Turning colleges into corporations

November 30, 2011

Bill Mullen describes the corporatization of higher education--and why the Occupy movement can be the key to challenging it.

THE BRUTAL attacks on students by campus police at the University of California (UC) Berkeley and UC-Davis and the recent cover-up of serial rape and abuse at Penn State University disclose what the great socialist poet and painter William Blake might call the "fearful symmetry" of the modern-day corporate university.

The events simultaneously displayed the class character of higher education in which the gap between haves and have-nots, powerful and powerless, grows ever wider. Like the Occupy movement, the two instances also reveal the ways in which the long period of neoliberalism in higher education has produced a growing social catastrophe as well as a generation to fight back against it.

The UC system has increased tuition and fees more than 100 percent over the past five years while slashing financial aid to students. These attacks have been borne mainly by working-class and minority students. Last week, the UC Board of Regents was blocked from holding a meeting by Occupy protesters where they were expected to raise tuition by another 9 percent next year.

These cuts have been echoed at universities across the country: students at City University of New York (CUNY) last week stormed the administration office at Baruch College to protest similar tuition and fee hikes. Like the University of California, CUNY is a public campus with a history of open access. CUNY was created as a "free" university in the early 20th century and originally called itself the "Harvard of the poor." Now CUNY's doors are slowly closing.

The Penn State football program that employed accused child abuser Jerry Sandusky for 30 years generated $72 million in revenue and $52 million in profit in the 2010-2011 season, according to CNN/Money magazine.

While few university administrators will admit it, football and NCAA sports are one of the only areas in which economic growth has taken place in higher education in the last 30 years. This is evident in the expansion of team and conference television contracts; the contagion of college football bowl games that generate huge revenues for schools; and the sudden "fleeing" of colleges from one sports conference to another in order to improve their financial position.

Sports is also one of the prime means by which alumni and donor contributions flow to the university. Indeed, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno's name was all over the Penn State campus; it even endowed a chair in the English Department. All of these factors likely were at play in the university's apparent decision not to rat out serial child abuser Jerry Sandusky.

The naked economic calculus of Penn State's charade is perhaps best symbolized by the Penn State janitor who is reported to have seen Sandusky giving oral sex to a boy on campus, and didn't report it for fear of losing his job. The terrific power and wealth Sandusky used to attract his victims also acted to silence workers witness to his crimes and keep the money pumps of Penn State football flowing.

CUMULATIVELY, THE events at UC and Penn State are a predictable chapter in the era of neoliberal higher education in the U.S.

Since the 1970s, deeper and deeper state funding cutbacks to universities, more reliance on privatization, increasing use of part-time and adjunct labor, and simultaneous increases in tuition and fees alongside reduced financial aid have made the university a transparent site of class struggle.

The struggle has manifested in longstanding efforts by graduate students to unionize, beginning in the 1980s; the formation of campus organizations dedicated to combating sweatshop manufacture of university apparel; and the increasing "proletarianization" of a student body that finds it essential to gain a college degree in an era of diminishing job prospects.

Indeed, the so-called "Ivory Tower" has never looked more like "the street" than it does now. Students are drowning in debt while campuses increasingly rely on private contractors to deliver basic services like food and textbooks. Minority student enrollments have been hit hard by fiscal cutbacks and attacks on affirmative action while the unemployment rate for African Americans and Latinos outpaces that of non-minority workers.

Universities like New York University--which not more than 10 years ago attempted to intimidate graduate students endeavoring to unionize--open joint-venture campuses in teeming centers of globalization like Shanghai and Dubai. Across the U.S., campuses have militarized their police and security apparatuses while signing on to massive federally funded "research" projects in global security and cyber-terrorism.

Nation.com sportswriter Dave Zirin has even pointed out that the recently fired Penn State President Graham Spanier and the current UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi were both participants in a collaborative program between university presidents and the FBI to help discuss ways of improving relationships between them--a chilling but not shocking fact to those who currently work in the academy.

As socialists, it should come as no surprise that these contradictions in the university system have come to the fore just as they are coming to the fore elsewhere. And just as on city streets, the fightback against the corporate university should be relentless.

The movement should seek to dismantle higher education's increasingly privatized mission even as it seeks to end the Fed. It should fight for free higher education that would end the profiteering of collegiate sports currently propping up university coffers. It should demand free public education for all to abolish the logic of capital accumulation guarded by riot rent-a-cops and university presidents whose salaries---like those of all CEOs---are 20, 30 and 40 times as high as the lowest-paid university worker.

The great Brazilian educational theorist Paolo Freire once described education under capitalism as a "banking model"--knowledge is deposited like coins in the minds of students in order to train them to be the next generation of exploited workers. Today's brave Occupy students are blowing up those figurative banks while generating their own knowledge, their own power.

Their collective capacity and action is their strength. Winning their campaign to unmask the corporate university is essential to the real and ideological advance of our revolutionary times.

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