Is higher ed corporatized?: liberal arts and the profit motive

Joe Hogan

In my mind, one of the most gratifying aspects of attending a college like GVSU is that it seems to occupy an ever-shrinking yet increasingly attractive niche in higher education: that of the public liberal arts university. Primarily, liberal arts universities like GVSU tend to favor small class sizes, undergraduate education, and pedagogical innovation. As a result, such universities are inclined to empower undergraduates by providing the opportunity to establish collaborative relationships with professors and an engaged in-class learning style. Ultimately, as more universities devalue the liberal arts and shift focus away from undergraduate student development, GVSU would do well to preserve its model of education.

Relevant to the prospect of GVSU’s continued success, however, is a growing problem in the American university system that a variety of major voices in higher education have noted, all with a degree of trepidation. The problem, simply put, is the “corporatization” of higher education. Generally, this trend has been given other names — e.g. the “business model of education” — and its cause, at least partly, is the increasing pressure put on administrations to raise money so as to offset the dearth of government funding for higher education. Though by no means a conscious decision made anywhere or by anyone, the result is “corporatization:” universities now, more than ever, seem to be run as businesses.

To be sure, the nature of corporatization does not have anything directly to do with things like donorship, or the fact that universities must find some way to make money, as they always have. Instead, corporatized education, as one might call it, focuses less on the complex social function of universities in general — the role they play in service of the world, as havens of pure research and the proliferation of new ideas as well as the cultivation of academic disciplines and traditions — and more on the notion of universities as market or industry driven entities. Universities thus suffer under the profit motive, their power and status deriving primarily from marketability rather than their care for the liberal arts or the intellectual and social development of students, graduate or undergraduate.

What are the effects of this “corporatization” and how can they be identified? For one, it leads to the institutional devaluing of fields of study that are not profitable in the short term. Such subjects, as Martha Nussbaum argues in her book “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities,” “…are losing ground as nations prefer to pursue short-term profit by the cultivation of the useful and highly applied skills suited to profit making.” The result, in Nussbaum’s view, is that universities no longer educate so as to cultivate truly democratic and humane citizens, those with a developed capacity for critical thinking who can lead what Socrates would call an examined life.

There are other effects, though. Noam Chomsky, in a variety of public lectures (many of which can be found on YouTube) suggests that students in corporatized universities become docile, less interested in challenging the status-quo, and poor critical thinkers. Why? As students feel the increasing pressure of insurmountable loan debt, they become apathetic to the very avenues of thought and action that would encourage them to challenge corporatization. Likewise, Chomsky notes the increasing use of contingent faculty, such as adjuncts, as a kind of “cheap labor” in corporatized universities. By paying highly qualified scholars low wages, and by giving them no incentive to do their own research or develop their pedagogy, corporatized universities lower the cost of teaching to divert funds elsewhere.

As I have said, the corporatization of universities is a trend that, as many scholars claim, plagues the nation; that is to say, it is not unique to any university. It is heartening, then, to see conversations already taking place at GVSU to address the issue, if only indirectly. Student Senate, for instance, recently hosted an open forum for students, professors, and administrators to discuss the question of free speech on campus as it relates to university fundraising and donor recognition. As the editorial board of the Lanthorn noted in its Feb. 22 issue, the discussion was highly productive and civil. Most importantly, the success of the forum indicated that, so long as concerned students, professors, and administrators operate as checks on the development of the university, and so long as university leaders remain open and amenable to constructive criticism, the effects of “corporatization” at our university can be resisted.