Review of The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities

Reviews of Recent Books Concerning Current Issues in Higher Ed: No. 6

Donoghue, Frank. The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. New York: Fordham U P, 2008.

In this seminal work of the corporatization of American universities, Frank Donoghue offers a much longer historical view than most other authors focusing on the topic. Some have started in the mid-1970s, when economic recession and the “Rust Belt” decline of American manufacturing and working-class economic security, along with post-Baby Boom demographics, created new fiscal pressures on our universities. Others have looked back to the late 1940s, when the G. I. Bill eliminated many previous socio-economic obstacles to a earning a college degree and drove the very rapid expansion of our universities–the public university systems, in particular. But Donoghue starts in the post-Civil War era, when the establishment of most of our land-grant universities marked the beginnings of the modern university in America. He not only historically delineates the tension between the proponents of utilitarian education and the proponents of “liberal arts” education, but he emphasizes that, from the beginnings of the modern American university, this tension has been inherent in our shifting conception of the core mission of our universities. The Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties marked previous high points for the proponents of utilitarian education, and it is hardly surprising that at the turn of this century, as the nation seems to have settled into a second Gilded Age, the proponents of utilitarian education have once more moved into the foreground. Unlike most critics of the increasing corporatization of our universities, Donoghue does not, however, view this as a cyclic phenomenon. Instead, he believes that most colleges and universities have already passed a tipping point and are moving inexorably toward an increasingly corporatized state in which the humanities and social sciences are being reduced from major disciplines within the curriculum to basic skill sets and diversions for dilettantes and subversives.

To support his argument that recent trends are almost certainly irreversible, Donoghue focuses on the increasing reliance on adjunct faculty (what Donoghue calls the “casualization of academic labor”), the movement of students away from majors in the liberal arts, and the rise of for-profit institutions. To the arguments that faculty need to work to reverse the reduce the numbers of adjunct faculty and to restore the ranks of tenured and tenure-track faculty, Donoghue wonders how the increasing reliance on adjuncts can be reversed when, over the last three to four decades, the trend has done nothing but accelerate—that is, it has remained seemingly impervious to efforts to slow it down, never mind to reverse it. To the argument that a liberal arts education is all the more relevant in an economic environment in which educated workers can expect to change not just their positions but their careers a half-dozen or more times over the course of their working lives, Donoghue wonders who, other than liberal arts faculty, are making this argument. Indeed, the increasing funding of higher education through student loans and the students’ urgency to relive themselves of increasingly onerous amounts of such debt have done nothing but intensify the interest in “practical” degrees that seem to provide entry into very specific jobs. And, lastly, to the argument that the for-profit institutions are an anomaly, Donoghue points to the rapid increases in the numbers and size of such institutions and their dramatic impact on how other colleges and institutions are offering instruction.

No one can fault the scope of Donoghue’s research, the adeptness with which he synthesizes a very broad range of sources, the cogency of his analysis, or the weight of his conclusions. After reading this book for the first time, I had an intense urge to have not just one but several very stiff drinks. Donoghue’s dystopian vision of where American higher education is headed is very strong stuff—enough to make one despair of doing anything beyond waiting out the inescapable end of everything as we know it.

Nonetheless, not because I am an incurable optimist but, instead, simply because I am an obdurate opponent of everything that Donoghue sees as inevitable, I would like to offer several reasons why I think that, as bleak as things are and may yet become, there is still enough of a sliver of hope to keep some of us causing trouble, if not causing change.

First, as Donoghue points out, the supply of adjunct faculty has been very sufficient because graduate programs instill in their students a desire to secure one of those increasingly difficult to obtain tenure-track positions. At some point as the debt burdens of graduate students continue to increase, as the number of exploited adjuncts makes their fate seem more inescapably the norm, and as the number of tenure-track positions dwindles to the point at which securing such a position becomes something more akin to a fantasy than simply a longshot—when all of these things occur, and probably well before they occur—the supply of adjuncts will begin very abruptly to dry up. In fact, I believe that we are fast approaching that point right now. People who are intelligent enough to earn Ph.D.’s are intelligent enough to recognize that they can earn equivalent wages at a fast-food restaurant or in a warehouse and intellifent enough, therefore, to make other choices of careers.

Second, because the economy has been so volatile, many recent graduates in fields ranging from architecture to the physical sciences to the law have discovered that their degrees have not led to any jobs, never mind good jobs.  It just may be that students may increasingly seek some combination of a liberal arts education and a utilitarian education.

Lastly, since Donoghue’s book was published, the for-profit bubble has burst, and the fascination with MOOCs shows every indication of being an even more passing fad. The issues related to the pedagogical uses of electronic technologies will almost certainly be with us for a long time, but faculty are resisting the outsourcing of the curriculum to for-profit “educational providers,” and even our corporatized administrations are recognizing that the mass education promised by the proponents of MOOCs is at least as fiscally problematic as it is pedagogically problematic.

In closing, I think that we have just gone through three decades in which disdain for “big government” has carried over into a disdain for all public institutions. But the one reliable truism in both politics and culture is that nothing is permanent. The pendulum may not always swing fully between extremes, but mindsets do change. The Democrats’ absolute failure to be relevant in the 2010 elections has, I think, prolonged the transition into a new era in which public institutions may not be seen as the answers to all problems but they are no longer seen as the last place to look for answers. With any kind of luck, reasonable solutions may come to be preferred increasingly over ideological stances.

2 thoughts on “Review of The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities

  1. Pingback: Late Breaking Saturday Night Bummer | Gerry Canavan

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