Posts Tagged ‘new corporate university’


Academic freedom is under assault within the new corporate university.

No, the problem is not the much-publicized kerfuffle surrounding recent talks by Charles Murray and other right-wing speakers on U.S. college campuses. That’s what students do: they try to be provocative. Small conservative student groups, emboldened by Donald Trump’s victory and with financing from off-campus groups, invite incendiary speakers to their campuses—and then other students protest those visits. It’s much ado about nothing, except of course when official academic units and administrators lend their names to the invitations and events.

The most disturbing challenge to academic freedom right now is something else: the unilateral decisions by academic administrators to curtail the speech of faculty members.

Just yesterday morning, the Washington Post reported that two professors were fired for expressing controversial views. One, at the University of Delaware, was an adjunct professor who suggested that Otto Warmbier, the American student whose death last week after being imprisoned in North Korea drew worldwide attention, was a “clueless white male” who “got exactly what he deserved.” Another adjunct professor, at Essex County College in Newark, was first suspended and then fired for defending a Black Lives Matter chapter’s decision to host a Memorial Day event exclusively for black people.

In both instances, adjunct professors—who, with other other members of the academic precariat, now make up close to two-thirds of the faculty employed in U.S. colleges and universities—were fired for making public comments academic administrators deemed unsuitable.

And then there’s the case of a tenured professor in the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s [ht: mfa] History Department who found out that his dean made his chair cancel a class he had been scheduled to teach.

It so happens that [Jay] Smith’s class dealt with a topic that unsettled powerful forces on campus: the place of “big-time athletics” in higher education. This issue is a sore spot for UNC-Chapel Hill, which is still recovering from a major “athletics-academics” scandal first revealed several years ago—about which, it so happens, Smith had been particularly outspoken.

In the new academy, faculty governance has been replaced by top-down decision-making and academic administrators treat everything—from employment contracts to course offerings—just like the executives of any other corporation. If they add to the bottom-line, faculty members are rewarded; if they don’t, contracts are terminated and courses are cancelled.

That’s how the new corporate university operates in the United States. It’s not student protests but academic administrators that are creating a chilling effect, by circumscribing faculty speech and ultimately undermining academic freedom.


The “drown the bunnies” scandal at Mount St. Mary’s University has opened a debate about the growing role of college and university presidents who come from outside the academy, especially the business world.*

The problem is, only one participant in the debate, Shelly Weiss Storbeck, even raised the issue of governance. As I see it, the challenge facing colleges and universities is not where their presidents come from but how the institution itself is organized and governed. Without faculty governance—or, in Storbeck’s phrasing, “shared governance”—trustees will hire presidents who govern by decree in order to create and reinforce the corporate university. Then, students will be treated as customers, as passive recipients of an increasingly costly (and debt-accumulating) education, and the members of the faculty will be treated as employees, who in a pact with the devil will be paid to teach and conduct research and stay out of the key decisions facing the institution.

A good example of the real problem is James Ramsey, president of the University of Louisville. Ramsey is an economist, not a business leader, who taught at five different universities before being hired as president in 2002. But he has presided over an escalating number of scandals that, while they’re not as dramatic as putting a Glock to the heads of underperforming students, run from hiring and protecting top administrators who embezzled or otherwise misused federal funds through refusing to submit conflict-of-interest forms and yet offering university contracts to friends to sponsoring a basketball program that supplied dancers and prostitutes to basketball players and recruits (not to mention throwing a Mexican-themed Halloween party, replete with stereotypical sombreros and mustaches).

Both Mountain St. Mary’s Simon Newman and Ramsey, like many other college and university presidents, became embroiled in such scandals not because they came from outside the academy, but because faculty governance in the new corporate university has been undermined to the point where it barely exists. Increasingly, trustees and academic administrators make the key decisions and everyone else, including the faculty, is supposed to follow along and just do their jobs as corporate employees.

The problem, in other words, is the corporate model. We know it’s an undemocratic way of organizing enterprises in any sector of the economy. And it’s certainly an undemocratic way of governing the academy, where the main goals are critical thinking and creating an environment in which students and faculty can work together to produce a high-quality education.


