Love Your Corporation
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Love Your Corporation

Most academics you and I know are deeply suspicious about corporations and so-called corporate culture, above all when it intrudes on the university and academic life. And for good reason: we can all identify changes in procedures, in employment practices, in values, in the very language and tone that speaks from the core of our own universities that reflect the influence of for-profit management practices and its "philosophy." The labor practices of the modern university and its attitude toward intellectual property are especially pernicious, since they undermine faculty autonomy and authority over policies pertaining to teaching, to research, and to the evaluation of these activities—they undermine the very notion of expertise and trained, creative, free judgment, precisely the faculties that the university claims to cultivate in its students and one of its primary reasons for being. And yet we may also, at times, find ourselves admitting that not all of the changes we see around us are bad ones; individually considered, they are in fact often undertaken with the explicit and sincere aim of preserving the university as a distinctive kind of institution, one that is held together by ideas and values that are antithetical to much of what we associate with "corporate" life, at least in its for-profit, commercial form.

These contradictions, if I can use a somewhat grandiose term with a long history, are especially in evidence at my own university, where faculty and graduate students are represented by an active and vigilant Union and where higher level administrators (not to mention the Board of Governors) rarely have a background in the Humanities; indeed, their careers have often unfolded in professional schools rather than in the division of Arts and Sciences, the traditional core of university instruction and research (not to mention admission and tuition). Nevertheless, on the occasions when I attend organized protests by my Union (for which I am deeply appreciative), I sometimes find myself caught up short by a chant that one hears across campuses in the United States today, a version of which is phrased as "we believe in education, we are not a corporation." In response to which I experience the flicker of an ironic, mildly peevish feeling, motivated by a distinctively pre-modern insight. For it happens that the primary word for corporation in ancient, medieval, and Renaissance law was not corpus, or corporatus or corporatio, as we might expect: it was universitas. Far from contrasting with the corporation, the university is one of the original corporations; the modern law of corporate persons can be traced directly back to the formation of the University of Paris at the beginning of the thirteenth century; indeed the modern concept of legal "personhood" was, in some accounts, invented by medieval lawyers to speak not of individuals before the law but rather of collective groups. This sense of the universitas as "corporation" has a quite different set of meanings than the ones we invoke today at our rallies and in other statements of protest or conscience.

In a recent book, I explored the premise of this idea: that the universitas might serve as the basis for a re-translation and re-valuation of the corporate concept that might establish the ground, both discursive and practical, for a reassessment of the "political" as a process of imaginative transformation, of deliberation about purposes and about competing systems of value, and as the performance of common, collective action. Situating these problems historically, as I set out to do, revealed that there have always been many types of corporation: put simply, the corporation was any enduring group formed for the pursuit of activities that were best pursued, or which could only be pursued, in a collective fashion—one sees immediately how the very essence of "political" community implies a corporate idea, and vice versa.

In light of this definition, we may see that for-profit, commercial corporations are simply the latest species of a genus that has existed for some fifteen centuries and that has included (and still includes) churches, kingdoms, towns and cities, representative political bodies (Parliament was understood to be a corporation in the sixteenth and seventeenth...