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The Corporate Makeover of American Colleges and Universities

When Education is a Business

by LAWRENCE S. WITTNER

To what extent is education corrupted when it becomes intertwined with profit-making businesses?

This question becomes increasingly relevant as corporations move into key roles at American universities. In late June of this year, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo steamrolled a bill through the state legislature to establish tax-free havens for businesses on the campuses of the State University of New York (the largest public university in the United States) and on those of some private colleges. This legislation, he promised, would “transform SUNY campuses and university communities.” Faculty, he said, should “get interested and participate in entrepreneurial activities.” Indeed, “you’d be a better academicif you were actually entrepreneurial.”

What can happen when education is run like a business is shown in a new, hilarious satireby Joel Shatzky: Option Three (Blue Thread Communications). Shatzky, a novelist and playwright who taught dramatic literature at SUNY/Cortland for 37 years, provides an unnerving, madcap, depiction of the corporatization of the university — in this case, a university very much like SUNY.

The story begins when the novel’s hero, Acting Visiting Assistant Professor L. Circassian, receives two letters from the administration: the first laying him off and the second taking him back on as an adjunct, with a 35 percent pay cut. Queried by a confused Circassian, Dean Lean explains that there are three options: “Option One is that you are an invaluable member of the faculty that has to be let go; Option Two is that you are a superfluous member of the faculty that can’t be let go. Is that clear so far?” When Circassian replies that it is not, the dean continues: “Option Three was devised several months ago by Central Administration and what it means is that we don’t have the funds to keep you but we can’t let you go because you are too valuable.” Circassian remonstrates that he can’t survive on the reduced salary, especially as he can barely exist on the one he already receives, whereupon the dean retorts: “Of course, we understand that. That’s why this is called `Option Three’; it’s a combination of two unacceptable solutions to a problem.”

This is only the beginning of the nightmarish, downward spiral of Circassian’s life and that of the other faculty at this fanciful institution of higher education. Governor Putski (a nice mixture of former New York State Governor George Pataki and Cuomo, with a name suggesting the Yiddish word for a portion of the male anatomy), egged on by Operation Change (a conspiracy of the wealthy much like Change New York), repeatedly slashes funding for the state university, thereby giving campus administrators the green light they desire to proceed with its evisceration.

Circassian, much like Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, looks on in amazement as irrationality proceeds unchecked by reason. Rival corporations buy up departments and compete for students, debasing teaching and knowledge. Finally, with the campus swept by chaos and madness, the administration announces that 95 percent of the teaching will be done by automated programs (holograms), with the 5 percent of the faculty remaining assigned to teach those students who have elected to have “live” instructors.

Circassian somehow survives all of this, although not before being kidnapped and brought, bound and hooded, to the office of Amber Slaughter, the head of Operation Change. In their ensuing conversation, Circassian seeks to defend the public university as a place of educational opportunity for all. But the wealthy Slaughter coolly rejects that notion, retorting that “democracy sucks.” He explains the he and other members of his class have no desire to educate what he calls “the rabble.”

And so Circassian and the reader ultimately learn what the privatization of public education is all about.

Despite this harsh premise, Option Three is a very funny book, enlivened by new and very creative words (“yibbled,” “blicking,” “charfled,” “traffled,” and many others) and ideas. Readers will certainly enjoy the novel’s playful tone. When the English Department’s corporate manager develops a course entitled “Shakespeare for People Who Hate Shakespeare,” he suggests a revised version of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy to “make the product more marketable.” It runs:

Should I live or should I die?
That’s the riddle: tell me why.
Must I live with aggravation,
Or die if that’s my inclination.
Yes, die and take an endless snooze,
That’s the nobler way to choose.
But in death could I have a dream,
Perhaps that way’s a bit extreme.
Still, who’d dare take all the crap,
That bitter life drops in your lap.
Live long enough, you’ll get the shaft,
`Til all that’s left to do is laugh;
But here’s Ophelia, nymph is she,
By her my sins remembered be.

Although the book focuses on the unraveling of university life, it even has a relatively happy ending.

But what is happening to higher education today, as it undergoes a corporate makeover, is considerably less amusing. The sharply reduced government funding for public universities, the replacement of full-time faculty with low-wage, rootless adjuncts, the rapid development of mass, online courses for academic credit, and the increasingly pervasive corporate presence on campus all indicate more concern for the business-defined bottom line than for intellectual growth. Future satirists of university life will be hard-pressed to stay ahead of the emerging reality.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner  is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany.  His latest book is a satirical novel about university life, “What’s Going On at UAardvark?” (Solidarity Press).] He can be reached through his website.