Universities are not “liberal”, they are prisoners of capitalism

Once again, we must turn to the pages of Teen Vogue to find intelligent commentary. Oh, and this is a good one: do you think universities are liberal bastions? They’re not.

Conservatives continually cite statistics suggesting that college professors lean to the left. But those who believe a university’s ideological character can be discerned by surveying the political leanings of its faculty betray a fundamental misunderstanding of how universities work. Partisan political preferences have little to do with the production of academic knowledge or the day-to-day workings of the university — including what happens in classrooms. There is no “Democrat” way to teach calculus, nor is there a “Republican” approach to teaching medieval English literature; anyone who has spent time teaching or studying in a university knows that the majority of instruction and scholarship within cannot fit into narrow partisan categories. Moreover, gauging political preferences of employees is an impoverished way of understanding the ideology of an institution. To actually do so, you must look at who runs it — and in the case of the American university, that is no longer the professoriate.

Yes, I can look to my peers and see almost entirely politically liberal folk — but it’s not a factor in what we teach, and it’s not even a topic we discuss much. I knew enough that few of us, if any, were going to vote for Trump, but otherwise I had no idea of who everyone’s preferred candidate was, and didn’t have any compelling reason to dig deeper into the details of their political interests. I work in a department full of environmentalists, and that was enough. Which party was going to work against the interests of the environment? That’s all you needed to know.

All of us also take care to not make partisanship a direct factor in our classes. We’re working with rural midwestern students, we know that setting up an antagonistic relationship with conservative students in the classroom is not a productive way to teach.

So what’s happening? Why do I feel so little connection with the interests of those who administer the university? We have become corporate entities.

But from the mid-1970s on, as the historian Larry Gerber writes, shared governance was supplanted as the dominant model of university administration as boards of trustees and their allies in the offices of provosts and deans took advantage of public funding cuts to higher education and asserted increasing control over the hiring of the professoriate. They imported business models from the for-profit corporate world that shifted the labor model for teaching and research from tenured and tenure-track faculty to part-time faculty on short-term contracts, who were paid less and excluded from the benefits of the tenure system, particularly the academic freedom that tenure secured by mandating that professors could only be fired for extraordinary circumstances.

At the same time, Gerber details, the makeup of university boards of trustees became stacked with members from corporate backgrounds who made opposition to academic labor organizing part of the contemporary university’s governance model. These boards exercise enormous power: controlling senior administrative appointments, approving faculty hiring, dictating labor policies, and, most importantly, controlling the university’s annual budget and setting tuition and fees. (Case in point: The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees recently declined to appoint Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones to a tenure-track position following conservative outcry over her work on the 1619 project, documenting the history of slavery in the U.S. As one board member told NC Policy Watch, “This is a very political thing. …There have been people writing letters and making calls, for and against. But I will leave it to you which is carrying more weight.”)

Right. Those controlling boards do not resemble in any way the makeup of the academic units they control. There is a ladder to climb in university administration, if you want, but it doesn’t actually lead to a position on the elements that actually have real financial power. Sure, you can dream of being a university president or chancellor (I don’t!), but the ultimate power rests in the hands of political appointees. If you want to get there, you need to have a career that makes you extremely rich…which isn’t an academic career.

At Harvard, the “corporation” that exercises significant sway over administrative appointments and policy includes six MBAs and only four Ph.Ds. Harvard’s “Board of Overseers,” which is charged with safeguarding “Harvard’s overarching academic mission and long-term institutional interests,” includes, among artists and doctors, senior leaders from Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, McKinsey & Company, Google, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. It’s likely that boards with a substantial number of corporate managers regard “long-term institutional interests” as including vehement opposition to unionization by graduate workers and a sluggish response to students and alumni calling for divestment of Harvard’s assets from fossil fuels. (Teen Vogue has reached out to Harvard for comment.)

My university is not unionized. It’s amazing how little interest the faculty has in joining a union.

(The article has a section at the end for these institutions to comment. You want to see examples of corporate double-speak and vapidity, check it out. My favorite bit? The University of Oklahoma defends their board of regents by saying, Each member has a proven track record on how to lead a successful business. Exactly. That’s the problem. That’s how universities get turned into businesses.)

The article has some suggestions for how to break this pattern of bad management.

What is the left to do about the corporate capture of the modern university? First and foremost, it must support and spread labor organizing across the country, building on the momentum established this spring with the strike by graduate workers at Columbia University. Second, relentlessly push the Biden administration toward canceling all student debt and supporting free public college for all. Third, assert shared governance on campus and work toward building a democratic university that secures labor protections and fair wages for all faculty, especially contingent and graduate workers. If we don’t act, the corporatization of universities will destroy American higher education.

