The most recent issue of the New York Times Magazine includes a very thought-provoking article by Frederick deBoer, a recent graduate of the doctoral program in English at Purdue University. In “Why We Should Fear University, Inc.,” deBoer considers the whole gamut of ramifications of the increasing corporatization of our universities.
After very succinctly but viscerally highlighting the interconnections among the physical “orderliness” of our campuses, the outsourcing of all sorts of campus “services,” and the relentless expansion of administrative reach, deBoer offers a very nuanced analysis of the impact of corporatization not just on academic freedom and free expression on campus but on how we frame our discussions of those issues.
Here are some excerpts:
“Which is why, whenever the conversation inevitably turns to campus political culture these days, I think of the garden. It has become fashionable to argue that leftist language policing has mingled with the service vision of higher education—where students are the customers and professors their servants—to curtail the free expression of ideas that most see as the natural purpose of higher education. Minor campus incidents, magnified through the powerful lens of the Internet, become the focus of vast, binary arguments, picked apart ‘Rashomon’-style by interested parties.
“In April, student activists at the University of Michigan temporarily shut down a screening of ‘American Sniper.’ Critics saw students unwilling to be exposed to points of view that they disagree with; defenders saw members of a campus community rallying against Islamophobia and the celebration of war. In May, students at Columbia called for trigger warnings on Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ for its depiction of rape and assault. Critics saw sensitivity taken to the point of inanity; defenders saw students righteously invested in the content of the courses for which they are paying. With its rigid dichotomies and teams mentality, the usual discussion of campus intellectual culture seems to reflect all of our worst political debates and has little to offer anyone who isn’t already a dedicated partisan.
“Defenders of the current state of campus politics are right to combat the insulting presumption that today’s undergraduates are oversensitive and incurious, correctly insisting that many of our college students are smart and committed to the fair exchange of ideas. But these defenders ignore the very real threat that student activism poses to intellectual and political freedom on campus, which is the firmament of academic inquiry. Critics are right to note that there is an unhealthy sensitivity to perceived offense on campus, a sense of ambient incrimination that does more to pre-empt potentially unpopular ideas than to punish the ones that are actually expressed. Yet those critics are strangely quiet about the structural racism and sexism, and other forms of inequality, that shape life on the average college campus.
“This debate focuses far too much on personality flaws and individual agency. In so doing, critics of campus political culture almost always misidentify where the problems arise: not from passionate student activists, though like all activists, they can sometimes be misguided, but from corporatism, the corporatism that has come to infect the soul of the American university.”
The full article is available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/13/magazine/why-we-should-fear-university-inc.html.
If Frederick deBoer’s name seems familiar to some readers of this blog, you may recall an earlier post in which I discussed the purchase of Inside Higher Ed by a private-equity firm. That post included the following:
“Fredrik deBoer is a doctoral candidate in rhetoric and composition at Purdue University. He has given me permission to re-publish a post to his personal blog [http://fredrikdeboer.com/] that he made on the Quad Partners’ purchase of a controlling interest in Inside Higher Ed. I think that he cogently and succinctly delineates the main concerns that everyone should have.”
That post, which includes deBoer’s post to his own blog, is available at: https://academeblog.org/2015/01/25/why-inside-higher-ed-faces-a-dubious-future/