It’s Time to Challenge the Corporate University

We are living through a moment of great decline in the United States. The U.S.’s turn toward authoritarianism is evidenced by actions of the Trump administration and the GOP; the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol fomented by the big lie that former president Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election; and anti-Black right-wing attacks against voting rights, among many other right-wing machinations. Meanwhile, there is a growing gap between the wealthy and the poor. We are living in an age where the world’s 10 richest men (8 out of 10 of whom are American) have doubled their wealth during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of nearly 1 million people in the U.S. alone; increased child poverty, hunger and food insecurity; and driven the highest rate of inflation in 40 years. In the meantime, Elon Musk, who refers to himself as a “free speech absolutist,” has bought Twitter for $44 billion to promote unfettered free speech rights for all. Anthropologist and journalist Sarah Kendzior has framed the moment we are enduring as the “erosion of America.” This erosion, characterized by a restructuring of how industries operate, attacks on democratic institutions, and a widening gap between the wealthy and the destitute also extends to higher education, a sector of society which is a key pillar of democracy.

The Emergence of the Corporate University

Bill Readings, a late Université de Montréal professor noted the move towards corporatization of universities in his 1997 study, The University in Ruins. While the 1990s were certainly not the golden age of higher education, there were aspects of them that were palatable compared to the current moment. At that time, tuition was lower and more affordable. Technological incorporation in teaching and internet accessibility had just begun. Google and Wikipedia were nonexistent, and living accommodations for students on college and university campuses were modest. Universities relied on shared governance (faculty participation in the governance of an institution) for decision-making. The rhetoric of excellence, innovation and efficiency in managing universities was beginning to gain traction, but it was not the driving force in decision-making in the neoliberal marketplace of ideas.

Yet, what has happened in recent years is a shift into what some have called the gilded age, where “the rich schools are getting richer, while the poorer ones are struggling to survive, with increasing numbers of fairly well known schools announcing they are closing or severely retrenching their operations.” In particular, since 2020 (the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic), this gilded age is far more alarming than the situation described by Readings in the 1990s. From unsafe working conditions, to 700,000 (just over 50 percent) of faculty in the U.S. classified as “adjuncts,” to corporate-controlled donors, attacks on tenure, monetization of diversity initiatives, and strategies of restructuring to eliminate low revenue generating programs, corporatization of universities is no longer a theory but a reality.

Universities, both public and private, have been gradually moving away from their mission-driven models to market-driven models, where profits, branding and revenue-generating streams and programs are prioritized. With skyrocketing costs of education and tuition, fancy dorms, cafeterias, gyms and even a water-themed campus park, university campuses have been investing in fancy infrastructures — increasing their operational costs and pouring money into athletic programs, particularly football and men’s basketball, while lowering their instructional costs.

Joshua Hunt’s eye-opening book, University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought American Higher Education, narrates the relationship that the University of Oregon cultivated with Nike’s founder Phil Knight to transform “a once cash-strapped liberal arts college” into a “college football powerhouse with an increasingly competitive basketball program.” Hunt goes on to say how other universities have followed in the footsteps of the University of Oregon. “In 2016 the University of Michigan announced a $169 million contract with Nike” followed by a month later when “University of Texas at Austin inked a $250 million Nike deal.”

While corporations like Nike have been actively funding programs that university boards and presidents are welcoming, students are viewed as “tuition dollars” and as consumers. Many faculty and support staff have entered the exploited class who are disposable and easily replaceable. Despite receiving millions in pandemic-related federal relief funds, universities are slashing faculty and staff and blaming the cuts on COVID. Arvind Dilawar in The Nation reported, “In May of 2020, the University of Vermont’s president, Suresh Garimella, issued an update on the school’s finances. Citing the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Garimella put forth a bleak prognosis of lower enrollment, higher costs, and stagnant tuition rates necessitating reductions in salaries, benefits, and staff.” Unfortunately, what has happened at University of Vermont is a national story, as universities are using the false justification of COVID to push through long-sought budget cuts like cutting retirement benefits, freezing salaries, and cutting support staff and programs.