That second point is essential. It would thoroughly demolish the poisonous idea that the purpose of the university is to make a profit for…who? I don’t know. There are probably lawyers making bank somewhere out of this mess, but it sure isn’t the faculty, or the students, or even the university administrators.

I am inclined to suspect that no one is winning, that this inefficient, wrongly-directed chaos is driven more by fanatical capitalist ideologues in state legislatures who have a deep, misguided belief that everything must be run as a for-profit business, so they shoe-horn education into a badly fitting model to the detriment of all.


  1. Allison says

    The more I see of what is going on these days, the more I think of that famous quote by Sir Edward Grey:

    “The lamps are going out all over Europe, and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

    Except that it’s not just Europe this time.

    I actually learned something about the period 1914 to 1945 in history class, and it’s not good. If the past is any guide, things will get a lot worse before they ever get better — if they ever do.

    I do not envy my children (and their contemporaries) for the future they are traveling into (or, for that matter, are already in.)

  2. hillaryrettig1 says

    100% agree. I truly see colleges as the very best aspects of our civilization, and so this is tragic.

    A friend of mine, affiliated with a leading university with a huge endowment, describes his institution as, “a hedge fund that runs a university on the side.”

  3. Allison says

    Actually, this reminded me of something:

    I’ve been getting a lot of proxys for various corporations’ annual meetings, and I notice that for most of them, at least half of the director candidates are people from banks, hedge funds, etc., and not from the line of business that the company is (supposedly!) in. Directors who (based on the blurbs in the proxy solicitations) have some experience in the industry in question are a tiny minority; in many cases, there’s only one (or none!)

    So it’s not just the universities that are being run like corporations: most larger corporations are being run like the generic hypothetical corporations that they teach about in B school. The ones where the actual industry the company is in doesn’t matter.

    I think this is why so many companies are getting into trouble. I also think it’s why you see so many mergers, acquisitions, and spin-offs: that’s all these directors know how to do.

    (Then there are all the funds who together own most of the stock in these companies: their fund managers also don’t have a clue about the industries in question, so they just play the investment game, which is essentially gussied-up day-trading. \begin{sarcasm} I mean, does it matter whether the company you just bought 100,000 shares of makes soap, or TV programs, or software, or railroads? \end{sarcasm})

  4. beholder says

    So what’s happening? Why do I feel so little connection with the interests of those who administer the university? We have become corporate entities.

    I do not claim to have detailed knowledge of the inner workings of university management in the early- or mid-20th century, but hasn’t it always been like this? Universities are playgrounds for the upper class; if anything, the notion that the masses are entitled to an education is the aberration.

    Universities are merely assuming their centuries-old function as institutions where the wealthy elite can burn through piles of cash at a ferocious rate as a way to signal their status to old money.

  5. raven says

    I do not envy my children (and their contemporaries) for the future they are traveling into (or, for that matter, are already in.)

    Quite a few people noticed this long ago.

    We are handing a broken world to our children and grandchildren.
    The most obviously broken thing is climate change. This is a giant freight train traveling 1 mph and we have done little to stop it

    More relevant to the subject at hand is the universities.
    I went to a good state university in the early 1970’s and…graduated debt free. This was not unusual. Student loans existed but not at the mega scale of these days.
    My tuition the first year was something like $600 because it was heavily subsidized by the state.
    I just looked it up for the coming year. I had guessed it was now around $8,000.
    It is $12,000.
    Something isn’t right here and that and $2.50 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
    When I went to school, the idea was that anyone who wanted a college degree and could do the academic work, should be able to get a degree.
    Obviously, the powers that be have thrown that idea out the window.

  6. raven says

    I do not envy my children (and their contemporaries) for the future they are traveling into (or, for that matter, are already in.)

    Continuing with the examples, next up is overturning Roe versus Wade.
    Scheduled most likely for a few weeks when the US Supreme court hears another case.

    That is going to wreck a huge number of young lives for years to come.
    It is forced birthing and female slavery in what once called itself a democracy.
    The Romanian dictator Ceasescu tried that and it was a huge disaster and didn’t work anyway. People, just of necessity, found ways around his laws.

  7. garnetstar says

    beholder @4, universities haven’t always been quite like this, the way that they are now. What you say about them is quite true, but the way they work to accomplish those purposes had changed, and it’s going downhill.

