Friday, June 29, 2012

What Happened to Journalism Can Happen to Academia

The commotion over the last few weeks at the University of Virginia about firing and then re-hiring of the much-loved university president by the school’s Board of Visitors, which is apparently dominated by business-school buzzword types, brings to light a dynamic that could potentially decimate higher education, if left unchecked: the continuing corporatization of academia involves a drive to replace education through rich professor-student interaction with virtual learning over the internet.  What has happened to journalism over the last decade -- destruction of jobs and of quality -- could happen to academia over the next, if not stopped.
Briefly, the facts of the case are these: Teresa Sullivan was hired by the Board two years ago and quickly won the loyalty and affection of faculty and students by winning consensus support for her visions.  This included streamlining the university’s budget flows to save money, while also beginning the process of improving UVA’s research status, a goal of both the Board and faculty. Board member Helen Dragas, however, a real estate developer from Virginia Beach (which in my opinion has become the shittiest, most run-down vacation spot in the U.S., no doubt due to developers like Dragas), decided that Sullivan was not following the tenets of something called “strategic dynamism.”  This is apparently a business school fad that aims and constant changing of short-term goals, shifting of resources, and other turmoil to achieve organizational ends.  E-mail exchanges between her and another Board member showed that Dragas felt Sullivan wasn’t moving fast enough to adapt to what New York Times simpleton David Brooks, a Wall Street journal editorial, and a single article in the Chronicle of Higher Education said was a new academic environment:   
The board never formally evaluated Sullivan's performance. But the emails obtained by the the Cavalier Daily demonstrate that Dragas worked closely with her vice rector, Mark Kington, planning Sullivan’s ouster -- while shielding their machinations from students and professors.
The rationale for the leadership change is as strange as the secrecy. Dragas and Kington appear to have built their case against Sullivan from just a few media articles that offer vague praise for the use of Internet technology in higher education, according to the emails.
Dragas displayed particular esteem for a David Brooks column in an email to Kington, in which the New York Times columnist touts the sort of online education initiatives undertaken by the for-profit University of Phoenix. "What happened to the newspaper and magazine business is about to happen to higher education: a rescrambling around the Web," Brooks wrote.
"Don't dismiss the for-profit colleges and universities, either," proclaimed John Chubb and Terry Moe in a Wall Street Journal editorial. "Institutions such as the University of Phoenix -- and it is hardly alone -- have embraced technology aggressively."
Dragas, who sent this article to Kington, included a reminder in one of the emails obtained by the Cavalier that this was, apparently, "Why we can't afford to wait."
Dragas then secretly built up majority support for Sullivan’s ouster with the rest of the Board, most of whom appear to have gotten their positions through large campaign donations.  After a massive outcry by students and faculty, and ultimately under threat by the governor to fire the entire Board if the disruption was not resolved quickly, the Board Wednesday re-hired Sullivan. However, her’s is not the only case like this, and this is simply another step in what has been a long process of the commodification of education in America, in which it is possible now to simply buy the right to hire professors if you are as wealthy as, say, the Koch brothers. 
The UVA Board of Visitors' explanation throughout has been filled with business-school management buzzwords.  It’s clearly a business mindset  being applied to a non-business institution.  It doesn't even work for economics: what business schools mainly do is promote corporatization, corporate raiding, offshoring, commodification, and advertising propaganda, rather than the responsible management of society’s collective economic resources.  I don’t see why anyone would think it moral, appropriate, or desirable to export business values, practices, and systems into other spheres of life; but of course the opposite has happened and capitalism has penetrated and colonized almost every other sphere of life.  It imposes one outlook and one set of standards and values -- the outlook and standards and values of the merchant -- onto education, medicine, family life, religion, art, music, literature, community, morality, government -- everything, whether fitting to these other fields of human activity or not.  It would be a better world if we would understand that each of these spheres of life has its own set of standards appropriate to it, independent of instrumental rationality or the profit motive. 

Michale Sandel, Michael Walzer, and other political theorists have long argued that not all life should be corporatized and commodified.  Some institutions and practices are very different from business and should not be reduced to a bottom line and a profit motive.  Even some behavioral economists are now arguing for this view, noting that non-monetary systems of reward and penalty, such as praise and shame, have their legitimate place.  Education is an example of something not reducible to economics: it is not a commodity which is passively consumed to provide a little temporary satisfaction, but is concerned with the growth of the whole person, and with learning to develop and exercise one’s active human powers.  Because it is such, it ought not to be distorted by the profit motive.  As I have said before, teachers are not servants.  To be sure, education is economic in the sense that it requires the allocation of some material resources: buildings, books, computers, expert teaching labor, etc.  But just because something requires resources to do doesn't mean that it should be subject to the market model to fund it-- and especially not to the corporatized, buzzword oligopoly model that currently gets called a market model.  Nor should market logic replace its end goal of human development with the profit motive.  As one UVA professor eloquently put it:
The biggest challenge facing higher education is market-based myopia. Wealthy board members, echoing the politicians who appointed them (after massive campaign donations) too often believe that universities should be run like businesses, despite the poor record of most actual businesses in human history.
Universities do not have “business models.” They have complementary missions of teaching, research, and public service. Yet such leaders think of universities as a collection of market transactions, instead of a dynamic (I said it) tapestry of creativity, experimentation, rigorous thought, preservation, recreation, vision, critical debate, contemplative spaces, powerful information sources, invention, and immeasurable human capital.

