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“Neoliberalism and the Academic-Industrial Complex“

A recently published New York Times article entitled "The Academic-Industrial Complex" (July 31

A recently published New York Times article entitled “The Academic-Industrial Complex” (July 31, 2010) outlines the growing trend of university presidents and other senior university officials serving on corporate boards. As author Graham Bowley states:

According to a 2008 survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education, presidents from 19 of the top 40 research universities with the largest operating budgets sat on at least one company board. The trend is more widespread among public universities, but the private ones are catching up: the American Council on Education says that from 2001 to 2006, the proportion of presidents from all doctorate-granting institutions sitting on corporate boards rose to 52.1 percent from 47.8 percent at public institutions and to 50.9 percent from 40.6 percent at private ones.[1]

The article brings attention to this growing academic-corporate connection and, on occasion, addresses some important concerns. For example, can university presidents properly fulfill their duties while serving on multiple corporate boards? Are there any conflicts of interests between academic and corporate obligations? And, perhaps most importantly, are students and faculty likely to censor their corporate critiques (of sweatshop labor or financial scandals, for instance) if their president serves the targeted corporation?

Despite these important issues, the article never comments on the greatest ill of all: Rather than providing space for intellectual thought and worldly experience, the academy has become an adjunct to corporate profit. The average college campus is ground zero for licensing agreements; construction contracts; outsourcing of bookstores, venders, concessions and food, laundry, traveling and printing services; corporate sponsoring of buildings, events, speakers and campus programs; patenting of intellectual property rights; and corporate funding, ownership and direct influencing of research. Such corporatization transforms students into customers, teachers into workers, administrators into CEOs and campuses into market populations. It’s no wonder, then, that university presidents are serving on corporate boards – it’s now common practice within academic-corporate culture.

This phenomenon does not necessarily mean that the world’s most powerful CEOs have secretly conspired to create corporatized academies. But intentions do not negate effects. Ignorance of the law does not preclude judicial discipline of criminal behavior. If this is true, then why should we not judge and, if need be, condemn the ills of the corporate academy?

Corporatizing higher education is socially unjust and morally unethical. It is unjust because it serves the rich and powerful rather than the poor, plain, average, working class, middle class, unfortunate and/or marginalized. It is morally unethical because it targets and essentially manipulates unsuspecting students and faculty. Our campuses are supposed to be places of dialog, inquiry and reflection. Instead, they are becoming supplements to wealth and power.

Neoliberalism plays a major role in corporatizing higher education. Neoliberalism, understood as “neo laissez faire economics,” is a form of global capitalism based on the deregulation of free markets and the privatization of wealth. It subordinates government control to the interests of private profit. The government – rather than regulating the market to assure a level playing field – becomes an extension of market activity, the servant of the industries to which it is captive. Neoliberalism provides tax breaks for the rich, reduces spending on social programs and welfare, expands corporate control and eradicates labor rights, environmental protections, drug and food regulations and even national law. The basic purpose is to allow private interests to own and control every aspect of the human, social and natural world. Things like food, water, farmland, forests, health care, prisons, militaries, political processes, mass media and, of course, education, are targets of neoliberal control. Even individual thoughts, plant seeds, mothers’ breast milk and human DNA are intended to be owned, controlled, bought and sold by free-market capitalists.

While most colleges are still nonprofit institutions, their primary function is to serve the neoliberal enterprise. This happens in at least three ways – by targeting student-consumers, channeling students into corporate careers and contributing to rather than reducing social stratification.

First, the New York Times’ article explains that President Shirley Ann Jackson of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has served on five corporate boards, which includes I.B.M. Due to Dr. Jackson’s quality of service, I.B.M brought a $100 million supercomputer to campus. In many ways, this is a great opportunity for students and faculty. But how does the school not become a testing ground and advertising hotbed for I.B.M.? Likewise, Phyllis M. Wise, the provost of the University of Washington, serves on the board of Nike. When asked about her unique contributions to the company, she stated, without irony, “I know a little bit how students think, what might drive their desire to look into Nike products.” Dr. Wise is basically selling her students to Nike.

Second, colleges increasingly cater to vocationally oriented programs at the expense of liberal arts education. Since 1970, the number of degrees in English and literature declined by 13,000, and the number of degrees in foreign languages by 6,000. Meanwhile, degrees in business, accounting, computer science and mass communications are flourishing [2]. Higher education thus acts as job preparation rather than as a facilitator of intellectual and existential growth.

And third, higher education contributes to social stratification, thus benefiting the powerful over the less fortunate. For example, the percentage of high school graduates attending college rose from 42 percent in 1970 to 70 percent in 2009 [3]. The socioeconomic worth of a college degree also increased during this time period. In 1980, the weekly salary of college graduates was 40 percent higher than that of high school graduates. By 1997, that gap had risen to 73 percent [4]. These statistics could be interpreted as a progressive shift toward a more educated and prosperous society. But economic inequality actually increased over these years. In 1979, the top 1 percent of Americans owned 20.5 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 99 percent owned 79.5 percent [5]. By 2007, the top 1 percent increased its share to 34.6 percent, while the bottom 99 percent declined to 65.4 percent. In 1980, the pay ratio between the average American CEO and average American worker was 40 to 1. As of 2007, the ratio was 364 to 1 [6]. These additional statistics demonstrate that higher education helps the individual move upward at the expense of other individuals – i.e., academia contributes to both upward mobility and wider social stratification. The smarter we get, the more unequal we become. Such private rather than collective gain is part and parcel of the neoliberal enterprise.

Contrary to what one might think, these issues are not simply problems of the academy. According to educational theorist Henry Giroux, neoliberalism transcends the boundaries of an economic system and acts as a public pedagogy that teaches all members of society how to think, act, believe and live. “Neoliberalism not only transformed economic agendas throughout the overdeveloped world; it also transformed politics, restructured social relations and produced an array of reality narratives (not unlike reality TV) and disciplinary measures that normalized its perverted view of citizenship, the state and the supremacy of market relations” [7]. If this is true, then everyone has a stake in revealing and resisting the academic-industrial complex. Students are not consumers, campuses are not market populations and education is not for sale. We are fallible yet resilient social creatures in the constant pursuit of higher knowledge and more ethical ways of being in the world. Such an approach to human experience must replace neoliberalism’s own-and-compete mentality as the basis of academic operations. Then, and only then, will higher education serve people rather than profits.


1. Grahm Bowley, “The Academic-Industrial Complex,” New York Times, (July 31, 2010).

2. National Education Association, “Higher Education Privatization,” NEA Higher Education Research Center. 10.2 (March, 2004): 1-6.

3. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “College Enrollment and Work Activity of 2009 High School Graduates,” (April 27, 2010).

4. Author Levine. “The Remaking of the American University.” Innovative Higher Education 25.4 (Summer, 2001): 253-267.

5. G. William Domhoff, “Wealth, Income and Power,” (September 2005, updated July 2010).

6. Sarah Anderson, et al. “Executive Excess 2007: Staggering Social Cost of U.S. Business Leadership.” Joint study by The Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy, 2007.

7. Henry Giroux, “Politics After Hope: Obama and the Crisis of Youth, Race and Democracy,” (Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers, 2010).

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