Thursday, January 2, 2014

Are Universities Being Run Like Corporations?

Human Society

“Nobody can decide for himself whether he is going to be a human being. The only question open to him is whether he will be an ignorant undeveloped one or one who has sought to reach the highest point he is capable of attaining.” 
Robert Maynard Hutchins
The Great Conversation: The Substance Of A Liberal Education (1955)

“Now listen to the first three aims of the corporatist movement in Germany, Italy and France during the 1920s. These were developed by the people who went on to become part of the Fascist experience:
(1) shift power directly to economic and social interest groups;
(2) push entrepreneurial initiative in areas normally reserved for public bodies;
(3) obliterate the boundaries between public and private interest—that is, challenge the idea of the public interest.
This sounds like the official program of most contemporary Western governments.” 
John Ralston Saul
The Unconscious Civilization (1995)

In classical Greek tragedy, in which Aristotle essentially wrote the rules, the hero falls from grace because of a fatal flaw in character, often of hubris. The gods participate, to some degree, in the heros downfall, considering it a learning lesson, so to speak. Today, more than 2,000 years later, in modern civilization we are witnessing something similar but far different.

Average humans are now “bringing down” other average human beings—without the power of the gods but with a sanctimonious smugness—through the monitoring and use of social media. In modern parlance, this is “getting the dirt” on someone. There are no gods involved, but religious belief of some kind is sometimes invoked.

When I attended journalism school 20 years ago, we were warned about so-called gotcha journalism, the seeking out of scandalous information on public figures as a means to bring about their downfall, This advice is no longer heeded, but it is no longer relegated to public figures but to all humans who engage in the online world. This article addresses the Academy, a place where it was considered important allow powerful and not-so-powerful minds pursue, without too much restraint, intellectual and esoteric ideas, whether or not any of them proved practical or profitable. This was long ago, or so it seems, as we now enter a time where universities have become another business centre, where efficiency and profit might conceivably be more important than ideas and intellectual pursuits.

Hutchins, the chancellor of the University of Chicago 60 years ago, would not recognize his university or any other today. The corporatism of education is now complete, at least in the U.S. and Canada, with professors acting as employees, censoring what they ought not to say in online media, students acting as employees, cautious about what they say in the classroom lest they offend their superiors— with the net result that universities have, with few exceptions, become what Hutchins and his contemporaries would have dreaded: glorified trade schools turning out students for business, who rarely question what they have learned.

And professors fearful of speaking out publicly on controversial manners. Consider an article, by Rebecca Schuman, in Slate (“The Brave New World of Academic Censorship”), which says that professors often use pseudonyms to mask their true identities to avoid possible repercussions from their university administrators and, perhaps, indirectly from the universitys corporate benefactors who fear any controversy, lest it affect negatively their corporate image, or brand.

Schuman writes:
Last week, the Kansas Board of Regents, a nine-member governing body that controls six state universities and some 30 community and technical colleges, voted unanimously to approve a new policy that gives each institution’s “chief executive officer” discretion to discipline or terminate any faculty or staff member who uses social media “improperly.” Many in the higher education world denounce this move as a sweeping attack on academic freedom, one prompted by a tenured journalism professor writing a single (admittedly awful) tweet about the National Rifle Association.


The true defining characteristic of the average contemporary academic is total, abject terror of saying anything that might jeopardize her career. Lest a single unfavorable moment be seen by a colleague or administrator, junior faculty on the tenure track often have a second “real” Facebook account under a different name and tweet or blog anonymously. Even tenured academics have much to fear: One wrong move could lose them a grant, promotion to full professor, or any modest raise ever again. The Chronicle of Higher Education, long considered academia’s publication of record, is said to employ more pseudonyms than any newspaper in America. That’s why the KU policy is not just unnecessarily broad, it’s also just unnecessary, period: Most academics already have to spend their lives cowering in fear. I guess the Kansas regents just aren’t satisfied with “most.
No, for the corporate overseers of universities its a necessary protection of their corporate brand, following the corporatism of universities the last few decades. Now that thinking in itself is problematic in that universities historically did not provide a product or service in the traditional sense. That was the case until a few decades ago, it seems. Now universities, or at least their administrators, would argue that their service is “educating minds for the 21st century” or some other simple creed or catchy PR slogan; and their product is said minds and body duly available to serve the needs of business and the corporations. In short, universities have become glorified trade or vocational schools. (Did people think that large corporate donors were purely altruistic, that they would ask nothing in return for their largesse?)

Corporations are somewhat pleased, but often complain that the process has not gone far enough, that the graduates are not sufficiently trained for their particular needs. I can foresee a time in the not-so-distant future where universities will hire lecturers from corporations to give the “real deal” on how business is run, and not that theoretical stuff that universities often teach, like business ethics. I do not know what the future holds, but the continued corporatism of education is likely to continue, following its (il)logical conclusion.

John Ralson Sauls observations, for the most part, have been ignored, obviously by the corporations but also by most of the worlds western governments. The individuals in power are ill-prepared and ill-educated to understand what they are facing—their education has been, for the most part, in business, law and political theory, making them suitable candidates on the surface to carry on the “democratic traditions.”

There are few heroes here, at least in the Greek classical sense, but there are average human beings now afraid to be human, to be themselves—fearing loss of job, fearing loss of income, fearing loss of prestige—now that the sweeping changes to society in general and education in particular have taken place.