"If He Wants to Wreck It, He Can"

In an article today on the debacle at The New Republic, journalist (and former TNR staffer) Michael Kinsley is quoted in reference to new owner Chris Hughes, “It’s his magazine, and if he wants to wreck it, he can.” This could easily become the tagline for the current age. Certainly for the boards of trustees of our institutions of higher education.

Our worship of the fiction of “ownership” has reached absurd proportions (witness the rise of Libertarianism) overall. Like everything else in society, “ownership” is a compact, a creation of human society for the furthering of communal ends. It has no fundamental meaning if taken on its own and certainly no god-given aspects. Nor is it an absolute, the fact of it unrestrained.

Yet that is exactly how too many of us envision “ownership” today, an absolute right to do exactly what one wants with whatever one has been granted ownership of. This is abusive not only of the “owned” object but of the societal compact of “ownership” for it strips the concept of “responsibility” and of the role of society in “ownership” itself.

So deep is the idea of the absolute right of ownership today that most people reading this, I believe, will be saying, “You’re crazy. I can do what I want with whatever is mine.”

That so? By law, you could buy a famous painting and wreck it, but could you, really? The responsibility of ownership, though not often ensconced in law, remains quite real.

The original of a work of art may not be protected, but other things that are part of our “commons” are. There may not be enough of these and their protection may be weakening as “ownership” is exalted, but they do still exist.

Take copyright. When first established, it was a limited right that an author could claim. Even if the right were sold, it returned to the author after 13 years for a single, possible renewal. No work could remain under exclusive ownership after 26 years, and even that right was curtailed. The commons, the “ownership right” of the group, was protected. So was, in an odd way, the right of the writer to see the work preserved. A painter has no concomitant right–once the painting is sold, the buyer can (under our draconian vision of “ownership”) do with it what she or he will, can even destroy it. (This distinction, of course, has a great deal to do with questions of reproduction, themselves a nuance of ownership.)

Questions of ownership of an organization, be it a multinational corporation, a magazine, or a club on the block, are also more complicated that simply conceptions of “ownership” allow. Once other people are involved, ownership stops being absolute–or has, one might say, since at least the time of the Magna Carta. Recognition of the importance of this fact (or what should be a fact) led the AAUP, a century ago, to put forward the doctrine of “shared governance.” Colleges and universities, in this vision, are not owned by their trustees (or by anyone else) but are collaborative systems of interaction and decision-making. One of the reasons for this is that organizations are managed by their participants, be they workers, administrators, customers, faculty or students. Or, in the case of TNR, journalists. The magazine IS its writers and editors. Replace them, and you have a different magazine. The same is true for a college: It IS is faculty and students. Or a corporation: It IS its staff and its customers. Owning the physical aspects of an organization is much different from owning it outright. When there are people involved, independent operators (to at least some degree, though many of today’s “owners” hate that fact), ownership is necessarily curtailed.

If those of us involved in education accept Kinsley’s vision as truth, it is probably time for us to do what the TNR staff have done… that is, resign as a group. Then, we should either get out of education completely or try to create another sort of educational organization, one where organization is truly diffuse and (may I say it?) democratic–where another vision of ownership is in play. If we stay, we need to reject Kinsley’s vision from the start–otherwise, we are nothing more than pieces of a machine.

We, who make up American  universities, need to start acting like the collaborative “owners” we are instead of as remote “customers” (students) and sales staff (faculty).

What’s really sad about the current state of American higher education, where we are customers and staff, is that even customers and staff, in successful businesses have more ownership power than we in higher ed exhibit today.


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