a quick note about corporatization of universities, museums, etc. . . .

As both Matt Yglesias and Atrios have pointed out, we seem to be living in an era when the ethical norms surrounding the conduct of business have reached all-time lows, and where all sorts of bad practices can be rationalized with principles like “profit maximization” or “shareholder value.”  In essence, the marketplace is the place where everyone steals everyone else’s lunch, and where everyone must guard against their neighbor.  Not a very productive arrangement, is it?

What I’ve noticed is that even in the face of widespread disapproval of such predatory, unaccountable behavior, the elites who run public entities like public universities and museums still insist on using this rhetoric to justify their decisions.

So what does a public university look like when it’s run for the purposes of “profit maximization” or “shareholder value,” to the point where Presidents or Boards are supposedly obligated to choose these kinds of values over the more traditional missions of the university, like the “pursuit of knowledge,” the “liberal arts” or even “educational effectiveness”?

It means that enrollments must always be maximized, “profitable” fields favored over the “unprofitable ones,” and the distinctions between the “non-profit” and “for-profit” institutions erased. This set of drastic changes is what the combined faculty, students, and alumni at UVA successfully protested against, and have beaten back, at least at this time.  (And Siva Vaidhyanathan deserves enormous credit for his public role as an inclusive advocate for higher education at UVA)

It also seems to me that if the historical practices of the “for-profits” are any guide, any university run under these principles of maximization will quickly, and necessarily, begin to engage in duplicitous behavior: students will be promised one kind of education, and provided something very different.  These schools’ profit-margin derives not from reputation, but from their ability to capture the most vulnerable students and educate them as cheaply–and as superficially–as possible. And the universities that do not care to run themselves this way will be competing with those who do.

In my view, what happened at UVA suggests the benefits of faculty publicly aligning their interests with those of their students, their parents, and especially, their institutions’ alumni.  This made the BOV’s claim to represent the “public’s” supposed desire for “efficiency” and “strategic dynamism” risible, and it revealed the isolation of the Dragas faction of the Board from the rest of the university community.

There will always be multiple claims upon “the public,” and multiple claims to speak “for the public,” and faculty can help groups like students and alumni recognize how their own needs are being ignored in the drive to ever-greater efficiency.  This seems to me the best lesson to take from the recent events at UVA.


10 responses to “a quick note about corporatization of universities, museums, etc. . . .

  1. Laura Runge

    I agree, David. Two things, though, appear sticking points here. First is the fact that universities, especially public ones, have reduced budgets and are scrambling to find ways to run the fiscal end of things effectively. Where will the money come from? Second, faculty, especially in the humanities, are used to thinking of their research as their primary work and that work is for one another, not necessarily the university or the students or alumni. What would it look like for faculty to align their interests with students, parents and alumni? The first question suggests that faculty need to align their interest with funding groups, be they what they may. The second suggests that faculty need to adopt an applied model of education that produces employable skills, since this is what students, parents and perhaps alumni seem to want. These can be quite at odds.

  2. Dave Mazella

    Hi Laura, your two sticking points are correct, but I think they tend to encourage short-term responses rather than longer-term strategies. Faculty are already being asked to align themselves with funding groups, but the UVA example shows, first of all, that even the richest institutions can be regarded as “in crisis” by ideologically driven board members, and, second, that the interests of the donors, boards, etc., once freed of the norms of academic culture, can no longer be considered neutral or benign towards the values of democratic education. My “extraction economy” post talks about the tipping-point at UVA when those donors and political appointees began to regard themselves as owners and managers of the universities rather than trustees. So this kind of scrambling after funds keeps things going, but in an untenable direction, IMHO. So can we scramble, but with greater purpose?

    The other issue I completely agree with: humanities faculty, IMHO, need to present a much more integrated view of their research and teaching; this is a harder sell in the STEM fields, but we could be doing more there, too. Ultimately, I think it was the quality of their undergraduate experience that motivated those UVA alums to fight for their university. I believe that the applied model can produce just as transformative an experience for students as the liberal arts, but the key remains providing the kind of environment, curriculum, and attention that makes people value those years in their lives, no matter what they are studying.

  3. Laura Runge

    I’ve grown skeptical about what students ultimately value in their college experience after reading _Academically Adrift_ and _My Freshman Year_, both of which suggest that social activity trumps any academic experience. I’m all for long-term planning, but I feel that a seismic shift is underway and it is really unclear where higher ed is going. I’ve been toying with the idea of Applied English Studies as a future for literature, language, writing and rhetoric programs, but it feels really radical to me. To be clearer, I am envisioning English majors that combine the coursework of literature, language, rhetoric and writing with a goal toward mediating (solving?) real word problems, such as poverty, war, environmental crisis, aging populations, etc. It would mean reimagining the purpose of literature in higher education for sure, but this is something that needs to be done.

