Postcards from the Neo-Liberal University

not4sale From time to time I write about the commercialization of higher education. Some of my writings are even based on actual research, using interviews with administrators and faculty at various universities. Yet, I have to confess that my own administrative involvements –two long stints as chair of large departments– have provided me with insights that no interview could provide, sensitizing me to the commercial pressures affecting virtually everything about higher education these days.

A case in point: the emergence of revenue generating Master’s programs. This is of course a global phenomenon –one in which European universities  are actually ahead of their US counterparts. American universities are catching up rapidly, though, largely due to declining levels of state support for higher education and to demographic shifts that have reduced the supply of naïve 18-year olds with access to federal loans. Another factor (which sorely needs attention) is the spread of new budget systems such as “resource centered management” which require each academic division to generate its own revenue, rather than relying on the largesse of the central administration. The results of these pressures have compelled many universities to fetishize enrollments to an unprecedented degree. Thus one exasperated colleague of mine, appalled by the revenue-driven nature of curricular design these days, remarked that she had begun to feel “we’re not trying to educate students so much as capture them.” It seems that we’ve moved beyond seeing students as mere “customers,” and now view them as virtual ATMs.

In this context, it cannot be surprising that American universities have been especially bullish about the development of on-line programs, which can generate high levels of revenue with far lower overhead than programs requiring a brick and mortar home. Fittingly, one administrator of on-line teaching at Columbia was quoted as acknowledging that his university “planned to do for learning what Amazon has done for books.” That was back in 1999. Since then, this man’s views have been widely embraced by many universities far removed from the Ivy League.

What all this means is that institutions must take particular care in their framing of commercially-driven practices. Here we see one of the central tensions at work in higher education today: How to seem sufficiently erudite and learned to oversee the certification of cultural capital –this is, after all, the latent function of higher education— yet without seeming to resort to the actual economic transactions in which administrators are engaged. After all, if you want to engage students (and faculty) in revenue generating programs, you can’t very well use language borrowed from WalMart. You need discourse that has been sanitized. Hence the need for particular skill in the development of euphemisms, framing the cash nexus in ways that seem either downright enlightening or, at a minimum, benign.

Consider three examples I’ve come across recently. To ensure that Master’s degrees can find a ready customer base, administrations cannot engage in “sales.” Rather, they perform “enrollment coaching,” performing a role that would be familiar to the insurance salesmen in Robin Leidner’s classic book. [Note: Google “enrollment coaching” and you get more than 5 million hits.] Likewise, although full time faculty are often tapped to design on-line courses, they themselves need not be engaged in actual curriculum delivery (an awkward term, as if learning could be delivered by drone). Far better to recruit part-timers, often from remote locations, applying a function that academic administrators have dubbed “faculty sourcing.” And to ensure that on-line courses lend themselves to this practice, the marching orders given to course designers mandate that their new course offerings be sufficiently “faculty neutral” –that is, emptied of any particular scholar’s point of view.

This is but the tip of the discursive iceberg one encounters these days in so much of higher education. Thinly veiled “business-speak” is beginning to crowd out the language of learning, of discovery, and of critical inquiry, and the latter traits are increasingly irrelevant to the actual operations of many universities. It is, indeed, one of the crueler facts of our time that neo-liberal practices –now so widely discredited—have found an especially warm reception within the innermost recesses of the academy. One can hypothesize that the greater the status gains of an university, the higher the proportion of its workforce engaged in “enrollment management” (an emerging specialty). Likewise, the greater the ambitions of an institution, the greater the likelihood that its administrators have been recruited from a distinct occupational labor market, far removed from any faculty ranks.

It is a tricky business, drawing attention to such trends yet resisting the temptation to romanticize the past. But the question must be asked: How far can the commercialization of the university go without stripping academic institutions of the very fig leaves they need to legitimize their function?  Is the position of the academic community today better represented by the University of Virginia (which rejected its Board’s heavy handed practices)? Or by the case of NYU (in which faculty votes of no confidence have had no measurable effect on academic policy)? Will students begin to resent being treated as customers or even ATMs? Or has the culture of economic uncertainty led students (so saddled with debt) to view such concerns as luxuries they can no longer afford? Perhaps J.R. Ewing of Dallas, a soothsayer of our times, captured it best: “Once you give up your integrity, the rest is a piece of cake” –cake, one might add, that’s been baked with powdered eggs in lieu of the real thing.

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