What’s so radical about defending Public Education?



Being antagonistic to corporatization should not necessarily be conflated with being broadly antagonistic to corporations. Universities and corporations have long had mutually beneficial relationships that have caused relatively infrequent controversies. And, just to be clear, although some faculty with more progressive political values have been very skeptical of those relationships between their universities and corporate interests, very, very few faculty have been categorically opposed to the development of such relationships because, for the most part, they have clearly been mutually beneficial.

Corporatization, on the other hand, is the recent manifestation of a historically recurring attempt to redefine public higher education as a business enterprise. In the 1980s, it started with the premise that universities had become such complex institutions, with very large budgets and multifaceted operations, that they would benefit from the adoption of more formal, and perhaps some cutting-edge, business-management practices. American corporations were beginning to respond to post-industrial economic conditions, and some of the new business practices seemed applicable to the universities, which had expanded dramatically to accommodate the baby boomers and were then adjusting to flattening enrollments and flattening state and federal funding.

But in the space of the last quarter century–a relatively short period when compared to the many decades over which many universities have established their reputations–that initially modest goal has become a very determined movement to privatize what have  largely been very successful public institutions; in fact, together those institutions constitute the most admired system of public higher education in the world. Instead of regarding public higher education as something that in many different ways serves the public good, the “reformers’ are attempting to turn it into just another commodity to be measured simply by its profitability.

The corporate profiteering started with the outsourcing of custodial services, dining services, and bookstore operations, and it has extended into the somewhat more selective outsourcing of employee-benefits management, marketing, recruitment, advising, course-content development, technology support, and retention efforts.

The underlying assumption is that all of this contracting out to corporate providers has saved our universities a great deal of money while enhancing the services provided, and yet, even though the wages and benefits of the people actually delivering those services have decreased significantly, the costs to the universities have continued to increase. Oh, and if anyone would have any incentive to fund such a survey of faculty and students, I believe that the general consensus would be at best that the quality of the services being provided has not markedly improved and in many cases that it has very conspicuously declined—simply because increasing efficiency typically translates understaffing, and having employees who are both underpaid and overworked is seldom a strategy that serves anyone well, though it is very good for the corporate bottom line.

Moreover, despite all of this outsourcing, the administrative bureaucracies and administrative support staffing at almost all of our institutions have somehow increased not just significantly but exponentially. Universities now spend twice as much of their budgets (and often considerably more) on things other than instruction as they do on instruction—and, as dollars for those other things is squeezed out of savings on instruction, the percentage of full- and part-time contingent faculty positions has continued to increase at the expense of tenure-track positions.

Beyond all of this direct administrative bloat, there has also been extravagant spending on outside consultants. Again, despite the exponential increase in administrative positions and support staffing, our administrations cannot seem to make any significant decisions without first contracting with expensive consultants–largely, I think, to appease corporatized boards of trustees and to insulate themselves against any subsequent charge that they made an impulsive or reckless decision.

For our students, the shift in emphasis in student aid from federal and state grants to government-backed and private student loans has turned the financing of higher education into something very comparable to the mortgage industry—if one financed a home through multiple sources. It is very telling that even the federal government has turned the student-loan business into one of its most profitable operations.

Indeed, over the last decade or two, the federal government’s collusion in this corporatization of public higher education has been one of the very rare examples of political bipartisanship in action. In other posts, I have asked rhetorically, and snidely, how the Department of Education would have operated differently if Romney had been elected president. Arne Duncan, often described as the most powerful Secretary of Education in history, has been a very determined champion of the corporatization of public education at all levels, from K-12 through higher education.

His department has just awarded $71 million to corporate charter-school operators in Ohio, even though almost all of them have been the subjects of ongoing investigations not only by local media but also by state and other federal agencies. Those investigations have revealed extensive, replicated issues with very dubious business practices, blatant profiteering, and political corruption—never mind their general abysmal academic performance as measured by corporate-provided, standardized tests intended to expose the deficiencies of the public schools.

Yet, in terms of our individual institutions, the problem is typically local as well as national and statewide. More often than not, the administrations of our institutions have become committed to corporatization because it allows them to maintain friendly relations with the state governments and the politically appointed boards of trustees. Although administrators with any academic responsibilities are ostensibly academics, there is now a very clear distinction between administrative and academic career tracks, and administrators generally view instruction as not the core mission of the university but, instead, as a competing element of the budget. The administrative bureaucracy is typically housed in buildings separate from the buildings in which the colleges are housed, and within the colleges themselves, the expanding bureaucracies are typically housed on certain floors or in distinct wings of the buildings. Too often, instruction is regarded as something that competes for resources that administrators would much rather allocate to other priorities, rather than as the thing that should be given budgetary priority.

Indeed, as some recent posts to this blog have highlighted, having any sort of experience in academia—never mind having superior academic credentials—is no longer an basic qualification required of applicants for the presidencies and other upper administrative positions at even our most highly regarded public universities. If the pattern continues, even academic deans may eventually be expected to have managerial, rather than academic, credentials.

In sum, I think that it is a sign of how distorted—of how perverted—the discussion of these issues has become that the determined defense of public education, an institution almost singularly valued since the very founding of the nation, should now be characterized by anyone who wishes to be taken seriously as a descent into political radicalism.