- Corporate Humanities and the Imperial University:The Economy of Debt in the Culture of Higher Education
The corporatizing of public life is a fundamental historical force that is redesigning what it means to live in the world together. Such corporatization is for the most part promoted to citizens as working for their benefit, giving them more access, more agency, and more democracy as entrepreneurs or as consumers with individual tastes and styles. However, as public institutions are increasingly conceptualized on a business model, with managerialism and administration penetrating more deeply into work duties and the production of ideas, measuring, quantifying, and financializing the interface of institutional legitimation with everyday needs, citizens are losing. For one, as we read increasingly in the news media, the withdrawal of state and federal support for students [End Page 337] has led to a burgeoning of student debt, and the burgeoning of student debt has an effect on students’ decisions about courses of study. The debt burden reimagines education as an individual responsibility for individual benefit—like an investment—rather than as a social project. Desperate and fearful students flock to vocational fields that seem to promise steady jobs even as jobs in such fields—in all fields—are unavailable, unstable, and under-compensated.
As departments are forced to evaluate and defend themselves on metrics-targets that link numbers of students to numbers of dollars or numbers of incoming dollars to faculty lines, teaching, class size, and course content are driven to justify themselves through the bottom line. Traditional disciplines in the humanities and social sciences are transforming their curricula to conform to a vocational imperative. English departments have morphed into writing departments, training corporate labor for free, while corporations vie to pay lower taxes rather than support the institutions that will prepare the next generation of their workers. Strapped for cash and losing state funding sources, universities send students out to do mostly monotonous clerical work for purchased credits rather than salaries, as degrees require students to intern. The result is fewer faculty hired to oversee fewer classroom hours, while putting upward pressure on unemployment and downward pressure on learning. The purchasing of technologized classrooms justifies the further replacement of faculty who have specialized, historical, and laboriously acquired knowledge with technicians, underpaid graduate students, and contingent, flexible teaching personnel, and the academic stalwarts that have undergirded cultural and scientific development and achievement—tenure, faculty governance, and academic freedom—are being thoroughly redefined and undermined under the control of politicians, business leaders, and financiers without scholarly input and without study.
The pressure to corporatize curricula often involves trading in historical depth—the hallmark of traditional disciplines and humanities education—for cheap tactics that either lure in student credit hours (like teaching literature and philosophy as seen on TV) or depend on alternative, often corporate funding streams like private investors to support introductory economics classes on Ayn Rand. In fact, cuts in state funding and the desperate search for alternative sources of support are two trends forcing universities to relinquish commitment to independent research, autonomous decision-making, scholarly consideration, and committee deliberation in favor of selling sponsored lines, as when the Koch Brothers endow named faculty chairs with strings attached. Following on a decade and a half of universities policing academic speech in line with the [End Page 338] so-called War on Terror (names like Ward Churchill and Joseph Massad come to mind), the recent decision by the University of Illinois to reverse a faculty decision to hire Native Americanist scholar Steven Salaita is a case in point: it seems that Chancellor Phyllis Wise and her board of trustees were responding to pressure from large private funders who disapproved of Salaita’s “uncivil” protests on Twitter against the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip. The need to compete for private funding allows corporations to influence academic agendas and hiring, where keeping rich...