    The business model has ballooned the administration into a huge money-sink: now we have (well-paid) deanlets for this, that, and the other. The faculty have been diminshed in size, power, and purpose, to the point where actual education by them is almost no longer possible.

    And, the students have become customers. Nothing matters except keeping the customers happy, no matter how the university isn’t educating them, and that they’re not getting the learning that they’re ostensibly there for, and that they’ve paid a lot for. The university cares nothing about growing their minds, them learning how to think, etc. They just must be happy, even if they must be kept deluded.

    I kept saying, as recently as last semester, “Why are we bothering to spend all this time and money (I was teaching a quite-expensive lab class) on the performance of teaching a class? Why don’t we just sell the students degrees?” Because that is how the university wants it, and the obstacles that they are putting in the way of us actually teaching something. It’s a transaction, not learning.

    The entire lack of support, even strenuous opposition, from the university when, say, grades are fairly given, is so immense that my colleagues have given D’s to students who have not accomplished even one bit of work during the semester: they actually have zeros in the class. My colleagues knew that the university’s underming an F, and the amount of pressure it would bring to bear on them, would be unendurable.

    I have foolishly given F’s in the same class: on three such occasions (from male students) I got death threats. From a female student, a lawsuit. No support in these from the university: I got the loud message that I brought this on myself. I am about ready to capitulate.

  8. garnetstar says

    raven @6, you are quite right. Ed Brayton wrote that we were going to have to set up underground railroads again, to bring women to the sanctuary states where abortion remains legal. I think I’ll get involved in that, as soon as I capitulate to the university’s pressure to merely perform teaching instead of doing it.

    I had a Romanian friend who literally escaped in the night, and he told me years ago that he would leave the US the day that abortion becomes illegal. Because of the society-wide suffering and horror that the abortion ban had brought on there.

  9. NitricAcid says

    You don’t have a union? Really?

    Years ago, I interviewed for a position at a university/college, and one of the questions they asked me was if I was okay with joining the required union. To that point, I had never considered that some universities might not have faculty unions.

  10. drew says

    Liberal and corporatist are not conflicting ideas. They can coexist quite happily. See: Democratic party.

  11. Dave says

    One way to diversify boards of trustees is to insist on objectives/requirements for representation: 1) 25% from the private sector (those with business acumen can contribute, especially when it comes to overseeing endowments; the point is to limit their numbers); 2) 25% from the public sector, i.e., government service and non-academic NGOs; 3) 25% from other academic institutions; and 4) 25% from within the university, i.e., tenured & tenure-track faculty other than administrators, non-tenure/non-TT faculty, staff, grad students and recent grad alumni, and undergrads and recent undergrad alumni. Of the first three groups, no more than 50% should be alumni.

    Such a requirement would bring in outside expertise from both academia and non-academia as well as represent the interests of stakeholders in the institution.

    It would also help if US News and World Reports included trustee diversity among their ranking factors. Those college rankings may be odious, but administrations do respond to them. So, let’s make what good use of them that we can.

  12. says

    I agreed to teach American Government as an adjunct faculty member at my state’s flagship university (yes, Political Science was part of the College of Arts and Sciences that keeps getting its budget whacked by the University Administration–how many Political Scientists are listed in the job market?). About halfway through the semester I got an email from a student saying, “I hate coming to your class–all you teach is the typical, conservative take on government.” Not more than three or four days later, I got an email from another student complaining, “I am so sick of all you liberal professors (I begged my students not to refer to me that way–I was merely a lowly instructor with a simple Masters degree) teaching your liberal crap.” Now, these students sat in the same classroom and heard the same lectures. I think the problem is I got them before they had been taught to think like college students. The ensuing class discussion was enlightening.

  13. Dave says

    Oh, and while teaching medieval literature shouldn’t be partisan, unfortunately the right-wing has made it so. The “medieval” is popularly associated with white, Christian, and European, and when we try to diversify the syllabus or areas of research to include topics like race, gender, Islam, or anything non-European, there is pushback—not just from the outside, but from the old guard within the discipline as well.

  14. PaulBC says

    And young adults are prisoners of the university system. I mean you can choose your poison, but you can’t really opt out. Sure, you could train as a plumber or electrician or similar skilled trade. There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s not a popular choice among those able to get into a four year university. Other possibilities entail a lot of risk. Few people are going to start a viable business when they’re 18, and minimum wage jobs won’t even buy you independence from your parents.

