Campus Free Speech

Is College Becoming Too Corporate, or Too Government-Managed?

A response to Fredrik de Boer.

|

College
Dreamstime

The modern college campus is overrun with bureaucrats who—at the behest of a distinct minority of activist students—are engaged in the practice of policing the limits of acceptable behavior. And as a result, with everyone walking on eggshells all the time, higher education has become more rigid, more controlled, and more boring. It has also become more corporate, argues Fredrik de Boer in a recent feature for New York Magazine.

De Boer raises several important points about the extent of the problem, best summarized in this paragraph:

No, I'm talking about the way universities operate, every day, more and more like corporations. As Benjamin Ginsberg details in his 2011 book, "The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters," a constantly expanding layer of university administrative jobs now exists at an increasing remove from the actual academic enterprise. It's not unheard-of for colleges now to employ more senior administrators than professors. There are, of course, essential functions that many university administrators perform, but such an imbalance is absurd — try imagining a high school with more vice principals than teachers. This legion of bureaucrats enables a world of pitiless surveillance; no segment of campus life, no matter how small, does not have some administrator who worries about it. Piece by piece, every corner of the average campus is being slowly made congruent with a single, totalizing vision. The rise of endless brushed-metal-and-glass buildings at Purdue represents the aesthetic dimension of this ideology. Bent into place by a small army of apparatchiks, the contemporary American college is slowly becoming as meticulously art-directed and branded as a J. Crew catalog. Like Niketown or Disneyworld, your average college campus now leaves the distinct impression of a one-party state.

De Boer doesn't think students themselves are mostly to blame for the situation. "When your environment so deeply resembles a Fortune 500 company, it makes sense to take every complaint straight to H.R," he writes. This, too, I agree with. While it is certainly the case that some students abuse the administrative services offered to them by filing an endless barrage of complaints, most students don't actually want to trample each other's rights.

I'm also sympathetic to the appeal he makes to student activists. De Boer is a principled leftist who understands that the structures of institutional power exist to torment the oppressed, not save them:

I wish that committed student activists would recognize that the administrators who run their universities, no matter how convenient a recipient of their appeals, are not their friends. I want these bright, passionate students to remember that the best legacy of student activism lies in shaking up administrators, not in making appeals to them. At its worst, this tendency results in something like collusion between activists and administrators.

Again, I think de Boer's argument is well-supported and quite persuasive (as his commentary tends to be).

But I couldn't help but wonder whether he is correctly diagnosing the disease. De Boer thinks universities are becoming too much like corporations: risk averse, protective, and bloated. But are these symptoms of corporatization, or what might better be described as government-ization?

Consider the factors that led us to this point. Massive federal subsidization of student loans has made it easier for greater and greater numbers of students to pay the upfront cost of higher education while simultaneously encouraging universities to raise prices, secure in the knowledge that taxpayers cover any losses they might incur. Government policy is supplying universities with an inexhaustible stream of high-paying customers. This is federally-driven crony-capitalism, not some random stroke of competitive genius on the part of universities.

At the same time, greater regulation of higher education has given universities something to do with all their dollars: hire more administrators to comply with the ever-increasing burden imposed on campuses by the Education Department. Merely meeting the Office for Civil Rights' Title IX requirements entails hiring an army of lawyers, counsellors, residential advisors, and mediators to settle sex disputes and investigate (sometimes dubious) harassment claims.

De Boer identifies these things with corporations, but I'm not sure that's the best analogy:

Rather than painting student activists as censors — trying to dictate who has the right to say what and when — we should instead see them as trapped in a corporate architecture of managing offense. Have you ever been to corporate sexual harassment training? If you have, you may have been struck by how little such events have to do with preventing sexual harassment as a matter of moral necessity and how much they have to do with protecting whatever institution is mandating it. Of course, sexual harassment is a real and vexing problem, not merely on campus but in all kinds of organizations, and the urge to oppose it through policy is a noble one. But corporate entities serve corporate interests, not those of the individuals within them, and so these efforts are often designed to spare the institutions from legal liability rather than protect the individuals who would be harmed by sexual harassment. Indeed, this is the very lifeblood of corporatism: creating systems and procedures that sacrifice the needs of humans to the needs of institutions.

But corporate efforts to limit sexual harassment liability are themselves outcomes of government regulations set forth by federal agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Compliance in these matters is a symptom of government intervention into corporate affairs. It makes little sense to blame corporations for structural changes the government forced on them.

De Boer is right, of course, that universities are ostensibly becoming more service-oriented and customer-focused: universities increasingly want to give their customers (students) exactly what they want, even if what they want is intellectual coddling. But the most direct culprit appears to be the federal government's incessant tinkering with how universities are funded and run, not the allure of corporate culture.

Advertisement

NEXT: Broken Windshield Malice, See?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Has Freddy ever worked for a “Corporation”?

  2. The private sector isn’t known for getting away with useless staffing, as we’re seeing with the glut of university administrators. Bureaucrats making work for themselves is definitely as symptom of government.

    But at some point higher education consumers are going to stop paying for bloated staff (and I don’t mean through loan defaults) and that bubble bursting will be spectacular to see.

