Letter to the editor

TO: The Editor-in-Chief of GVSU’s Lanthorn, Elizabeth Balboa and Staff
FROM: Michael R. Ott, Associate Professor of Sociology, GVSU.

I write to congratulate and thank you and the Lanthorn staff for your recently published articles about the potential dangers of the increasing corporate presence on the campus of GVSU. Notwithstanding the disdainfully arrogant and intimidating response by the two Grand Valley Vice Presidents, which ultimately proves the point of your expressed concern, I write to support not only your right and freedom of speech, but also share and advocate the critical substance of your concern. There does exists a well-founded, historical and social system concern that such corporate “donations” are not as philanthropic or harmless to the educational purpose of a university as it is often presented to be.

Your cautioning critique of the recent celebration of the corporate presence on this campus [Lanthorn, December 5, 2013] was very well stated in both form and content. If this discourse continues on a campus wide basis, as I hope it will, I suggest that the discussion not be reduced simply to a zero-sum argument about corporate “donations” to the university. This would result in a diversion from the much more problematic and serious concern about the burgeoning corporate culture and its influence on the substance and direction of higher education that can accompany such donations.

The etymological root of the word education, derived from Latin, is e’duca or e’ducere, which means quite simply to “lead or bring people out.” The ultimate task of education, particularly that of a liberal arts university, is to lead people out of ignorance into enlightenment and wisdom; out of superstition into critical [not just instrumental] thinking and reason; out of servility, fear and conformity toward freedom, integrity and human solidarity in a more reconciled and peaceful society. This is the telos even of the technical side of academics, which is the strategic concern of the corporate world’s push for academics to emphasize increasingly Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics [S.T.E.M] over all else.

However, the suspicion if not fear that is attached to such corporate donations to educational institutions is that this critical task of education can be if not already is being undermined by the accompanying implicit if not explicit corporate agenda and culture that emphasizes “having” over “being,” and the pursuit of ever-increasing profit over everything else. The fear is that this corporate culture, which is already endemic in modern civil society, can infiltrate and become an even more established norm within academic institutions. Within this wider social context, writing the names of corporations and their representatives on campus buildings and rooms does not appear so innocent, as it is a constant advertisement of and for those narrowly deemed successful by means of their ability to make such donations that bring such recognition. What is also implicitly celebrated in this, however, is the existing social system and its increasing class inequity through which such wealth and profit are made. In other words, the danger lies in the subtle inversion of the fundamental purpose of the academe: of creating knowledgeable “citizens” of and for a good State and not mere bourgeois consumers and corporation workers. As the celebrated donations and influence of the corporation’s and the capitalist class becomes more accepted in the culture of academic institutions, the very meaning and purpose of a liberal and humanistic education becomes endangered of being inverted from leading people out of mindless acceptance and conformity to the systemically created antagonisms of the status quo into leading people further and more deeply into them. This danger cannot be dismissed by the ideological and reductive argument that such “donations” are merely a philanthropic gesture of support by the wealthy for the furtherance of the purpose of higher education. Of course, as expressed by you as well as by the administrators, this might be correct in some cases and thus, should be celebrated. However, such honest philanthropy is not the concern at hand.

The concern and problem of universities courting corporate donations as a means for their continuance and growth, not only here at GVSU but on campuses across the nation, is historically grounded, particularly in the recent experience of the wealthy and powerful corporate elite’s reconstructing not only the economy but also the supposedly independent realm of politics into a means of furthering and legitimating their own agenda and culture as the national norm. This concern is informed not only by the tragic, corporately created Great Recession of 2008 and the resulting re-distribution of national wealth to the top 5% of the population that has tragically impacted every aspect of society – particularly that of the working class. It is also rooted in the increasingly class-driven orchestration of this strategic corporate culture and praxis into the realm of politics, the courts, the media, the entertainment industry, religion, as well as academia. The danger and rightful concern about corporate influence in academia lies within this concrete reality of this colonizing system and culture of the wider corporate capitalist system, of which such corporate donations to universities is a part, and this cannot be marginalized or forgotten.

Again, I congratulate you and your staff for your critical thinking and courage. Keep up the good work! I am very happy that we have students like you at GVSU, for you represent all that is good and hopeful about the critical, liberating, and humanizing purpose of e’duca.

In Solidarity,

Michael R. Ott, Ph.D
Associate Professor of Sociology
2156 AuSable Hall
Grand Valley State University
Allendale, MI 49401
Office Phone: (616) 331-3799
Email: [email protected]