Monday, November 28, 2011
The University as Corporation
If you took a stroll through the small Catholic college where I have been working for the past 16 years, you probably wouldn’t guess that what is going on here is indicative of a very disturbing trend in higher education—the relentless corporatization of American education. As you walked through our campus, you’d probably think to yourself that surely Catholic colleges like this at least must be immune to the pressures that other colleges face to compete as business entities, pursuing the ever dwindling numbers of students who can afford to pay their bloated tuitions.
But you’d be wrong.
My college, like most other colleges in the United States, has bought into the mistaken notion that the students at our institution are customers whose whims must be catered to at every turn and that the faculty are troublesome laborers who really don’t know what’s best for the students (but who are arrogant enough to presume that they do). The trend towards corporatization has been going on for some time now in our country, but never has it been so intense as it is right now. The economic crisis that has hit the world, and is beginning to impact higher education, has provided college administrators with all the justification they need to run their institutions according to business models that ultimately will do little more than make college education in this country even less effective than it already is.
This corporate approach to higher education plays out in practical terms in the daily life of the academy in a number of key ways:
1) Since the academy needs to ensure ever increasing enrollment numbers, it promotes only those programs that are marketable. Unfortunately, programs like philosophy, art, theology, sociology, history, and most other liberal arts disciplines don’t fit the idea of what a marketable discipline is and so basically these programs are left to die like unwanted step-children. They are drained of funds, marginalized in the academy, and generally treated as burdens, rather than as assets.
Just to give you some idea of just how unimportant the liberal arts are considered these days, a colleague told me recently that at his institution (No names, please…Let’s just say that it’s a very tidy Catholic College in Rockville Centre) the Director of the Library made a decision to cull the philosophy section of books that she deemed uninteresting or irrelevant to make room for more important materials. She didn’t consult the members of that department or ask for their input in any way. She just had one of her employees—a staff member who knows absolutely nothing about the discipline—chuck any boring old philosophy books that he thought should go. Since he apparently thought that all philosophy books were boring, he gleefully tossed boxes of books in the most capricious manner possible (For some reason, he seemed to have it in for poor Emmanuel Kant). On the positive side, at least there was more room for more “relevant” materials for students.
2) Since the students are the customers, their interests—however ill-defined these might be—drive the curriculum. In the old days, when getting a college degree actually meant something, faculty determined what general education courses were necessary in order to produce graduates who could read and write at fairly high levels and who had some degree of cultural literacy and critical thinking abilities. In practice, this meant that students at most reputable colleges and universities in the United States were required to take healthy doses of literature, art, philosophy, history, and the like. And the result was that we produced the “greatest generation” of Americans—those men and women who went to college in the 1940s-1960s and who made the United States the economic envy of the entire world.
Today general education requirements are determined by college administrators, many of whom know very little about real pedagogy, because they are so far removed from the classroom, and who are motivated solely by what will get students to attend their institution. Since most students want to (1) graduate as quickly as possible, (2) take courses only in their major area of interest, and (3) have little use for—or at least think they have little use for—classes in the humanities, there is pressure placed upon administrators to prune their general education requirements down as far as possible to try to attract these students.
Even when they are allowed to exist, humanities programs often become service programs for more “marketable” professional programs. So instead of taking a class in Shakespeare or Chaucer, students take more “practical” liberal arts classes like “Writing for Business” or “The Literature of Healing” or “Children’s Literature for the Teaching Profession.” In effect, what this means is that American college students are no longer receiving liberal arts educations at all; rather, they are receiving the shallowest kind of vocational training imaginable. And this kind of training—despite what college students themselves might believe—won’t serve graduates well when they get out into the real world and discover that they are really not all that marketable in their chosen field and ill-prepared to do anything else.
3) Since faculty are basically treated as laborers, they must be controlled by management and prevented as much as possible from “corrupting” the rest of the academy with their foolishly naïve ideas about education. Faculty are therefore left out of discussions about the mission and direction of their intuitions, and are paid lip-service when it comes to curriculum issues. What administrators do—and I’ve seen this at work in far too many institutions—is magnanimously ask faculty for their input on vital matters, and then proceed to do exactly what they planned to do anyway. “Well, we did consult with the faculty,” these paragons of democracy will often reply when confronted by angry faculty. “What more could they possibly want from us?”
College and university administrators are also trying to kill off tenure—an important, but misunderstood tool in maintaining the integrity of higher education. I’m sad to say it, but my own college seems determined to lead the rest of Long Island’s colleges in attempting to institute post-tenure review policies that ultimately will destroy real academic freedom. You may not realize this, but tenured faculty members are usually the only employees at a college who can argue with senior administrators about the direction the institution is taking. If tenured faculty, however, have to worry about being put on an administrative hit list—and, believe it or not, these do exist at many colleges and universities—then there will be no one left who will have the courage to argue with senior administrators about policies that might ultimately harm students or diminish the quality of classroom instruction.
So what’s the solution to this problem, you might be wondering? If this really is the inevitable trend in higher education in the United States, what hope do any of us have to save our colleges and universities?
Occupy Wall Street presents one model, and, in fact, college-aged students are playing a leading roll in this movement. You see, what Occupy Wall Street shows us is that corporate institutions really only respond to conflict and tension. You can make all the speeches you want and write all the newspaper editorials your heart desires, but this will not make a corporation change its practices one iota. It’s only when the bottom line of a corporate entity is threatened—or when it receives such bad press that its bottom line might be threatened—that corporations like Exxon or Walmart eventually are forced to do the right thing. The same is true with colleges and universities. The corporate mentality that drives these institutions will only begin to change when the real stakeholders at these institutions—and this basically means students and faculty—apply so much pressure that the administrative bureaucrats who run them are forced to change course.
This natural alliance between students and faculty to reclaim higher education won’t happen any time soon, but it will inevitably happen. Students are becoming more and more disgruntled by the high costs of higher education (see my previous post on this subject) and their inability to find decent-paying work after graduation. At the same time, many college instructors are becoming increasingly embittered by how marginalized they’ve become in recent years in participating in decision-making and shared-governance at their institutions. Eventually, students and faculty will come to see that they need each other to achieve their mutual goals and will be forced to work together in ways that we haven’t seen since the late 1960s.
When this happens, the direction of higher education in this country will change, and change, I believe, for the better. Until then, the corporate model of higher education will prevail throughout the United States, and generations of college graduates will be forced to pay the price for our negligence.