John Buell

Resisting Corporate Education

One of the strongest arguments on behalf of the market economy lies in the claim that markets are a spontaneous outgrowth of what Adam Smith called the natural human tendency to barter and truck.

Markets began on the local level and eventually expanded to the entire globe. In addition to being natural, markets are often portrayed as inseparably linked to a range of personal freedoms, especially free speech and inquiry, whereas socialist (command economies), practice thought control and impose politically correct academic regimes. Unfortunately, this narrative is challenged by a wide range of respected scholarship both regarding history and contemporary political practice. Karl Polanyi’s classic The Great Transformation pointed out that far from being a natural outgrowth of spontaneous practice, free markets were imposed via an often violent process of enclosure in England, the original home of the industrial revolution.

Here in the New World, war against Native Americans was grounded in more than racial terms. Productive stewardship of the land by Native Americans was neither accepted nor respected because land was not not commodified, divided into individual parcels exchangeable on profit maximizing markets. Even today so called free markets are hardly natural and spontaneous, as witness aggressive efforts by states to crush union organizing, loot worker pensions, and privatize formerly communal water systems.

There is no better example of the coercive market agenda than the effort to control education, not merely at the primary and secondary level but throughout our public university system as well.

In addition to crushing such spontaneous sources of resistance as unions, peace groups, and the Occupy movement through intimidation and surveillance, corporate elites now seek to preclude sources of free thought that might foster any creative scholarly challenge to the political economy.

Their tools are multiple, including not merely large financial contributions where a quid pro quo is clearly implicit but also research programs leading to corporate patents and licensing schemes, chaired professorships whose background and scholarly orientation are defined by the corporate sponsor.

Universities are often not merely innocent victims of this process. College administrators often jump aboard this express, becoming unapologetic advocates of the corporatization of the public university. On occasion, however, they fight back.

The New York Times recently characterized a struggle in Texas: “University trustees, often politically connected business executives, have increasingly embraced the view that fundamental change is needed to turn universities into engines of economic development for their states and reduce their roles as centers of scholarship.

“Mr. Perry [Texas Governor] has pushed for changes promoted by a conservative think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and developed by one of its board members, that take a skeptical view of academic research and place a greater emphasis on instruction, cost-efficiency and preparing students for the job market. Widely popular among faculty and students, Mr. Powers [the university chancellor] has pushed back in defense of more traditional academics and the university’s independence.”

Such push backs are to be commended, and higher education is a vital arena in the fight for a more democratic and just political economy. Yet as Johns Hopkins political theorist William Connolly points out, successful struggle will likely require more than pushback. We need “universities and colleges … constituted as vibrant centers that challenge the neoliberal machine by their very mode of organization.”

Since the corporate model strives to control costs and discipline faculty by turning more and more tenure track positions into short term, cheap adjunct appointments, colleges must “gather together adjunct positions and create a smaller number of tenure track positions out of them, inviting existing adjunct faculty to become candidates and drawing upon the records they have already achieved in considering them for the new positions.”

In addition an eco-egalitarian university would challenge by example the growing disparity between CEOs and their workforces. Instead of multimillion- dollar presidents and burgeoning numbers of administrators, Connolly advocates that “all staff members in the university will receive a living wage, and their incomes and job security will increase as they continue to work. The faculty will initially be governed by a 2/2/2 model … the highest paid senior professor will make no more than two times the salary of the beginning assistant professor; deans and provosts will make no more than two times the salary of the highest paid senior professor; and the president will make no more than two times the amount of the highest paid dean … a decrease at any level — to respond to another budget crunch created by neoliberal adventurism and then passed down the line — will meet with corollary decreases everywhere else. After reducing the current proportion of administrators to faculty to an earlier ratio, any decrease in the size of the faculty will be matched by a corollary reduction in the size of the administration. Such policies will mean that we are all in this together rather than encouraging a few to impose their imperial will upon the rest of us. Deans and presidents will feel more tied to the faculty than to high rollers outside it.”

To Connolly’s vision of the eco-egalitarian university I would add two points. An eco-egalitarian university needs an ethos, a shared spirituality appropriate to it. For me that would include a celebration of democracy’s dual mandate, both to affirm a common good and to limit and challenge the excesses to which even the best- intentioned agendas can lead.

Long-time work within any progressive organization can breed a smug, exaggerated confidence in its policies and practices and an insensitivity to injustices. Though any egalitarian educational vision carries risks, its democratic structure and commitments provides at least the potential for constructive response.

Secondly, a note about students. Students should play an active role in governance, even including some participation in hiring and tenure decisions. Procedures can be set up to assure that students on such committees have solid backgrounds and are serious about the subject. Yes this is fraught with danger but even long before the hegemony of corporate capitalism hiring practices were far from some sort of disinterested scholarly choice. In my experience on numerous search committees with students, when faculty and students differed, students were generally prescient and had fewer hidden agendas.

Is this a utopian vision? Certainly no more so than the ideals and visions it opposes. The self-regulating market may be one of history’s most dangerous illusions. One so illusory that it has become little more than a rationale corporate elites employ to crush desperately needed public reform of our economy.

Add the public university to the list of institutions now desperately in need of reform.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His books include Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2014

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