*According to a 2012 report from the American Council on Education, “the share of presidents whose immediate prior position was outside higher education has increased since 2006, from 13 percent to 20 percent. Much of this growth occurred in the private sector, both nonprofit and for-profit.”


What advice can we give to students in the new corporate university?

I know what advice mainstream economists give to the students (“college education is an individual investment”). And what the administration tells them  (“you are the customer and we will give you value for your money”). Finally, there’s the silent advice from some of my colleagues (“I’ll give you a high grade and you’ll give me a good teaching evaluation”).

Me, I give them just one piece of advice, which is pretty much what Michael S. Roth tells them:

find out who the great teachers are. It doesn’t matter much what the subject is. Find a real teacher, and you may open yourself to transformation — to discovering whom you might become.

As it turns out, my advice is a little more specific. To wit, find out who the best 5 teachers are in the university (I give them my suggestions but I also tell them to ask others around campus). Take whatever courses they teach, in whatever subjects. That’s the best the university has to offer. Every other course you take while you’re here is just gravy.


The idea of the university continues to be undermined by the rise of the new corporate university. And one of the most dangerous trends is the increasing emphasis on entrepreneurship.

Faculty members are now supposed to be entrepreneurial—by coming up with products and procedures that can be patented or, for scholars who don’t produce anything useful, by creating value for the university in the pseudo-market of publication citations and rankings.

Students, for their part, are also supposed to be entrepreneurial—by coming up with their own research projects and seeking to publish the results.

Both forms of entrepreneurship undermine the idea of patient, careful, thoughtful critical thinking and studying.

Now, Virginia Tech [ht: sm] has taken the idea of entrepreneurship one step further, by converting an empty fraternity into a dorm for young entrepreneurs:

The announced plan sounds like the plot to a new reality TV show: fill a mansion with innovators, give them some guidance and then watch startups roll out the front door.

The so-called Innovate living-learning community is accepting applications as it looks for 35 male and female freshmen from any major. Applicants need only have an “entrepreneurial spirit.” The university has 16 similar programs for groups ranging from female engineers to volunteers. But this will be the only one stationed in a former fraternity house.

University officials were excited to talk about the new program as they danced around the touchy subject of the previous tenant. But Nathan Latka, an entrepreneur involved with the program, probably wasn’t the only one who saw the irony of the situation. He laughed at the thought of the new tenants sitting around the same table where party themes used to be hatched. The only difference, he said, this time they’ll be creating million-dollar startups.

I can just imagine the administrators of the new corporate university salivating at the opportunity of moving away from critical thinking and from offering a wide education through reading books and then converting all of the academic departments, research institutes, and student dorms into centers for the creation of million-dollar startups.


I have been calling it the new corporate university.

However, as Daniel Little reminds us, it’s not so new—since Thorstein Veblen clearly recognized its emergence as early as 1918.

A key element of Veblen’s diagnosis is his view that universities in the United States have been (in 1918!) overwhelmed by the values and accounting mentality of “business”.

These others [other national university systems] have also not escaped the touch of the angel of decay, but the visible corruption of spiritual and intellectual values does not go the same length among them. Nor have these others suffered so heavy a toll on their prospective scholarly man power. (KL 1375)

Members of the governing boards are selected for their stature as successful businessmen; chief executives (presidents) are selected for their business-like qualities; and faculty are managed according to the principles of the consumer-driven market place. (He has a particularly low opinion of presidents of universities.) This is all catastrophic, according to Veblen, because business values and “accountability” are inimical to academic values.

As bearing on the case of the American universities, it should be called to mind that the businessmen of this country, as a class, are of a notably conservative habit of mind. In a degree scarcely equalled in any community that can lay claim to a modicum of intelligence and enterprise, the spirit of American business is a spirit of quietism, caution, compromise, collusion, and chicane. (KL 1831)

All of us who work in the not-so-new corporate university recognize these same trends. The question is, how do we begin to separate “University” from “Inc.”?

How is it possible to hide 75 percent of professors in the United States?

