The Corporate University


Over the entrance to the library at the University of Colorado, where I was a student in the 1960s, is the inscription, “Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.” It seems a fitting motto for a library.

The University of Alberta, where I worked as a librarian for forty years, also has a motto—Quaecumque  vera, which means “Whatsoever things are true.” Notwithstanding postmodernist doubts about objective truth, this is a pretty good motto for a university. For one thing, it’s in Latin, which was the lingua franca of scholars in medieval Europe where the idea of the university was born, and for another it’s from the Bible, a book that helped shape western civilization. Expanding one’s knowledge beyond one’s own generation and searching for the truth, however defined (or deconstructed) are what libraries and universities have been about for the last 700 years.

While universities have mottos, businesses and political parties have slogans. In the 1990s, I found it disconcerting when the University of Alberta took up a slogan.

Quaecumque vera was still there rather unobtrusively under the university crest on official letterhead, but increasingly one also saw, in much bolder type, the phrase “It Makes Sense.” Actually the phrase was a shorter version of “Research makes sense,” a slogan some university administrator came up with to appeal to a cost-cutting, bottom-line provincial government.  At the time, some suggested that “sense” was really a code for “cents” as in “dollars and cents.” Research makes sense because it brings in money.

A motto is defined as a word, phrase, or sentence inscribed on something as indicative of its character or use. A slogan, on the other hand, is a brief attention-getting word or phrase used in advertising and promotion. A motto is a reminder of first principles; a slogan is a sales pitch.

This adoption of a slogan by the University of Alberta was symptomatic of a trend that had been going on for some time and has greatly accelerated today—the adoption by American and Canadian universities of the corporate business model. The business model has changed the character of universities. One feature of the corporate business model has been the increased use of untenured faculty and graduate students. Noam Chomsky puts it nicely:

“That’s part of the business model. It’s the same as hiring temps in industry or what they call “associates” at Walmart, employees that aren’t owed benefits. It’s a part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility. When universities become corporatized, as has been happening quite systematically over the last generation as part of the general neoliberal assault on the population, their business model means that what matters is the bottom line.”

Another feature of the corporate university has been the astronomical increase in the number of administrators. University administrators are highly paid bureaucrats who function like corporate managers in the private sector, but without the same pressures to actually produce anything.  In an article entitled “Administrators Ate My Tuition,” Benjamin Ginsburg has noted the following business-like behaviour of university administrators:

“Another ubiquitous make-work exercise is the formation of a “strategic plan.” Until recent years, colleges engaged in little formal planning. Today, however, virtually every college and university in the nation has an elaborate strategic plan. This is typically a lengthy document— some are 100 pages long or more—that purports to articulate the school’s mission, its leadership’s vision of the future, and the various steps that are needed to achieve the school’s goals. The typical plan takes six months to two years to write and requires countless hours of work from senior administrators and their staffs.”

Bernie Sanders’ call for tuition-free higher education is a serious challenge to the corporate business model of universities, and the powers that be are at pains to portray such an idea as radical and unrealistic. Of course, in most other advanced countries, university is free. The corporate business model has a vested interest in an uninformed electorate.

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