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The Journal of Higher Education 75.3 (2004) 368-370

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The McDonaldization of Higher Education edited by Dennis Hayes and Robin Wynyard. Westport, CT, and London: Bergin and Garvey, 2002. 232 pp. Cloth $64.95. ISBN 0-89789-856-7.

Not since C. Wright Mills wrote the Power Elite has a sociological theory captured the popular imagination as has George Ritzer's McDonaldization thesis. While I find Ritzer's approach more salty and less nourishing than a Big Mac, clearly I am in a minority. The fourteen contributors to this thought provoking anthology have gone a long way toward enriching the theory of McDonaldization and providing empirical grounding for the analysis of developments in higher education. As the editors noted in their introduction, Ritzer's entire theoretical antecedent consists of Max Weber's nineteenth century concept of rationalization. Like Weber, Ritzer sees the spread of rational organization into all areas of social life as inevitable and basically beneficial. But also like Weber he is concerned that the application of rationality to social organizations increasingly disenchants the world and leads to an "iron cage" of bureaucracy and standardization. As the authors in this anthology attest, nowhere is this worry more salient than in the halls of academe.

"McDonaldization" was summarized conceptually by Ritzer (1996) as "efficiency," "calculability," "predictability," and "control." The fast-food industry serves as the modern model including: a decentralized franchised structure of ownership; global markets; rational scientific processes of production and management; emphasis on "means of consumption" of standardized products that allows one to "have it your way"; low-wage jobs with no degrees of freedom to depart from a taylorized script; the shift of some productive labor to the consumer (picking up your order, bussing your table); and consumption offered as spectacle and recreation. That is a lot of baggage hanging on a single term; and, as the readings in this anthology reveal, McDonaldization in the university functions less as an analytical concept than as a "free floating signifier" revealing deep seated uncertainties in the professorate. Like Ritzer, half of the contributors to this volume are sociologists (full disclosure: I am also one.) With a couple of exceptions, all the authors are currently professors or administrators in academia, most teach in Britain and draw their examples from British universities. This does not, however, lessen the importance of the book for American readers who may be surprised that processes of McDonaldization have penetrated further in the United Kingdom than in the U.S. The McDonaldization of Higher Education raises a number of issues that I will summarize in four categories: Labor, Government Involvement, Curriculum, and Technology.

Professors are clearly anxious about changing labor relationships. Where not so long ago professors "owned" the tools of scholarship, controlled the labor process, and certified the quality of our product, the process of McDonaldization has torn this relation asunder. Rapidly increasing student faculty ratios, mass classes, and the use of low-wage teaching assistants and adjunct faculty have changed the job of professor (pp. 64 ff.). Faculty are pressured to recruit and retain students seen as "customers" (p. 67) and to compete with private for-profit [End Page 368] universities (pp. 71-72). With declining government aid for higher education, students increasingly see education as a form of consumption and demand control, choice, and "edutainment" (p. 64 and elsewhere). This is seen most obviously in "course evaluations" which some of the authors refer to as "customer satisfaction surveys" (pp. 36, 132, 147). Student opinions have become part of the tenure and promotion procedure on both sides of the Atlantic. At the same time, faculty are relentlessly pushed to publish, engage in funded research, and develop new technological competencies. Control over product is threatened as universities make demands on ownership of intellectual property including patents and licenses, publications and courseware (pp. 79-81). From the perspective of faculty, McDonaldization represents a dramatic loss of pedagogical authority.

Simultaneously, the state, which still pays for much of the cost of education as a "public good," is increasing demands for accountability and standards. This takes the form...


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