It seems crazy but that’s what happens until someone like Sarah Kendzior [ht: dl & db] steps forward and describes what it’s like to be an adjunct professor living below the poverty line in the U.S. system of higher education.

In most professions, salaries below the poverty line would be cause for alarm. In academia, they are treated as a source of gratitude. Volunteerism is par for the course – literally. Teaching is touted as a “calling”, with compensation an afterthought. One American research university offers its PhD students a salary of $1000 per semester for the “opportunity” to design and teach a course for undergraduates, who are each paying about $50,000 in tuition. The university calls this position “Senior Teaching Assistant” because paying an instructor so far below minimum wage is probably illegal.

But her concern is not just with adjunct professors. It’s a much larger issue:

It may be hard to summon sympathy for people who walk willingly into such working conditions. “Bart, don’t make fun of grad students,” Marge told her son on an oft-quoted episode of  The Simpsons . “They just made a terrible life choice.”

But all Americans should be concerned about adjuncts, and not only because adjuncts are the ones teaching our youth. The adjunct problem is emblematic of broader trends in American employment: the end of higher education as a means to prosperity, and the severing of opportunity to all but the most privileged.

The fact is, according to the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, of the nearly 1.8 million faculty members and instructors who made up the 2009 instructional workforce in degree-granting two- and four-year institutions of higher education in the United States, more than 1.3 million (75.5%) were employed in contingent positions off the tenure track, either as part-time or adjunct faculty members, full-time non-tenure-track faculty members, or graduate student teaching assistants.

Here are some of the results from its 2010 survey:

  • The median pay per course, standardized to a three-credit course, was $2,700 in fall 2010 and ranged in the aggregate from a low of $2,235 at two-year colleges to a high of $3,400 at four- year doctoral or research universities. While compensation levels varied most consistently by type of institution, part-time faculty respondents report low compensation rates per course across all institutional categories.
  • Professional support for part-time faculty members’ work outside the classroom and inclusion in academic decision making was minimal.
  • Part-time teaching is not necessarily temporary employment, and those teaching part-time do not necessarily prefer a part-time to a full-time position. Over 80% of respondents reported teaching part-time for more than three years, and over half for more than six years. Further- more, over three-quarters of respondents said they have sought, are now seeking, or will be seeking a full-time tenure-track position, and nearly three-quarters said they would definitely or probably accept a full-time tenure-track position at the institution at which they were currently teaching if such a position were offered.


The academic precariat continues to grow, as both a condition and a canary-in-the-coal-mine sign of the rise of the new corporate university.

The University of Virginia governing board voted unanimously Tuesday to reinstate Teresa Sullivan as president, more than two weeks after board leaders had forced her to resign.

As Valerie Strauss explains,

In the end, it wasn’t really so much about the ousted and then reinstated University of Virginia president, Teresa Sullivan, or about the governing board leader, Helen Dragas, who had led a secret campaign against her and then, drowning in a tsunami of opposition, agreed to bring her back.

No, the U-Va. story of the last few weeks is really about the school community — the 99 percent who had been left out of the decision to fire her — successfully rising up to demand their leader back. University of Virginia faculty, students, alumni, administrators and others refused to go along with the secret decision by the board, and with a voice loud and persistent enough, won the day.

We haven’t had many wins in recent years. But, today, chalk one up for the 99 percent.

You just knew, after University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan was forced to resign, and now that the board is considering reinstating her, someone would come along to attempt to justify the original dismissal.

As if on cue, University of Maryland business professor Peter Morici [ht: pm] assumes his appointed role.

Higher education is in crisis, and leaders like recently dismissed University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan bear a heavy burden of responsibility, simply put, for not effectively leading. . .

American universities please the immediate instincts of students and faculty — who often chose the academic life to avoid the rigors of the marketplace.

Academics who make it to the top rely heavily on consensus-building processes that offer students and faculty a strong sense of involvement but do not yield decisions that best serve the long-term interests of institutions or the communities they serve.

