COVID-19 and the Nakedness of the Corporate University

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The coronavirus pandemic has both changed everything and accelerated trends that were already occurring across the world in business, politics, and how people shop and interact. The same is true with American higher education. As colleges and universities across America are restarting, Covid-19  has laid bare the nakedness of the corporate university, revealing how education and learning have long been displaced as the primary purpose of colleges and universities.

The corporate university is a product of the 1970s and 1980s.  After World War II  government funding for higher education, especially state universities, was seen as a tool of economic development, a battle line in the Cold War, and an instrument of democracy.  Science and technology were important, but arts, humanities, foreign languages, and the social sciences were part of a traditional liberal arts education that benefited society and produced, as philosopher John Dewey once said, the next generation of democratic leaders.  The benefits of college education were a public good, worthy of public investment.  But beginning with the economic retrenchments of the 1970s and the onset of neo-liberalism, higher education changed.  States cut investments to their universities, grants to students shrank, and college education increasingly came to be viewed as a private good or investment.

Higher education responded by turning corporate.  Colleges and universities sought business sponsorships and partnerships.   They restructured and assumed top-down management styles that increasingly viewed faculty as workers and less as co-participants in education.  Boards of trustees become more heavily composed of business leaders who in turn hire school presidents with corporate tendencies or experiences and less traditional education backgrounds or resumes.  Higher education, as did corporate America, restructured and replaced workers (full time tenured professors) with part time and contingent staff, and layered yet pricey middle and senior management with little knowledge or affection for traditional liberal arts education.

But colleges and universities also turned corporate in transforming education into a commodity and students into customers.  One, students were told college was an investment in their future and therefore borrowing to finance it became a cost-benefit decision in their career options.  Two,  admissions departments increasingly sold schools not on the basis of the quality of education they received but on career placement.  Then schools emphasized internships, dorm life,  on-campus activities, sports, technology, and internet connectivity for convenience. Three, at the graduate level, the expansion of face-paced but expensive professional programs (often offered without the traditional rigor of a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation) in business and other fields  were sold as career investments for Baby Boomers anxious for credentials, with the tuition reaped by the schools helping to finance undergraduate programs.  Four, going to college was all about the amenities of learning and not learning itself.  Higher education transformed the college experience into a cash nexus–pay us a lot of money and we will provide you with a host of on-campus activities and connections that will be a worthy return on your investment.

The 2008 global recession destroyed the business plan for American higher education.  Public education budgets were slashed and student debt topped that of personal credit cards.  Students were tapped out, and the number of eligible and college ready 18-year olds was declining.  Higher education should have collapsed but it managed to limp along by intensifying its cost cutting and tuition hiking measures.

Then came Covid-19.  When schools went on-line last spring students rightly revolted.  They demanded  refunds not just for dorms but on tuition.  They argued that the college experience they were sold included all those campus-based experiences, internships, and connections that they no longer were receiving.    College administrators were in a bind.  They tried to say the tuition was justified because they were still getting an education but such a claim was shrill at best since this aspect of college experience had long since disappeared or had become merely one stick in a bundle of goods sold as the university experience.

Students and their parents are not buying this argument. Take away all these other amenities and what do you really have?  The nakedness of colleges and universities that is about anything but education.  College has become a collection of  commodified externalities surrounded by a central core of educational nothingness.  For this fall, the reality is, as recent decisions by Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill already show, on-campus learning is a huge public health risk.  Yet no college wants to say it is going completely on-line for fear that students will not attend or want price reductions.   Yet what will happen is that much of higher education will do a bait and switch–begin school in-person and once the tuition dollars are in switch back on-line.  This will be the short-term fix for the crisis of corporate universities, yet it does little to address decades of damage to the disappearing educational mission of higher education.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.