Veblen, Redux

In the current issue of Academe, AAUP President Rudy Fichtenbaum explores the question, “What’s New about Today’s Corporate University?” He concludes:

Corporations today are interested not just in controlling those who might criticize their agenda but also in using institutions of higher education as publicly financed research centers and privately financed (tuition-funded) training facilities that focus on workforce development.

For most the the column, he looks back over the development of corporate interest in higher education, mentioning first Thorstein Veblen’s 1918 book, The Higher Learning In America: A Memorandum On the Conduct of Universities By Business MenHe’s not the only one bringing up that Veblen book, one largely forgotten. As I mentioned in a post the other day, Siva Vaidhyanathan also talks about it in his article for The Baffler, “A Study in Total Depravity.” Veblen concludes:

All that is here intended to be said is nothing more than the obiter dictum that, as seen from the point of view of the higher learning, the academic executive and all his works are anathema, and should be discontinued by the simple expedient of wiping him off the slate; and that the governing board, in so far as it presumes to exercise any other than vacantly perfunctory duties, has the same value and should with advantage be lost in the same shuffle.

Maybe more of us should be looking into that book. Today’s anger in academia toward administrators, we would see, is nothing new. Veblen could certainly be writing about the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign of the past year, particularly in regard to the Steven Salaita situation. A dozen other instances come as quickly to mind.

Here are two salient paragraphs from Fichtenbaum’s column:

Until recently, most corporations did their own training. But increasingly, corporate leaders are seeking to offload their training expenses on public institutions. The movement for “assessment” and “accountability” promoted by the Gates and Lumina Foundations is just a cover for corporate leaders’ unprecedented attempts to mold the curriculum itself to their needs. And what better way to do that than to discard tenured faculty? Replace full-time faculty protected by tenure with just-in-time trainers—part-time faculty who rightly fear losing their jobs if they question the dictates of the growing army of administrators that supervises them—and, voilà! The faculty no longer control the curriculum; the professional administrators puppeted by corporate interests do.

Limit the tenure-track faculty to research and teaching doctoral students, mainly at elite schools, including some elite public institutions. Focus on graduating students trained to produce, not to think critically. Degrade the humanities and liberal arts. These actions define the modern corporate university.

Our anger today should be as great as Veblen’s.

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