Sullivan was given fair warning that the UVa board of visitors was concerned about her lack of vision about the cost and relevancy challenges facing her university and virtually all others, and offered the opportunity to table a strategy document. Her May 3 strategy memo to the board simply lacked a coherent and effective plan to address those challenges at UVa.

UVa, the state and the nation it serves simply deserve better.

That’s how Morici fulfills his role, by attempting to make the case against the interests of students and faculty governance and for running the university like a profit-making corporation. In other words, it’s the cult of executive decisionmaking by the members of nonacademic boards of directors in the new corporate university.

The dramatic firing of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan raises many questions about the rise of the new corporate university.

It raises questions about decisionmaking, since the university’s board sought Sullivan’s resignation without a formal meeting or vote, through a campaign waged privately by Rector Helen E. Dragas, Vice Rector Mark Kington, and without any public explanation of either the process or the reasons behind the decision.

And it raises questions about the new corporate university as a workplace [ht: db]:

UVA has been the site of an intense organizational struggle for the soul of the modern public university. Those who forced Sullivan out –a billionaire hedge fund manager and a wealthy real estate developer— seem to hold a vision of the university that relegates the liberal arts to the periphery of the campus, while placing market-friendly organizational logics at the core of UVA’s operations. For her part, Sullivan sought to strengthen the historic foundations of the university, adapting its long-standing commitments in ways that comport with 21st century realities. Here, in other words, was a clash between two opposing entities: On the one hand, a small group of aggressive and ambitious businesspeople, appointed by yet another right-wing governor, seeking to remake UVA in their own image; and on the other hand, a staunch advocate of the liberal arts tradition that has served UVA so well for generations.

Questions abound. Is this higher education’s Wisconsin moment? Can the Board of Visitors prevail, in spite of growing opposition from students, faculty, donors, and alumni? If so sudden and arbitrary a change in an institution’s core mission can happen at the University of Virginia, what does that portend for less well endowed and less privileged institutions? What will happen to our own workplaces, in other words, if so venerable an institution can be lurched in a direction that is alien to its mission?


In a final confirmation of what this new corporate university is supposed to be, UVA’s board replaced Sullivan with Carl Zeithaml, F.S. Cornell Professor in Free Enterprise and dean of the McIntire School of Commerce.

And then, of course, there’s the neoclassical economist, Richard Vedder (paywall), who sees the problem not in terms of what a university is but as an issue of property rights.

Regarding governance, I think the Faculty Senate’s reaction shows confusion about who runs the university. Legally, the faculty work for the board, not vice versa. But the faculty don’t consider the trustees their bosses. That demonstrates a major problem: a murky conception of property rights and governance. The faculty believe that, since they do all the teaching and research, they are the university, and administrators are just support personnel. Sometimes the administration thinks it is the university; at other times the governor, legislature, or the alumni think the same.

In such a situation, universities move to a “shared governance” model that is inefficient, rather non-innovative, and confusing. The UVa story reflects that reality. Whether the Board of Visitors acted appropriately, I don’t know, but I do think that universities require oversight from the outsiders that provide vast portions of their support.

Franklin and Marshall has gone global. It has now opened an outpost in Dubai.

That I know of, Franklin and Marshall College of Lancaster, PA, established in 1787, has not expanded to the United Arab Emirates, although the Franklin and Marshall fashion chain, established in 1999, certainly has.

Here’s the background story [ht: ja] of how Franklin and Marshall has become the epitome of casual chic in Europe and elsewhere in the world, which actually has nothing to do with the college. “Except it actually does. Sort of.”

I have lots of connections to the “real” Franklin and Marshall. I’ve given talks there and plenty of my friends (including former students) either work there now or have passed through there on the way to other jobs. But I can’t say I’ve ever really thought of it in terms of “ivy-covered dorms, corduroy-jacketed professors smoking pipes and football games on chilly autumn afternoons.”

The irony, of course, is that while higher education in the United States is moving in the direction of the new corporate university—based on rising tuition, exploding student debt, and increased enrollments—Franklin and Marshall fashion conjures up something quite different, the “timeless essence of ‘university style,’ or ‘varsity fashion’.”