The Collapse of Complex Institutions

Are we in the midst of a second tectonic shift in higher education?

The first, as most historians of higher ed agree, occurred during the latter decades of the 19th and early decades of the 20th century as the “old time” liberal arts college gave way to the research university.  The professionalization of academic labor, the rise of “scientific” research, the increasing demand for managerial workers, and the top-down imperative to subordinate higher learning to monopoly capitalism:  all of these spelled doom for a higher educational system organized around the ambition to cultivate “gentlemen” rather than experts.

The ongoing crisis of neoliberalism is clearly dis-organizing public higher education and its compact – – forged in the wake of World War II and centered on the value of mass higher education – – among State, Capital, and the people.   State funding over the past two decades has stumbled from one “recession” to the next:  funding in the late ’90s recovered from major budget cuts earlier in the decade only to run up against the dot com bust of 2000-2001; a brief recovery in public funding hit the fiscal wall in 2007-2008 with the onset of the “mortgage” crisis.  For two decades, the general trend has been pretty clear: rising student enrollments have been matched by declining state monies.  One major symptom of this contradiction: the cost of college attendance has been steadily shifting from state to consumer, as students and their families spend more income to complete their degrees.  Two graphs capture this dynamic.  First, the roller coaster of state appropriations (courtesy of NEA):

And second, the ratio of state appropriations versus student contributions to tuition (courtesy of SHEEO):

This “privatization” of public higher education is no big news to those who have followed the politics and economics of higher ed over the past couple of decades.  The bad news is that, despite modest burps of prosperity, the trend is definitely downward, i.e. the State is withdrawing, inch by inch, from public higher education.  And, given the highly-publicized cuts to higher ed in the U.K., it’s clear that the neoliberal triage of public post-secondary education is now a global phenomenon.

Within the U.S. university, one of the most significant effects of this triage has been the chronic re-organization of colleges and disciplines, most recently heralded as the “crisis of the humanities.”  Indeed, to paraphrase Alain Locke, the humanities now represent the “sick man of American [higher education].”  Sickness for some, however, can also mean health for others.  And in the increasingly zero sum game of university funding, humanities’ loss is STEM’s (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) gain.  If you’re a faculty member in humanities in almost every branch of higher education, you know the feeling:  in these times of “strategic decision-making” and “core mission,” STEM has to spend a lot less time justifying itself in budgetary and personnel terms than humanities.   In my own university, trying to start a new major or program in “polymer engineering” is a no-brainer; trying to start a new major or program in foreign languages is a non-starter.  President Obama recently awarded prizes in a White House Science Fair.  Any bets on when he’ll be awarding the next round of prizes in a White House Student Poetry Slam?

Some would argue that the humanities have been in “crisis” since the very beginning of the modern research university.   But given the recent torrent of lamentation by heavyweights like Stanley Fish, Marjorie Perloff, Terry Eagleton, and others, the viability of humanities within the university may have reached a critical phase.  Indeed, the recent launch of 4Humanities, a quasi-public advocacy group for the humanities, indicates perhaps the extent to which the humanities have now unabashedly entered the arena of interest group politics.  Disciplines founded on the idea of universal and transcendent values adopt the rough-and-tumble tactics of demand, recognition, and special-pleading.   As Gramsci summed up a different historical shift: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”  Humanities, welcome to the age of morbid symptoms!

The big question is this: is the crisis of humanities merely a temporary adjustment of the university to hard times? Or, does the crisis of humanities reflect a major change in the meaning and purpose of the university?  Like Terry Eagleton, I believe the latter, but for slightly different reasons and with possibly different effects.

In his book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter outlines a pretty straightforward, but powerful argument about how societies enter into crisis.  Societies develop complexity – – institutions, bureaucracies, legal codes, structures of internal and external control – -as a way to solve the problem of surpluses, particularly resource surpluses.  Complexity works, for a while.  According to Tainter, at a certain point and especially when confronted by novel stresses, the costs of expanding complexity begin to outweigh the benefits.  “The marginal return on investment in complexity accordingly deteriorates,” Tainter writes, “at first gradually, then with accelerated force.  At this point, a complex society reaches the phase where it becomes increasingly vulnerable to collapse.”  For Tainter, collapse, a return to simplicity, is merely the most cost-effective solution to the burdensome inefficiencies of complexity.


In a suggestive blog post, Clay Shirky has applied Tainter’s dynamic of complexity and collapse to new and old media economies.  Shirky’s main point is that so long as old media sticks to complexity (of production and organization), it will never be able to meet the challenges of new media.  “It’s tempting, at least for the people benefitting from the old complexity,” Shirky says,  “to imagine that if things used to be complex, and they’re going to be complex, then everything can just stay complex in the meantime. That’s not how it works, however.”   Complex business models just can’t compete with or incorporate the simple, DIY production and organization of viral blockbusters like “Charlie Bit My Finger” (now claiming 10 million plus viewers on YouTube).  And so, we witness the endless battles among Apple, Sony, cable companies, major newspapers, and all the others over how to “make the internet pay.”

It wouldn’t be too difficult to read the history of contemporary higher education through a narrative of “the collapse of complex institutions.”   The rise of the multiversity, with its  intricate organizational charts, bureaucracies, and other mechanisms of control, represented a real solution to the sudden infusion of students and money following World War II.  New stresses have appeared – – most importantly, in the form of reduced state funding.  Inevitably, if we follow Tainter, organizational stress induces further complexity, witness for instance the growth of the administrative cadre (from “enrollment managers” to “legislative staff” and development offices) and of organizational functions, for instance, the rise of academic technology offices or vice presidents and assistant vice presidents for evaluation and assessment.  (“War is the health of the state,” Randolph Bourne once proclaimed.  And, in academic terms, we might say: “Fiscal crisis is the health of administration.”)

The “crisis of the humanities,” then, is not just about the humanities.  It is also about the collapse of complex institutions.  Indeed, the gradual erosion of the humanities in colleges and universities around the globe may represent the first significant signs of encroaching simplicity.  More and more, universities are becoming vocational and technical schools, reducing their ambitions and organizational purpose to the goal of training “employable” white collar workers, limiting themselves to the job of funneling bright students into still-remunerative sectors of the STEM economy.  The political unconscious of higher education today may be summed up in this contradiction between increasing complexity, on the one hand, and accelerating simplification, on the other.  Yet, if we follow Tainter, the process of simplification is only a prelude to collapse.  Numerous reports and opinions, for and against, the new “competition” between established higher ed and for-profit institutions bear witness to the imminence of this collapse: the University of Phoenix can only really compete with the University of California once the playing field has been leveled, that is, only once the University of California simplifies away everything (from campus to full-time faculty to academic culture) that distinguishes it from the University of Phoenix.  This kind of competition can only be located on the horizon of collapse.

And so, fellow humanists, are we condemned to exodus from the university, ejected from the groves of academe and dispersed into the pages of history, to become the new “hedge scholars” of the STEM economy?  Perhaps.  But, perhaps, there are other alternative, and more convivial, paths through the collapse . . .


2 Responses to The Collapse of Complex Institutions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *