence was the adult life long learning program was eliminated which was in existence for decades and now an unfortunate devaluation of humans has occured -seniors over 50 years of age, are now left without a place or space that in the past, held a vivacious program offering courses to be audited with students. Now their life-long learning place & community snuffed out by some might say greed or might speculate even an egregious lack of respect for these life long learners. It might be trivial for some to hear of this or read this, but many of these older students were alumni, paying students, actively supporting the university in ways that are too many to list here. Sadly, the dismissiveness of older students, very gifted learners, some even following in the footsteps of a Jesuit education, sadly the institution is not living up to the mission, thinking about even more than Cura Personalis? A very limited mindset.

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