Countering the Corporate Con

The two great parts of American higher education are the students and the faculty. The administrators are only around to facilitate the learning of the former and the teaching and research of the latter.

Or that’s the way we imagine it.

Over the past fifty years, the students have become customers instead of learners and the faculty are clerks and assembly-line workers. The new corporate structure of American colleges and universities has demoted both, raising up administrators to the stratosphere of corporate executives and their oversight boards to that of major shareholders.

This is no way to run a college, as the recent report by New York University faculty, The Art of the Gouge: How NYU Squeezes Billions from our Students—And Where That Money Goes (go here for part 2 and here for part 3) demonstrates. I’ve mentioned this before, but I want to return to the topic a bit in light of an article by David Masciortra for AlterNet. Entitled “College is Wildly Exploitative: Why Aren’t Students Raising Hell?” The NYU report is the springboard for Masciortra’s discussion. He writes that “Higher education wears the cloak of liberalism, but in policy and practice, it can be a corrupt and cutthroat system of power and exploitation.” He’s right. And it is not simply faculty, especially contingent faculty, who are exploited—but students as well.

While adjuncts and term-appointed faculty (and their tenured and tenure-track supporters) are beginning to get organized, students are doing almost nothing.

Part of this is a problem of public perception. As the NYU report hammers home:

While making clear that NYU is an unusually expensive ride, the press has not conveyed a proper sense of how relentless, and ingenious, NYU really is at squeezing cash from its community. For that, one needs to hear from the community—especially the students:

  1. all they want is your money.
  2. all they care about is your money
  3. you are nothing to them but $200,000

That is not the rant of some eccentric malcontent, but a complaint that comes up endlessly on social media, in online reviews, throughout the blogosphere, and in the student press: “NYU just wants your money … they don’t care about you!” “We all know NYU is money-hungry.” “NYU wants your money, and you will graduate feeling suckered.” “NYU is a scam… don’t go there.” “NYU is all about the money, but they use none of [it] to support undergrad education.” And so on.

The students, though aware of their plight, aren’t organizing, aren’t making use of their collective power.

They can. Columbia University and Berkeley come to mind. Even little Utica College, where I was a student in the spring of 1970, shut down in the wake of the Kent State killings, shut down by student power and faculty support. Today? The new issues of exploitation “should inspire vigilance and activism, but only 10 out of 160 protests targeted tuition hikes for attack, and only two of those 10 events took place outside the state of California.”

Masciortra refers to Robert Reich’s book Supercapitalism in making an argument against the “excessive increases” in the cost of higher education: “Higher education can claim no costly infrastructural or operational developments to defend its sophisticated swindle of American families. It is a high-tech, multifaceted, but old fashioned transfer of wealth from the poor, working- and middle-classes to the rich.” Both he and Reich are right.

Faculty have not benefitted from the rising cost of higher education. Salaries have not kept pace, even if tenured and tenure-track faculty are looked at alone (add in the pitiful amounts paid adjuncts and, well, faculty compensation begins to look downright exploitative).

To change things, faculty need activist student allies but, as Masciortra argues:

This seems unlikely to happen in a culture, however, where even most poor Americans view themselves, in the words of John Steinbeck, as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” The political, educational and economic ruling class of America is comfortable selling out its progeny. In the words of one student quoted in “The Art of the Gouge,” “they see me as nothing more than $200,000.”

We on the faculty, though we haven’t been enriched by the new high cost of education, have sat mute, for the most part, while the growth has gotten out of control, intimidated by the administrators whose control over our own activities has grown with each passing year, concepts like “shared governance” and even “academic freedom” seeming quaint holdovers from a distant past. As Peter Wood described it a couple of years ago, the public perception of the AAUP is that it frequently descends “into mere rationalization of professorial privilege.” He was wrong then about the activities of the organization and his comment is even more wrong today, but there’s enough truth in it to make those of us who see the AAUP as one of the main avenues of resistance to the corporatization of universities (through its collective-bargaining units as well as through its advocacy) cringe. We need to change that.

One way we can make Wood’s comment even more meaningless tomorrow than it is today is to reach out to students in ways we haven’t since the 1960s and early 1970s, making student empowerment as much a part of our agenda as faculty empowerment. As the heart and soul of the university, students and faculty, when working together, have tremendous power.

It’s time we start using it.

3 thoughts on “Countering the Corporate Con

  1. I think this is a very important post. I think it is essential for the AAUP to be more of an activist group working with students to support a more just system of higher education. However, it’s not so easy. Opposing tuition hikes doesn’t end wealth privilege. If every college was free, the elite would still dominate higher education and pay less for it. So what does a higher education that promotes equal opportunity look like? That’s the big question we need to answer. And it can seem easy to say the faculty haven’t benefited, but it isn’t quite true. Most faculty are poorer and less secure than they were decades ago. But not all. The tenured faculty, especially at elite universities, especially in business and science, are richer than they’ve ever been before, and even less interested in universities devoted to equal opportunity.

    • You are right, John. Somehow, just as we need to convince the students to fight, we need to convince the elite faculty, too. The best way to do that is to define our goals, to develop a model of the ideal university looks like–and to somehow show that it will be better for everyone. Too idealistic? Probably, but we need to start somewhere.

  2. Pingback: For Students | The Academe Blog

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