Barbara Madeloni, a facilitator with Public Higher Education Workers, a network that supports organizing among university workers, attributes the persistence of cuts to a much longer-term project of transforming higher education into an industry run on contingent faculty (insecure faculty positions like postdocs, teaching assistants, adjuncts and lecturers with little job security) and student debt, rather than a public good funded by taxes. Terminologies of right-sizing, student-centered, restructuring and reimagining are being used to create committees that recommend the elimination of disciplines, programs and majors that no longer serve the market-driven corporate universities that are built on revenue-generating enterprises. Portland State University most recently announced their own “Reimagine PSU” initiative “to provide spaces to create transformational possibilities at a larger scale.” One of the transformational possibilities will require “program reviews and reduction” and multiple programs are slated to be reviewed and possibly reduced or eliminated.

In the meantime, “administrative bloat” and administrative costs, as witnessed by large salaries paid to university presidents, numerous provosts, deans and coaches, have disproportionately increased. Even when university presidents are found to be most unsuitable due to various malpractices and wrongdoings (and where sacking them would be the most appropriate action), they are given golden parachutes by highly corporatized boards of trustees. Such expensive severance packages are often categorized under “mutual agreements” between the boards and the presidents asked to resign.

For instance, in 2017, Northern Illinois University (NIU) declared a $35 million funding shortfall. At the same time, former NIU President Douglas Baker was declared by state investigators to have mismanaged the public institution by sidestepping competitive bidding rules to hire consultants who were paid more than $1 million. The Hechinger Reporter noted, “Within two weeks of that report’s release, Baker resigned — and, in a closed-door meeting of the university’s board of trustees, was given $587,500 in severance pay, plus up to $30,000 to cover his legal fees. He’s also due a previously unreported $83,287 for unused vacation time, the university acknowledged. That’s a total of $700,787.”

Rahmat Shoureshi served as the president of Portland State University for only 21 months after he came under fire for “his treatment of employees and several ethically dubious deals following a 2019 investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive.” In 2019, The Oregonian’s headline read, “Shoureshi exits Portland State with $855,985 golden parachute; two years of health insurance, even his legal fees.” And then there is Jerry Falwell Jr. who left Liberty University with a $10.5 million dollar golden parachute after years of scandal.

Of course, the term “golden parachute” did not originate in the higher education sector but in corporations, as a response to hostile takeovers, mergers and acquisitions in the late 1970s. As higher ed has become increasingly corporatized, the concept of the golden parachute has been coopted by university boards that are comprised of wealthy donors, CEO’s and transplants from corporations. These board members have little to no knowledge either about shared governance or the internal workings of the university. These days, and particularly in the era of the #MeToo movement, such golden parachutes are not given due to any hostile takeovers, but to cover up scandals and other financial wrongdoings by university presidents. On February 17, 2022, Chancellor Joseph I. Castro notified the board of trustees of the California State University of his resignation as chancellor over his mishandling of sexual harassment complaints. He too will receive a $401,364 salary for one year and then return to teaching, according to the settlement agreement.

Under the corporate university the wage gap between those that belong to the top 1 percent and their compensation packages (even after they are no longer affiliated with a university) and those who are seen as “the employees” have grown wider and wider. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reported the rapid erosion of tenure and shared governance for university professors, and the number of adjunct instructors living below the national line of poverty is at an all-time high.

Adding to the day-to-day realities of the corporate university is the ongoing attack on labor in higher education. Academic tenure, according to the AAUP, is an indefinite appointment which safeguards academic freedom for scholars in higher education and “allows faculty to pursue research and innovation and draw evidence-based conclusions free from corporate or political pressure.” This feature of academia is one of the targets of the U.S.’s right wing and is consequently being eroded. For the corporate university, tenure is an expensive system. And with right-wing forces declaring that “professors are the enemy,” as J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, put it, tenure is under serious threat. According to the AAUP, a recent attack on tenure in South Carolina via the introduction of the South Carolina’s House Bill 4522, the “Canceling Professor Tenure Act,” seeks to “end tenure in the state’s public colleges and universities by prohibiting the awarding of tenure to employees hired in 2023 or later. If passed, this would be the first law of its kind in the nation.”