    No point here except that I’m a parent of a graduating HS senior so it’s in my mind. I am sure colleges have changed, but even 35 years ago, they were a feeder system into corporate America, at least for engineering and business degrees. One thing that has changed is they’re a lot more expensive now.

  15. mnb0 says

    I’ve read somewhere that most American academics until about 1970 used to vote for the Republicans. Then their party decided to become anti-intellectual?
    Just a correlation?

  16. Numenaster, whose eyes are up here says

    Re: Roe vs Wade and comparisons to Romania:

    RU-486 didn’t exist in Ceaucescu’s Romania. It does now, and that means that any abortion ban becomes effectively impossible because smuggling pills is far simpler than smuggling pregnant people. The conservatives will still try, and they will still wreak damage on many young women’s lives, but abortion has left the realm they can control and I think the law will have to recognize that at some point.

  17. says

    Fine, so perhaps group x or profession Y has a liberal bias. But what does that really mean? It means that only liberals dedicate their life to something like education and knowledge. Just call them out on it, if they had given a crap they would have taken over by now. The right is a bunch of greedy, ignorant assholes, and they know it.

  18. raven says

    It (RU-486) does now, and that means that any abortion ban becomes effectively impossible because smuggling pills is far simpler than smuggling pregnant people.

    Sure, there will be a black market for RU-486 and the other drug, Misoprostol. In fact, there already is a black market in the USA for these drugs.

    I’m sure the forced birthers are aware of this.
    These drugs will also be criminalized and it will be major felonies to sell, possess, or use them. That is going to make it a lot harder for everyone.

    Texas abortion bill proposes death penalty for women …https://www.nbcnews.com › politics › politics-news › te…

    Apr 10, 2019 — Tony Tinderholt proposed a bill that would ban abortion in the state and charge women who have abortions with homicide, which can carry the …

    The badly misnamed pro-lifers are about as vicious as they get.
    Some state legislators have already proposed getting an abortion as a death penalty offense.
    Which makes sense if a as they claim, a zygote is a person, making an abortion murder 1.

  19. unclefrogy says

    if we go by the past it looks like the success of a country; prosperity and power and international influence, has at the base in a large part technology superiority and innovation. that requires education, good leadership also required for the same success requires wisdom which also requires education.
    The business model for education will be judged by history if it indeed produces that success. There are other countries in this world besides the U.S. The conservative has always been facing backwards trying to preserve the “good old days” which are always out of reach. The idea of running everything like a business only works in a walled garden the real world is not a walled garden. It is not a parlor game with an impartial umpire and no real consequences just harmless wining and loosing

  20. raven says

    … abortion has left the realm they can control and I think the law will have to recognize that at some point.

    That happened in 1973 with Roe versus Wade.
    I’m old enough to remember what it was like before Roe versus Wade. It was worse than most people can imagine and that is why the US Supreme court ruled the way they did. It hasn’t stopped the forced birthers yet.

    It’s even easier to evade than the black market medical abortion pills.
    The rich will fly to Europe, get an abortion, and do some shopping.
    The middle class will travel to Canada and Mexico, get an abortion, and do some shopping.
    The young and poor who are largely nonwhite, will be the ones trapped and have their lives wrecked by the fundie xians.

    Teenage pregnancy is highly correlated with and causal to life long poverty.

  21. Numenaster, whose eyes are up here says

    “Teenage pregnancy is highly correlated with and causal to life long poverty.”

    As a former pregnant teen, I am familiar with the problem. My child was adopted within the extended family and that was a huge stroke of luck for me. I’ve been a Planned Parenthood sustainer for decades in response.

    The rich have always been able to evade abortion bans, yes. But abortion pills open up a route for evading the ban CHEAPLY, at least relative to traveling out of country. Even cheaper than sending a girl to live elsewhere for 6 months. It eliminates a central point (the medical clinic) that can be threatened with regulations or mob action. Instead of one doctor in the state trained to perform abortions, there are hundreds who have prescribing ability, and that’s too many to assassinate.

    With the past abortion ban, as you say, “It was worse than most people can imagine” because the horrors that the poor had to deal with were well hidden from most of the public. But in a world where phones with cameras are everywhere, hidden horrors don’t stay hidden and the poor cannot be reliably silenced.

    I am saying that the world has changed, and the biggest change is the proportion of Americans who don’t recoil by reflex at the idea of abortion. That and the fact that the American populace has recently had a refresher in the importance of collective action in support of civil rights. That is why I do not think the old days will return. But I still donate to Planned Parenthood, because without concentrated action they could come closer than I want to see.

