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

A response to Fredrik de Boer.



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.