  4. Dave Mazella

    Oh sure, but I take some of the findings of Academically Adrift with a grain of salt, since it seems to assume an opposition between the academic and social dimensions of learning, which contradicts what we know about the importance of engagement, group-work, and active learning. And there’s the issue of evaluating the scope of college learning gains through standardized tests like the CLA. There is probably a more refined concept of “engagement” that needs to emerge from the AA debates. But in my view, AA presents more of a critique of the more vocational, more “applied” majors like Business than the liberal arts model, though I think we need to maintain both in the contemporary university.

    I’m intrigued by your notion of an Applied English Studies program, which is indeed a radical shift in curriculum. What would you say to the argument that English is already “applied,” since English majors largely go into fields like teaching, communications, business, etc.? It’s just that we as (literature) faculty and researchers insist on a curriculum organized largely around literary history.

  5. I work with Laura at USF, and I share her vision of focusing research and pedagogy around real world problems. This is one reason in particular I have been drawn to the work of Latour, for his insistence upon a return to the polus, away from the “universal” community instituted by Kant, Humbodlt, and the Enlightenment. Although, as a rhetorical scholar, I am less burdened (or is it disciplined?) by history.

  6. Dave Mazella

    Thanks, Marc. The status of history is my own sticking-point when I think about the future of “English studies.” It feels crucial to the work I do, even when I am thinking about contemporary problems. But I do not know whether this kind of historical scholarship and preservationist impulse will continue with English studies in the future. It would certainly change what we call “English studies” to jettison this, though English departments abandoned philology once upon a time.

  7. Shh Marc. Don’t tell anyone I’m thinking this way. Have to introduce the idea slowly.
    Yes, David, literary history is the major hold up here, as is the rigidity of literary speciality and the myth of coverage (let alone the dinosaur Canon). Whenever English is called upon to defend itself, we profs run toward the idea that we teach critical thinking, interpretative skills and communication skills. But the organization of classes and curricula don’t suggest these are real priorities. Instead literary history appears to be prized, and at the graduate level identification with a subfield defined by literary history. Besides, students learn critical thinking, reading and writing in other disciplines just as well, say philosophy, history, religious studies, anthropology, etc. To really think of literature as an applied study we have to recognize and teach what it does for people in the real world. We know what it does, but we don’t value it.
    I have to read some Latour. His name keeps popping up in my universe. Titles?

  8. Dave Mazella

    I’m familiar with that disconnect, too, between our justificatory language and the actual structure and content of our pedagogy. Still, I believe there’s a very specific form of “critical thinking” for each domain, including literature, so I wouldn’t assume too quickly that literature or literary studies has nothing to offer here, as opposed to the CT of other fields. And I think that we need to understand a lot better how a field like English, however construed, contributes to graduates’ “life-long learning,” no matter what field they end up in.

    One possible future that I’ve mulled over is the one sketched out here by Marc Bousquet, which he calls “federation.” But I have no idea whether this represents a workable arrangement or not. The problem I have with many of these notions of disciplinary reorganization is that they resemble the de-professionalization of faculty at community colleges etc. I think that having some kind of shared academic culture, collective organization, set of practices and a shared if contested vocabulary helps protect faculty from the worst aspects of corporatization. But I understand that this strategy is costly, too, in its own ways.

  9. I’m enjoying this conversation very much. Two small contributions:
    1. Here at Oregon State, we’ve (grudgingly) recognized that “coverage” is no longer a particularly relevant term, either for hiring or for curricular development, from an administrative perspective. As a department, we still think it’s important for an understanding of literary and cultural development, of course; but we have begun to find ways to include “coverage” as a secondary rather than a primary goal of our course offerings and hiring priorities. There are drawbacks here, no doubt; but on the plus side, it’s allowed us to bring in 4 new tenure-track faculty this coming academic year, as well as to create a new series of transdisciplinary, 300-level ENG courses with titles like “Page, Stage and Screen” and “Globe, Text, and Event.”
    2. IMHO, the best place to start reading Latour for literary scholars is still _We Have Never Been Modern_, where he sets out the basic rationale for his Actor-Network-Theory most succinctly. From there, you can either move forward to more recent books like _Reassembling the Social_, or backward to his “science studies” books like _Pandora’s Hope_. And for perhaps the quickest introduction of all, check out his provocative article in _Critical Inquiry_, “Has Critique Run out of Steam?”

  10. Dave Mazella

    Thanks, Evan. I guess the issue becomes what subdividing principle to use to arrive at an aggregated comprehensive view of the field? Coverage and sub-period have lots of problems but a purely problem-based view doesn’t seem broad enough to me to sustain collective work. But this could be a generational problem. I do think that one of the latent functions of the period specialization is that it encourages a mastery of the historical material by immersion rather than extension. How do we manage immersion, for our undergrads, grads, and ourselves, in such an arrangement?