BY HANK REICHMAN
For some time now the AAUP and many others have decried the growing privatization of our public colleges and universities and the corporatization of management styles at both public and private institutions. The horrendous costs of these trends have become ever more apparent in the skyrocketing tuition bills and ballooning debt burden faced by current students and recent graduates. They are apparent as well in the diminished education increasingly offered on campuses and in the massive exploitation of an academic precariat via the erosion of tenure and the expansion of contingent hiring. They are apparent too in the increasing transfer of the costs of research from both government and private enterprise to universities, resulting in a marked decline in both basic research and practical innovation. These phenomena are brilliantly described and analyzed in Christopher Newfield’s new book The Great Mistake, which I will review in a forthcoming issue of Academe. (But don’t wait for the review; read the book now; it’s brilliant.)
Newfield situates the problem in the abandonment by political and academic leaders of higher education’s commitment to the public good and its privileging of private goods. He suggests that nearly half the value produced by higher education is not measurable through the calculation of individual gain. Hence the costs of privatization and corporatization extend well beyond the personal financial burdens associated with diminution of state funding, higher tuition, or student debt.
Two recent essays highlight, in quite different ways, some of these “hidden” costs of corporatization. In “How Did Trump Get Elected? Take a Look in the Mirror,” published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard Wolin, who teaches history, political science, and literature at CUNY, suggests that perhaps the political cost are most dangerous:
The crisis of our republic is also a crisis of the academy. By steadily abandoning the traditional goals of liberal education in favor of more pragmatic ends and an emphasis on the “bottom line,” we have communicated to our students a retrograde message: In today’s hypercompetitive economy, there is no point in trying to survey the whole or in squandering valuable time contemplating ethereal questions of meaning and purpose. Energies devoted to such pursuits will serve neither the ends of professional advancement nor enhance the level of compensation to which students feel they are entitled upon graduation. To nurture a culture of critical discourse is a luxury that higher education can ill-afford.
“What responsibility do members of the academy bear for the shocking devolution of American politics that has just occurred?” Wolin asks.
Quite a bit, I’d say.
For one, the university’s historical role in purveying “truth” has diminished qualitatively. That it has become obligatory to put this term in quotation marks is a good indication of how far we have fallen. Whereas the pursuit of truth may retain its value at those bastions of educational privilege where a liberal education has remained meaningful, elsewhere the ideals of humanistic study have been essentially left for dead. In this respect, we have met the enemy and he is “us.” . . .
. . . university presidents have readily jettisoned a commitment to higher cultural and intellectual goals. In their rush to demonstrate the payoff of a four-year degree, they have shamelessly and enthusiastically hopped on the “relevance” and “bottom line” bandwagons.
Historically, one of the central missions of higher education, in addition to preparing students for the rigors of the job market, has been to nurture the values of active citizenship — the encouragement and cultivation of character traits that are epitomized by the idea of “autonomy.” Brusquely put, this means producing individuals who are capable of making thoughtful and mature political judgments as well as intelligent life decisions.
Alice Dreger, the renowned and often controversial advocate for academic freedom in the sciences, approaches the costs of corporatizaton from a quite different angle. In a highly personal and impassioned essay, “The Big Game: The Reality of Living With College Sexual Assault,” she recounts her experience living near campus in Lansing, Michigan, especially on days when Michigan State has a football game. She compellingly describes the dangers posed by excessive student drinking for both male and especially female students, what others have called “rape culture,” noting as well the burdens this has placed on city government and local law enforcement. It’s an important piece on a critical topic, but here’s the point she makes that I want especially to highlight here:
University administrations talk about tackling this problem. They can’t under their current model, which is not primarily about traditional academics. Big universities, including Michigan State and the five covered in the New York Times report, are now explicitly using a corporate model that openly values massive direct and indirect income from sports — what Murray Sperber of Indiana University aptly called “Beer and Circus” in his book of the same name over a decade ago.
It’s not like I haven’t been personally watching this for the 20 years we’ve lived here. But I can’t help but notice how much worse the corporatized university system has become all over this country. Michigan State’s public relations department is now explicitly called “Communications and Brand Strategy.” There’s something deeply chilling about having sexual assault and alcohol-related deaths covered under a brand strategy. But that’s the reality of modern universities.
And the reality is that the big university brands can bear a few dozen rapes and a death or two a year from alcohol. (Look at Pennsylvania State University and the Jerry Sandusky case.)
Indeed, whether it is the degradation of our politics or the epidemic of sexual assault on our campuses, evidence of the failure of the corporate model is everywhere. Newfield argues that “Today’s problems do not reflect a failure to introduce market thinking but the effects of its long-term presence.” Wolin concludes that the philosopher John Dewey, AAUP’s first president, had it right:
Dewey held that emancipatory pedagogy required the abandonment of mind-numbing, rote instruction in favor of honing the skills of critical thinking. Dewey was convinced that the experience of participatory learning was an apprenticeship for the practice of democratic citizenship. To the nation’s detriment, the academy has turned its back on Dewey’s insight.
It’s not too late to turn around.