extraction economy

[aerial image of wastes from Moncks, S.C. coal power plant, 2009, from J. Henry Fair, Industrial Scars; for more info, visit jhenryfair.com/aerial/index.html.]

As I was reading about the UVA debacle over President Teresa Sullivan’s firing, which apparently involved a “hostile takeover” of the university by its business school, its Board, and Goldman Sachs, I kept thinking that we are reaching (have reached?) the limits of the one-time alliance between financial elites and public universities.

Once upon a time, universities could view (or depict) these relationships as at least an exchange in which the legitimacy of cultural capital was bestowed upon donors for their philanthropic, disinterested, financial support.  And to the extent that boards and their members allowed universities, their administrations and faculty, the independence to pursue their mission, this arrangement could work, in many institutions (including my own).

In the wake of continued state and federal disinvestment in public higher ed, however, the smiles and handshakes have faded away at certain schools, and it now seems that at least some of these boards, and some portion of the bankers and businessmen and -women who populate them– consider our public universities their property, or better yet, another group of businesses for them to take over, extract the value, and discard. (And we should not neglect the role of state governors in promoting this kind of cronyism between university boards and the corporate community)

An exasperated UVA professor attempts to spell out the consequences of this university-as-business metaphor:

The biggest challenge facing higher education is market-based myopia. Wealthy board members, echoing the politicians who appointed them (after massive campaign donations) too often believe that universities should be run like businesses, despite the poor record of most actual businesses in human history.

Universities do not have “business models.” They have complementary missions of teaching, research, and public service. Yet such leaders think of universities as a collection of market transactions, instead of a dynamic (I said it) tapestry of creativity, experimentation, rigorous thought, preservation, recreation, vision, critical debate, contemplative spaces, powerful information sources, invention, and immeasurable human capital.

One of the details that has slipped out from the post-mortems for Sullivan was that she was unwilling to make certain changes related to online education.  My suspicion, which is echoed by a historian and alumna who has done her own investigations, is that the distance ed issue is not just about eliminating tenure and the normative classroom-based, face to face model for instruction, though those clearly align nicely with other right-wing prescriptions for higher ed.

No, the management jargon of “strategic dynamism” may very well simply describe how private companies (perhaps even Goldman Sachs’ own Education Management Corporation) plan to capture public instructional funds that otherwise would have gone to teachers and students and face to face instruction.  It is just another form of asset-stripping.  This is the beauty of the instructional outsourcing model that many lower-tier schools have already adopted, and which flagship schools like UVA, Berkeley are now getting pressured to adopt.  And this is the Extraction Economy as it works in the field of public higher education.

I’ll leave the final word to blogger Atrios, who introduced me (far too late, I admit) to the very useful concept of the extraction economy a few months ago:

We’re basically in an extraction economy right now, where the real money is in finding points to siphon off all of the income that people generate. Unregulated utility monopolies, rapacious health insurance companies and the medical industry generally, and of course Big Finance, are all devoted to increasing the slice of your life that they can steal from you, fair and square.

So here we are.  What shall we do about it?


[thanks to RS for the links]

UPDATE: The WaPo has published an anonymously sourced piece that explains the rationale used by Rector Dragas to fire Sullivan, which focuses solely on Sullivan’s refusal to eliminate departments like German and the Classics.  This seems farfetched to me, but no matter.  No one who thought this might be a bad idea, or a violation of existing governance or state law, was quoted.


6 responses to “extraction economy

  1. Rivka Swenson

    Very thoughtful essay, Dave.

  2. Dave Mazella

    Thanks, Rivka. If you see or hear any more links to the fallout for this, please pass those along, and I’ll update.

  3. Laura Runge

    David, I thought this was well done, too. We see evidence of this sort of thing happening everywhere. At USF the big push this past year was to get individual departments and faculty to name projects that the Dean could sell to donors. He called it “telling our story.” The big sticking point in discussion over the new strategic plan was using the word “entrepeneurial” to describe our mission — raised by the sole English professor and Humanities representative.

  4. Dave Mazella

    Thanks, Laura. I do think that English and Humanities scholars need to be able to explain the importance of what they do to those who will never become scholars/teachers. Part of that should be an explicit component of undergrad education, I think. And there are at least some studies that show that liberal arts degree holders have better writing and “critical thinking” skills especially when compared to the business majors. However, I think it’s also important not to misrepresent yourself, or make it impossible to justify the best work in your department/discipline, by using this kind of generic management-lingo. It’s probably a mistake for humanities scholars to fall into the unreflective, instrumental conceptions of instruction and learning that we try to educate our students into questioning. But this is a very tough demand in our current political climate.

  5. Re: Laura’s comment about being asked to “tell our story” to donors, we’re getting precisely the same demands, couched in almost exactly the same language, here at Oregon State U. I’d like to know more about the centralized “administrator boot camps” that these people attend, where they cook up this stuff!! And let me add that the pressure to expand our e-campus offerings is extraordinary. The sad part is that it comes with a big, short-term carrot: it’s an immediate money-maker for a lot of departments, including my own. But the long-term costs are likely highly damaging, as Dave does such a good job of pointing out near the end of his latest entry.

  6. Dave Mazella

    I think the need to “tell our story” is there, but the fact that these “stories” feel so generic and second-hand means that their impact will likely be reduced. Smart administrators know how to use these to make important connections to the community, but the mediocre ones use the language without ever understanding the audiences out there who need to hear this message.

    As for the impact of distance ed or hybrid offerings, I agree with the Brint et al. article I linked to above, that an institution’s history with its textbooks give a good idea of whether it will pursue an outsourcing or an in-house strategy for curricula. Picking one or the other suggests whether high or low quality instruction is the real goal here. In general, high quality online learning is certainly possible, if the course is well-designed and the faculty and students are well-supported. But that tends to eliminate the “savings” that motivated the switch in the first place.