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Commodifying Education

The Corporatization of the American University

by STEVEN HIGGS

Peter Seybold traces the pernicious influence corporatization has had on the American campus back almost a decade before the Reagan Revolution of 1980, to a memo written by Richmond, Va., attorney Lewis F. Powell Jr. to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in late summer 1971.

Powell, who would be nominated for Supreme Court justice by President Richard Nixon just two months later, said American business had to take the offensive to counter the social movements of the 1960s and early ’70s, said Seybold, a sociology professor at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI). Among the institutions Powell said the business world had to recapture was the American campus.

“Part of this was a cultural and political attack on the university,” Seybold said.

Powell’s clarion call for the eradication of the American Left on campus and throughout society is credited with “inspiring the founding of many conservative think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Manhattan Institute,” according to the PBS website on the Supreme Court that republishes the memo.

Titled “Attack of American Free Enterprise System,” the memo listed the university first on Powell’s list of attack sources. “The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians,” he wrote.

In addition to the right-wing think tanks, the memo has inspired to action the former New Left radical David Horowitz, among an army of others. The one-time editor of Ramparts magazine “now is nicely funded by the right wing to do all these things like eradicating the Left from the academy,” Seybold said.

***

Seybold is the former director of the Indiana University division of labor studies, which, by the time he left in 2001, had been decimated by the Right’s campus offensive. Fifteen years after joining what is now the IU Labor Studies Program, the Bloomington resident left and has served since as an associate professor at IUPUI in downtown Indianapolis.

Since joining academia in 1978, Seybold has focused on “political sociology, inequality, sociology of work and the labor movement” and explored the impact money has on higher education since he did a study of the Ford Foundation early in his career.

“In 1984 I was asked to give a talk at a university in Pennsylvania, and I titled the talk ‘Toward a Corporate Service Station,'” the New Jersey native said. “That was sort of the beginnings of my interest in this subject, because even then I saw the influence of money was changing the culture of the university.”

In recent years, Seybold has been increasingly interested in how universities mimic the corporate world and how they are adopting the corporate model for how they run themselves.

“I’m especially concerned about what this means for the culture of the university and just generally the degradation of the environment that faculty, staff, students and administrators work in because of the onslaught of the corporate model,” he said.

***

Quality of scholarship, for example, does not have nearly the importance on hiring in the corporate university that it has historically, Seybold said. “Now most departments, when they hire new professors, they look at how many grants they bring in and their potential to bring in even bigger grants in the future. When I started out in academe, grantsmanship was not a significant factor in hiring decisions.”

The results, he said, are professors who teach as little as possible, who use grants to buy themselves out of teaching and concentrate their research on ideas that potentially can be turned into products.

“I describe this as the commodification of the university,” he said. “And I would say this has effects on all aspects of the culture of the university.”

Among those aspects are the way students are treated, the number of adjuncts used as “basically part-time labor to replace full-time faculty,” the now-franchised bookstores and food service, and the outsourcing of work like campus maintenance, Seybold said.

“You can follow this logic through all the parts of the university and see the way it is being implemented,” he said.

For example, certain subject areas and departments that are worthwhile and should be supported are unable to make money, he said.

“It is fundamentally changing the culture of the university,” he said.

***

The logic extends to what should be the most significant part of the university experience – the classroom – where the corporate model incentivizes bigger classrooms, online education and a movement away from face-to-face teaching, Seybold said.

“Corporations readily provide materials to be incorporated in courses,” he said.

The corporate model also negatively impacts students’ lives, Seybold said. Many have instructors who don’t have offices where they can discuss their work in private. And due to the high costs of education, they take more classes and frequently work multiple jobs, degrading their campus and classroom experiences.

At urban campuses like IUPUI, where up to 75 percent or more of students work, the rising cost of tuition and campus life has spawned a phenomenon called stopping out. “They go to school for a year, leave for a year and try and make some money, and then they come back and take six credits, and they keep working,” he said.

Consequently, students show increasing interest in parts of university study that are directly connected to business, Seybold said. And the debt they accumulate for college also shapes their career options.

“Six months after they get out they have to start paying back that $50,000 or $60,000 loan bill,” he said. “So they aren’t as open to say AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps or working for the labor movement or a community group because they need to make money.”

Another example is the rise of service learning, where students get credit for working in the communities they study in, Seybold said.

“I think it’s service learning basically in support of the status quo,” he said. “We’re not training people to be community organizers or labor organizers. We’re not training people to help ameliorate some of the problems that have been caused by moving toward a more free-market economy, unfettered capitalism.”

If he had to identify one signpost as the tipping point in the corporatization of the American university, Seybold said it would be the decline in public funding of universities.

“Once you do this, once you renege on the commitment of a public university through public tax money, then you set forth this whole marketization and corporatization,” he said.

This means that corporations can in effect almost buy certain programs and that the logic of business will be transferred to the university, he said, so it becomes all about head counts and departments making money.

Indiana University institutionalized corporate logic early on in with responsibility-centered budgeting, which sought to make each school and even departments separate business units that have to support themselves by taxing other departments for their services and things like that, Seybold said.

“Once you buy into this logic, it’s hard to stop,” he said.

***

In the broader social sense, the Right’s attack on university culture reflects the elites’ concerns about the counterculture and the movements of the ’60s and efforts to repudiate them, Seybold said.

“That includes rewriting the ’60s and convincing generations after that that a lot of our problems stem from the ’60s,” he said, “and that the ’60s were not as good as people who lived through it said they were.”

So Seybold and others who hold onto the liberal ideals of university purpose and culture – “Because it is a public university, we should be serving our students” – are looked at basically as dinosaurs, holding onto realities that have been transformed.

Coming from the labor movement and as a sociologist interested in the organization of work, Seybold sees the corporate campus as an attack on the craft of being a professor.

“I consider being a professor a craft occupation,” he said. “And I see my craft being attacked.”

***

Over the past five years or so, Seybold said, he has seen growing awareness across the campus about the influence corporations have on campus life.

“I think there are examples,” he said, citing a successful organizing effort this year by food-service workers at IUPUI as one. “There’s been more activism on the part of organizations like the AAUP (American Association of University Professors). I think there is heightened awareness among graduate students now that their job prospects are very uncertain in this corporate university.”

But the upshot is today’s universities train rather than educate, Seybold said, and the repercussions negatively impact all aspects of university life.

“I describe it as a degradation of the culture of the university,” he said. “It affects students, the staff, the faculty and the administration when the institution increasingly serves as a handmaiden to corporations.”

Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.