  22. garnetstar says

    I’ve also been a decades-long donor to Planned Parenthood. And, not even to mention the fact of easier ways to help women get abortions with pills, and cameras everywhere to record the horrors, I just don’t think that people who weren’t even alive when abortion was illegal will accept such a huge change.

    All their lives, abortion has been legal. As said, I don’t think that it can be eliminated in a moment by a wave of a corrupt judicial opinion. But, I do think it likely that they can make it up to each state to decide, and so a few states will become abortion sanctuarys. And, that many poor women will need to travel there, for complicated pregnancies and ones too far along for the pills to be safe.

    So, there will be a lot of suffering and women who can’t make it to sanctuary states and deaths from illegal abortions. Once overturned, Roe v. Wade and legal abortion nationwide will be very difficult to re-establish, even in the face of video records of the horrors.

  23. raven says

    Once overturned, Roe v. Wade and legal abortion nationwide will be very difficult to re-establish, even in the face of video records of the horrors.

    It will be difficult to reestablish Roe versus Wade but not impossible or even unlikely.

    What the US Supreme court has undone can be redone.
    Stare Decisis, the power of precedent is now dead. And when the US Supreme court overturns Roe versus Wade, they lose their legitimacy and become just another group of politicians. The Supreme court has no way to enforce their decisions and if enough people choose to ignore them, they get ignored.
    The South has been ignoring the US constitution and Supreme court rulings ever since they lost the Civil War 156 years ago. At this very moment they are still doing it with their voter suppression laws.

    The majority of the US population supports legal abortion.
    We outnumber 9 unelected judges by 331 million to…9.
    I do see Roe versus Wade being reinstated in a few decades, long after I’m dead.

  24. says

    Some things are not suitable to leave to for-profit corporations.
    Healthcare and education are two prime examples.

  25. says

    @#3, Allison:

    Here’s a fun data point for your premise: in 1983, the board of Apple kicked out CEO Steve Jobs (who, whether you liked him or not, had been a major part of the company from its founding) to install John Sculley, the former CEO of Pepsi (which is not notorious for its computer technology), as his replacement. Practically the first decision Sculley made as CEO was to position the Macintosh — which was already largely complete — as a “premium” brand and to raise its price by $500 beyond what Jobs had intended, putting it well out of the price range of existing home computers. That almost killed the Mac, the high price which was used to position it as “premium” was cited for decades as the most common reason not to buy one. (And for some reason, even though this decision was explicitly not made by Jobs, he got the blame for it in the popular mind.)

    @#10, drew:

    That’s how you know “liberal” is not actually a word for something good any more. (Was it ever, really? Phil Ochs found them… loveable… all the way back in 1966.)

    @#14, PaulBC:

    That’s an extraordinarily outdated, even outright wrong, view of how the job market is these days. Yes, there are very high-paying jobs which require a college degree. They are now outliers, and tend to have more to do with nepotism and “networking” than with actual education. A trained plumber or electrician can walk into a quite tidy paycheck in most of the country. (Of course, the plumber probably won’t get to spend all day sitting around playing with their phone, and actually has to do something useful now and again. But if you’re an ordinary, unconnected kid looking for a good paycheck and job security? Industrial training, not a college degree. Paper-shufflers who can use Excel are a dime a dozen; a welder who can also legally drive a forklift can pick and choose, and has a good chance of having a union to boot.)

    @#19, unclefrogy:

    Don’t kid yourself. The economic success of the US for most of its history has been based firmly on the exploitation of non-renewable resources and on uncompensated labor (slavery and/or wage slavery). We can’t possibly maintain the former — by definition — and the latter is getting more and more difficult. Education or the lack of it isn’t going to make much difference; even maintaining a permanent underclass — which is what all the resistance to raising the minimum wage or instituting single-payer is about — can’t keep the country as rich as it has been, now that we’re running out of things to destroy for profit. We’re going to end up like England, most likely: a lot of extremely stupid poor people conned, by a lot of fake, theatrical issues to maintain the illusion of political opposition, into supporting a much smaller number of vicious, not-necessarily-very-smart, rich people who spend their time backstabbing each other over control of an ever-diminishing pile of resources, because the country threw away its future time and time again in the name of empire and now there’s nothing left unless they want to admit they were wrong all along.

  26. John Morales says

    Singular Vicar:

    Education or the lack of it isn’t going to make much difference

    Such wisdom!

  27. birgerjohansson says

    I assume you mean higher education will not provide economic security anymore, not when the whole country goes into the crapper?