    1. We’ll go to a completely subsidized system first. No way parents are letting their precious snowflakes not go to college.

    2. “The private sector isn’t known for getting away with useless staffing”

      Find one major corporation that doesn’t actively employ top government officials.

      1. Besides, they’re not useless if they’re there for compliance.

        1. Point is, corporations are infused with government mindsets which after time rotate back into the gov pool and then back again while slamming into the same door shoveling corporate mindsets onto gov doles and rotations and circularity and the reversings and thus the melding of two powerful entities that affect the lives of all. Oh, happy day.

        2. Besides, they’re not useless if they’re there for compliance.

          Not necessarily useless. I can think of a few who were, in actuality, useless.

          The great thing about a compliance position is it gives you lots of leverage to fuck up the rest of the organization. So, its possible to be worse than useless, and I’ve seen that, too.

      2. Find one major corporation that doesn’t actively employ top government officials.

        You don’t hire Don Corleone’s boy for fun, you hire him to avoid having your business assets damaged, which would seriously impede future business.

      3. corporations hire past government officials because the promises of those jobs is the only way corporations can work in this country anymore. its a pay off, a bribe, or black mail however you want to look at it.

  3. Is College Becoming Too Corporate, or Too Government-Managed?

    Po TAY to, po TAH to, innit.

    1. Exactly. Corporations can be just as sclerotic and bloated with managers and managerialist nonsense as government offices (there’s a reason the TPS report from Office Space and Peter complaining about his multiple supervisors still resonates after 15+ years). It’s an inevitable occurrence as large institutions experience mission creep, grow increasingly complex, and attempt to meet the demands of an ever-growing and diverse customer base.

      There’s really little structural difference between a large corporation and a large government institution.

      1. Corporations can be just as sclerotic and bloated with managers and managerialist nonsense as government offices.

        They certainly can. Briefly. Then they will be consumed by their competition.

        Unless, of course they are the beneficiaries of government subsidies or government barriers to competition and market entry.

  4. Government and corporations are fused at the cerebellum and knuckles.

  5. Principled Leftist? I guess using the power of the state to enforce your vision of an ordered society at gunpoint is a set of principles, just not a moral set of principles.

    1. Correct. Maybe his vision for society is abhorrent, but at least he is consistent.

  6. What has “college” become? A freak’n joke where people get ripped off for laughable, worthless, overpriced products.

    But the sheeple, they just keep buying.

  7. In Crony Capitalism, there is no “or” between “too corporate” and “government managed.”

  8. I blame Nick Saban and the entire Southeastern Conference.

  9. Anybody who blames corporate sexual harassment training on corporations is too stupid to bother with. What a moron.

    See ya later, De Boer.

  10. These colleges are only concerned with Short Term Profits!! And rewarding their investors!!

    1. But the “consumers” for colleges aren’t the students and/or their parents – it’s the government, with its student loans and grants.

  11. the second you take money from the government you lose control to the government. So yes everything must be counted and quantified so your assumption that its the Government management that is the problem you are correct.

  12. “I wish that committed student activists would recognize that the administrators who run their universities, no matter how convenient a recipient of their appeals, are not their friends.”

    “If you have, you may have been struck by how little such events have to do with preventing sexual harassment as a matter of moral necessity and how much they have to do with protecting whatever institution is mandating it.”

    These colleges need a bureaucrat czar. I’m sure the new czar will be the students friend and care more about the student than the college that signs their paychecks. Adding more layers to the bureaucracy always works, doesn’t it?

  13. One of the bigger issues with the so-called governmentization of college campuses, at least in the state system, is that states often have mandates to offer enrollment to a minimum percentage of the state’s eligible students. This ‘solution’ was in response to the problem of bright kids from mediocre schools not getting a shot at a state school.

    Now, many state schools have to accommodate a wave of incoming freshmen that will have a very high attrition rate.

    Greatly compounding this problem is the widely accepted truism that all kids should go to college.

    1. Your know who else had a “solution”?

  14. If corporations acted like universities, they would go bankrupt within months. De Boer is an idiot for thinking that the hallmark of corporations is being administratively top heavy.

  15. It’s the worst marriage of both government and private, it is the South Sea Company education model.

  16. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ?????? http://www.online-jobs9.com

  17. I’ll believe his argument when I see a University try to undercut and/or out-serve its competition, while downsizing to get lean and competitive.

  18. Here’s something I’ve been wondering about: Why isn’t the private sector stepping in with a different kind of college, one that isn’t bogged down with Title IX bullshit and diversity departments? All of the for-profit colleges seem to be rated pretty poorly.

    Is this not the case? Are there actually good for-profit colleges, but the media only focuses on the bad ones?

    Is there some insurmountable barrier to entry that prevents entrepreneurs from competing with government colleges?

  19. I think that schools, colleges and all other educational establishments should be managed by custom officials who know better what is needed for students of the specific regions. It would be better to control them when students know that their needs and problems are solved and heard. There would be less strikes and protests from them regarding their opinion that isn’t counted. I know that they use the website with customer essay and ask someone to help with their homework and college papers only because their protest and fight with teachers and officials who don’t listen to them and things they need for better studying.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.