Ph.D. Octopus

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The GESO Report on the Corporate University

with 5 comments

By Wiz

Congrats to the our brothers and sisters at GESO, the Yale graduate student union, who have put together an eye-opening new report on the corporatization of their university. It pinpoints a number of places where the logic and economic demands of a corporate structure has invaded the university setting. It is essential reading for anyone who is sympathetic to academic labor, but also anyone who has basic concerns about the nature and culture of high-level education.

One issue GESO highlights, is the massive growth in administrative costs, at universities. Universities often cite the growth in the cost of educating a student as evidence for why tuition needs to rise, and cuts need to be made to programs. But as GESO argues, and as independent reports confirm, a massive share of the rising costs of universities comes from rising administrative costs. Students are paying more, and entering into lifetimes of debt peonage, not because they are actually receiving better educations, but because a parasitic class of university administrators are skimming off larger and larger portions of the university “pie.”

Although they don’t spell it out in so many words, implicit in the critique is the fact that this change in a university, with less and less academics, and more and more administrators, heralds a profound re-composition in the very culture and mission of that university. Many administrators, especially top ones, come directly from the world of finance or government (wait… are those still two different things?). In a nutshell, they simply don’t think like academics, a fact evidenced by the preference for a language of “efficiency” that compares the university to a “brand-name,” as well as a growth-for-growth’s sake mentality. University administrations have become nurturing grounds for a whole breed of neoliberal bureaucrats, men like Lawrence Summers (ex-president of Harvard who gave us deregulation of derivatives), Jacob Lew (former union busting Vice President of NYU, Citigroup executive, and now chief spokesman for the austerity wing of the Obama administration), and Richard Levin (union-busting president of Yale, rumored to be Obama’s second choice for economic adviser). This close connection of universities with what David Harvey calls the state-finance nexus cannot but alter the culture and dynamics of universities themselves.

This isn’t because people who work at Citigroup or the Treasury Department are inherently evil (though the verdict is still out on some of them…), but because the bureaucratic, instrumentalized, one-dimensional styles of thought that these powerful organizations tend to encourage are inimical to the measured manner of critical thought and democratic engagement, that good education should foster. Not to mention the famous disdain for democracy that places like this inculcate in their leaders.

Further there is a strong body of thought that holds that critical intellectual production must come, to some degree, from the outside, from those who can feel a certain detached– even alienated– stance towards that which they analyze. It become dangerous, then, to hand over the reins of intellectual production to men (and it does seem mostly to be men) who are such complete and total insiders.

Next, the GESO report highlights how the Yale administration has been re-structuring the time-to-degree requirements in order to push graduate students out, a process they refer to as “speed-up.” This is a mini-Taylorization of graduate education, complete with more structured work “goals,” accelerated work schedules, and intensified surveillance of graduate students. The goal of speeding up the time-to-degree is a laudable one, but if it comes on the back of students, it can lead to demoralization and lowered job opportunities. It is especially cruel to be pushing students out of school so quickly in this job market.

The horrible irony, of course, is that even at prestigious universities like Yale, fewer and fewer teaching-hours are being performed by tenured faculty. So the same corporate policies that are pushing graduate students into the job market, are also those insuring that fewer and fewer tenure track positions will be available for those students when they are out there on the job market.

Too often, unionization of graduate students is framed as a labor issue alone. It is, of course, to a large degree about traditional “bread and butter” issues like wages, health care, and job protection. But even people who feel secure in these matters, should be deeply concerned about what future universities will look like. Will they simply be an appendage of the financial/corporate state, devoid of any purpose beyond simply training the next generation of Lawrence Summers? Or will they be able training students to think critically, to engage in their world, to learn to empathize and, even feel solidarity, with people of other countries and in other situations? In other words, one can make as strong and convincing a pedagogical argument against the current trend of corporatization as you can make a moral argument against it.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

February 10, 2011 at 16:33

5 Responses

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  1. I’m not crazy about Summers’ economic policies, but I liked him as president of Harvard. Yes, he was the world’s least tactful human being, but I actually respected his boldness. Frankly, he’s less dangerous in the university than he is in government. He was generally well-liked by the student body. A lot of people sided with him in his dispute with Cornel West, and appreciated his opposition to the divestment campaign. He also expanded financial aid (which has continued under Faust), appropriately criticized area studies (I say this as someone jointly in an area studies department) and began the process of reshaping Harvard’s outmoded Core Curriculum. He also wanted greater emphasis on science, which I think on balance is probably wise. Also, I like how he dismissed the spoiled Winklevoss twins, as portrayed at least semi-accurately in “The Social Network.”

    I agree with much of the rest of the post though. I’ve got a post on intellectuals, philosophy, and the university coming eventually.


    February 11, 2011 at 16:27

    • But the result of Summers’ reshaping of the Core Curriculum into Gen Ed, continued under Drew Faust, is that Peter Gordon’s European intellectual history classes have barely enough undergrads to fill two sections while Niall Ferguson’s “States, Markets, and Global Economy” overflowed as a “gen ed” course, as have others dealing with empire and economy. Because in a very “goal-oriented” way these are the things that are seen to “matter most” for undergrads (presumably our future economic and imperial leaders). The one area in gen ed where history courses show up is in the category “Societies of the World” and, while there are some good classes in there, they are all globally focused []. Besides the fact that I think there is still value in learning the specific analytical skills traditionally attached to a discipline (one friend mentioned that some of her undergrads have been assigned three “creative” pieces and only one critical essay this term in their gen ed courses), as one prof once said, “Harvard students don’t need a “global” education, they need lessons in provincialism.”

      Point being, Larry Summers may have been a jovial university president and a slayer of Winkelvii, but his worldview seems to have seeped into undergraduate education in a very disheartening way, and a way reflective of the GESO report.


      February 11, 2011 at 23:31

  2. I think the answer is obvious here: Harvard, like all schools, need to move to the Columbia style core! Lit hum for everyone! I’m being serious.


    February 11, 2011 at 23:46

    • Far be it from me to disagree! I wouldn’t have ended up in a history phd program without having gone through the Core. Of course my life trajectory will hardly be a selling point for most people– so it goes.


      February 11, 2011 at 23:51

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Susan Valentine, David Weinfeld. David Weinfeld said: Wiz on the Corporate University on Yale, Wall Street, student unions, and the future of education at PhD Octopus […]

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