When we talk about the privatization of public education, we often think of K-12 education. Certainly, the growth of charter schools and voucher programs and attacks on teachers unions indicate that the “education reform” movement poses a major threat to the traditional public school. As prominent education historian Diane Ravitch writes, “‘Reform’ is really a misnomer, because the advocates for this cause seek not to reform public education but to transform it into an entrepreneurial sector of the economy.” But discussions of the entrepreneurialization of public education institutions must also be understood within the context of higher education.
The current crisis within higher ed is often discussed primarily in terms of rising tuition and student debt, but the debt crisis is just one particularly ugly manifestation of a larger trend involving increased corporate investment in college campuses, the exploitation of adjunct faculty, and a de facto attack on scholarly and professional training that does not directly lead to corporate opportunities for graduates. Taken together, these seemingly distinct problems in higher education, and public higher ed in particular, point to a common, underlying ideology that is consistent with that of the K-12 education reform movement: a rationale of neoliberal corporatization and privatization.
As Wendy Brown, a prominent political theorist based at UC Berkeley, writes, neoliberalism represents a “unique governmental and social rationality—one that extends market principles to every reach of human life”:
[Neoliberalism] formulates everything in terms of capital investment and appreciation (including and especially humans themselves), whether a teenager building a resume for college, a twenty-something seeking a mate, a working mother returning to school, or a corporation buying carbon offsets. As a governing rationality, neoliberalism extends from the management of the state itself to the soul of the subject; it renders health, education, transportation, nature, and art into individual consumer goods, and converts patients, students, drivers, athletes, and museum-goers alike into entrepreneurs of their own needs and desires who consume or invest in these goods (emphasis is mine).[i]
Neoliberalism is thus a turn away from collectivity and commitment to the public good and a turn toward individualism and an acceptance—embrace, even—of structural inequality. Such ideologies prepare students for life under the domination of large corporations.
But public universities should not act like corporations. They should train students to be great citizens; they should provide academics with resources and security to challenge convention by producing novel ideas and inventions for the public good; and they should be affordable and attainable to any qualified student, and particularly those who come from communities that have historically been isolated from higher ed. Unfortunately, the neoliberal corporatization of public universities is responsible for a number of dynamics that directly undermine these principles.
Rising Tuition = Supply and Demand
Contrary to popular belief, tuition hikes at public universities date back to the 1980s, far before the 2007 financial crisis. According to Salon reporter Thomas Frank, the rise in tuition took off in 1981, the same year that Ronald Reagan took the White House. While politicians and journalists have blamed students, professors, and the new demands for a diverse student body from a more liberal society, it’s now clear, Frank says, that the real culprits behind rising tuition are administrators and other decision makers who have long embraced a neoliberal, corporate approach to university administration. This shift was further exacerbated by increasing economic inequality. Indeed, tuition pricing became subjected to “market forces” at the same time that degrees were becoming ever-more important for middle-class employment and upward social mobility.
Donations with Strings Attached
Another reason why universities have increased tuition is the lack of adequate state funding—a trend that has only grown worse since the recession. Disinvestment in state universities has forced colleges to look elsewhere for funding sources, and the corporate sector has eagerly stepped in.
For example, John Allison, former chairman of BB&T Corp., has worked through the BB&T Charitable Foundation to provide schools with “as much as $2 million” under the condition that they “create a course on capitalism and make [Ayn] Rand’s … Atlas Shrugged required reading.” Former hedge fund manager Jim Simons has tried to privatize tuition practices within the SUNY system, wielding an apparently conditional pledge of $150 million at Stony Brook as a bargaining chip. The Koch brothers have also been widely criticized for their politicized contributions (particularly for funding economics professorships at Florida State University); the Charles Koch Foundation can rescind funding for professors’ salaries if their work is deemed “unacceptable.” These donations, which come with ideologically charged strings attached, use a not-so-invisible hand to influence university administrators and to promote development strategies and curricula lauding capitalism and the super-rich.
Squeezing the Workforce
Public universities have also sought to shift financial burdens onto faculty and staff. The rise in the percentage of contingent faculty, the precariousness of their positions, and the effect it has on academic integrity and teaching quality are all characteristics of what Claire Goldstein calls the “emergent academic proletariat.”
In 1970, “78% of faculty were permanent and full time;” now, says Goldstein, “close to 70 percent of all faculty appointments in degree-granting institutions are off the tenure-track, a number that includes over one million people.” Contingent faculty are more likely to be overworked, under-resourced, and left out of important decision-making groups. Lacking job security and other resources, contingent faculty may be less likely to include controversial course material, too. As law professor and free speech activist Marjorie Heins has argued, the dominance of corporate rationality recalls an earlier era of academia, before tenure was a well-established policy and professors could be dismissed for championing scholarship or causes that went against the outlooks of university boards. Now, the public university is again squeezing out those who might otherwise push for some much needed progressive thinking, teaching, and learning.
Entrepreneurializing the Public U
Given the landscape of public disinvestment, rising tuition, and a persistently weak labor market, many have called for the American university to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit they claim is required in an increasingly competitive global economy. As universities take heed—and follow the money—the “entrepreneurial university” is being born before our eyes.
Great public universities can certainly be centers for innovative and pragmatic partnership, and the production of quality goods and services that benefit the larger world should indeed be a part of the university’s activities. But in the long term, focusing exclusively on entrepreneurship and the development of “marketable skills” is a different and even dangerous project. Private investors and firms that support an entrepreneur are, by their very nature, interested first and foremost in the profitability of their investment. When an entrepreneurial profit motive is the driving force of decisions instead of a desire to make people’s lives better, the university stops being a center for the betterment of society and becomes another means of capital accumulation.
Under this paradigm, certain fields of knowledge yield a higher return than others—as do certain students, namely those who are willing to pay full tuition, accumulate assets of their own as well-paid professionals, and give back to their beloved alma mater. It just so happens that the kinds of learning and teaching deemed most useful—what Henry A. Giroux would call “instrumental pedagogy”—are not those that are essential to progressive social thinking: the critical orientation and self-reflexivity of the humanities and interpretive social sciences pose a threat to neoliberal rationality. And given the price, projects, and results that neoliberal education demands, students from historically marginalized backgrounds or who present points of view challenging corporatization are often shunted aside.
When the market rules, ordinary people and inclusive social structures do not. Instead, rigid hierarchical structures proliferate, free market ideology dominates, progressive and critical thought declines, and disparities among employees abound. Those who have money and influence—corporate billionaires and university administrators—accumulate more of it, while those who do not—students and their families, contingent academic workers— are further marginalized.
In the post-war era, a democratic project began to establish a widely and rigorously educated general public through well-funded and subsidized public higher education. It was an imperfect project at best—African Americans and other people of color were largely denied access to many of these programs—but we should do well to remember the democratic promise of the public university before we relegate it completely to the cold hands of the neoliberal market and corporatization. The stakes are high: who and how we are educated forges us into the kind of society we become. A vigorous public education system, higher ed included, is the best defense against an ascending neoliberal plutocracy where democracy is deemed second to entrepreneurship and capital accumulation.
[i] Brown, Wendy. Neoliberalized Knowledge. History of the Present Vol. 1, No. 1 (Summer 2011). University of Illinois Press. pp. 113-129