The rush to impose a “virtual university” model ought to raise alarm flags. Ivy league schools are now aggressively moving into teaching via online courses.  That’s right, you heard me, Harvard and MIT are aiming to turn themselves into the University of Phoenix, and as quickly as is feasible.   Why is online teaching bad, you ask?  A university education, which aims to shape the whole character of the student and to teach him or her to learn how to learn, cannot and should not be done by virtual broadcast.  You cannot educate someone -- develop their full interpersonal, intellectual, and moral faculties -- without personal guidance, mentoring, and coaching.  The personal interaction between the professor and student, and between different students, is a critical part of personal and intellectual growth; students need face-to-face guidance, they need to ask questions, they need to be pushed into asking questions, and they need to have their curiosity piqued and their critical faculties stimulated.  Some types of training for a specific job or task may be appropriately done through videos of recorded lectures -- but training presupposes a general education in the first place. 
We know that people learn and validate themselves through the eyes of others, and an apprentice needs a master in order to become and master himself or herself.  In higher education a one-on-one situation is often best, small groups still good, and large classes are highly questionable -- we all hated those big, impersonal lecture halls for a reason.  Yet this online teaching fad just takes the decades-long trend of growing university class sizes and amplifies it by several orders of magnitude so that one professor can teach thousands and potentially millions of students.  In the relatively near future it may be that most sons and daughters of middle class parents go to college to absorb a curriculum mostly from video screens, while only the heirs of the wealthy can afford the traditional experience of being taught by real-life academics.  The kind of higher education that is needed in a democracy, one widely available to students of the middle and lower classes so that they can develop themselves, chase their dreams, and learn the habits of good citizenship is under threat.
And, of course, virtualizing higher education will take the already devastating proletarianization of academia to a whole new level: rather than just ruthlessly exploit teaching assistants and adjunct faculty by overworking them while paying them pennies, university deans and administrators will be able to just rent a video lecture series from a single Ivy League academic superstar.  Economically, this would cause higher education professorships to go the way of the job market in journalism -- with similar mediocritizing effects on the whole enterprise.  And it follows that more "research" will be done by corporate entities, with their vested interests and profit agenda. 
Thus there is a grave risk that the forces of educational corporatization and online learning are going to combine and, in the end, bring higher education to ruin.  Just as capitalism creates a broken oligarchic politics in its own image, so it will create a broken elite academia.


  1. I remember a comment from Paul Krugman that arithmetic had a well known liberal bias. As we know any academically rigorous understanding of facts will likewise have a liberal bias. Academia as an institution must be destroyed for the forces of corporatocracy to prevail.

  2. What has happened to journalism has already happened to education. However, your analysis omits that the forces of "corporatization" acted in tandem with the forces of the government.

    It is a well-documented fact that a significant percentage of students are heavily dependent on government loans. The munificent availability of such financial resources empowers universities to charge higher prices. As a result, the University acts as any other private enterprise would in a crony capitalist economy.

    In light of these developments, it becomes clear that the University is no longer accountable to the student-body because government loans virtually guarantee that they will always have customers. Under these circumstances, Academic institutions do what is most profitable for them rather than what's morally admirable. That is why decade after decade, they produce little more than chattel pliable for political manipulation and vulnerable to economic exploitation.

    Capitalism does not create "broken oligarchic politics", cronyism does. The corporations did not achieve the stronghold over academia through merely success in business, the government played an instrumental role in facilitating this outcome.

    If the government did not guarantee that Academia would have a nearly unlimited influx of new customers, they would have had little choice but to respond to the demands of their students by providing decent education at affordable rates. Needless to say, there would be no place for monstrosities such as "corporatization of education" under such circumstances.

    Thomas Hobbes famously argued that most people tend to be relatively equal in intelligence. This explains why the Robber Barons and the Ruling Class of other countries vigorously endeavored to secure the support of the government. Without such support, they would not have been able to dominate the market through economic merit alone.

    I challenge you to find a single oligarchy that emerged without the significant support of public sector cronyism.