Of course, such attacks on tenure are part of a broader pattern of actions in states with Republican-led legislatures. For example, the University of Florida is trying to forbid its faculty from testifying in court cases against the state government. It is also blocking faculty attempts to include racial equity content in curricula under the guise of combating “critical race theory,” the latest bogeyman concocted by the right to chip away at academic freedom and push a conservative agenda in K-12 educational systems nationwide.

Dangers of the Corporate University

What are the negative effects of the restructuring of colleges and universities into corporate entities with top-down management models? One downside is the increasing adjunctification (defined as temporary and part-time workers with low pay, little to no benefits and any job security) of academia. In “There Is No Excuse for How Universities Treat Adjuncts,” Caroline Fredrickson noted, “thirty-one percent of part-time faculty are living near or below the federal poverty line.” Increased adjunctification, coupled with attacks on tenure and academic freedom, have only one major goal — accumulating more power and financial capital for the 1 percent of administrators, while depleting the resources, working conditions (as poor working conditions during the pandemic have highlighted) and livelihood of the 99 percent.

Another downside of the proliferation of corporate university models in higher education is an emphasis on producing STEM majors and less of an emphasis on encouraging majors in the humanities and social sciences. While more scientists, technological advancements, engineers, and mathematicians are certainly needed, what the humanities (fields such as art history, Africana studies, English, foreign languages, religious studies and history) and social sciences (anthropology, sociology and political science) bring to the table are deemphasized in a corporate-influenced educational setting as reflected in cost-cutting measures which tend to sacrifice humanities-related majors. The humanities and social sciences teach students empathy, humility, analytical techniques and critical thinking skills: humanistic qualities that are lacking in current public discourse and in various sectors within American society. Once they graduate, some college students will become leaders at local, state, national and international levels, and while the skills associated with the STEM fields are vitally needed, so are the qualities from the humanities which help people become better citizens and can promote human flourishing.

Other problematic features of corporate universities include increasing managerial costs and outsourcing as a model of governance, from deploying hiring firms used to hire presidents who are disconnected from faculty to the use of strategic plans created by outside organizations instead of created and driven by faculty, to the use of outside firms to manage enrollments instead of employing institutional staff.

Challenging the Corporate University

Challenging the corporate university will require a number of actions: Tenured and tenure-track faculty must join in solidarity with the exploited workers at these institutions (adjuncts, administrative and custodial staff, undergraduate and graduate workers). Solidarity includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Participation in one’s union,
  • Encouraging university workers to join organizations like United Campus Workers which organizes faculty, staff and student workers all across the South,
  • Resist some of these changes through a withdrawal of one’s labor. Case in point: Faculty at the University of Chicago were able to create a department of Race, Diaspora and Indigeneity partly through the threat to participate in committee work.

People inside and outside of academia must raise awareness about the ongoing changes in higher education and continue to pose questions that can lead us to viable solutions to the restructured corporate university. These questions include: What are the challenges, realities, symptoms and failures of corporatized colleges and universities? Who is impacted and how? What should the role of higher education be in forging a democratic society? And how can we move forward toward a more equitable and liberatory era in higher education?

These and other related ideas will be discussed more in the new Truthout series “Challenging the Corporate University.” We seek timely and well-written essays, op-eds, articles and interviews to expose and explore the various precarious labor and working conditions that the corporate university has produced. We are also interested in pieces which discuss creative ways to challenge corporatized higher education. The essays should be written for a broad audience and minimize the use of jargonized language, and the length of the essays should not be longer than 2,000 words. Please embed hyperlinks to sources seamlessly into the article text instead of including a works cited page. To submit a piece, please send an email with the subject line “Re: The Corporate University” simultaneously to [email protected] and [email protected].