Failure after failure at corporate U

It’s time for the administration to radically re-evaluate the way it governs the University.

The beginning of the school year is always a good time to assess the direction the University is heading. Frankly, there are few reasons to be optimistic.

For a little more than a decade now, right-wing policy makers have been extremely successful in their drive to get public institutions to be run more like private corporations – and University administrators have hopped on the bandwagon.

Not surprisingly, this attitude has led to a series of spectacular failures. A corporation, after all, is really just a private tyranny protected by the state, designed to maximize profits for its shareholders. Public institutions, on the other hand, are theoretically supposed to serve the public good. They should be as transparent and democratic as possible. So it’s not hard to see why importing a hierarchical corporate approach into the public sphere is a terrible idea.

Nevertheless, the “run government like a business” approach continues to retain much of its allure across the mainstream political spectrum. So let’s assess how successful the corporate managerial ideology has been on a micro level – right here at the University.

This year, tuition rose 14 percent, but the administration is gouging students and University employees in other less obvious ways. Everyone taking 10 credits or more this year has to pay a $400 “University Fee” (up from $300 last year). Despite the best efforts of some members of the Council of Graduate Students, no one is really sure what the administration does with money from the University Fee.

Some think the University Fee goes into a slush fund for some of the administration’s less wholesome activities (e.g. union busting) – a fair-enough guess since the administration won’t reveal any substantive details about the University Fee.

Let’s not forget about the pervasive shafting of University employees. President Bruininks’ administration failed in its attempt to bust the clerical workers’ union last year, and union officials recently discovered the administration is overcharging University employees on their health-care premiums. University teaching assistants (who, it should be remembered, are also students) saw their health-care costs rise significantly this year; even further increases are likely next year.

But perhaps I’m being unfair to our administrators. Maybe a more sympathetic examination of the administration’s accomplishments is in order. Maybe there are some genuine benefits to be reaped from running a public university like a private corporation.

Very well then, let us consider Coffman Union – a shining example of what happens when some visionary administrator’s PowerPoint Presentation comes to life!

Take a stroll through Coffman and glimpse at the University’s future: It’s sterile, authoritarian, corporate and doesn’t have an ounce of character.

The “center of campus life at the University of Minnesota” is a sad place indeed. A student union is supposed to be a meeting place where students can come together to discuss ideas and argue with one another. It follows from this that the space in a student union ought to be arranged in a way that is actually conducive to interaction.

Apparently, the administration sees things a little differently. Coffman’s main purpose is to facilitate consumerism; not to promote a dynamic campus culture. In the “commuter lounge,” for example, there are rows of chairs intentionally lined up so that students can sit and drool away – comfortably, passively and efficiently – in front of the TV. Students who want to check their e-mail can head over to one of the commuter lounge’s Gateway-sponsored computer kiosks (covered with advertisements), which open to a special homepage that directs students to – you guessed it – Walmart.com!

Upstairs, on the fourth floor, is the members-only Campus Club (membership is $360 a year). Downstairs, they plopped down a lame suburban food court – Starbucks and all – next to an Abercrombie-esque bookstore. Last year, the University sent out a survey to ask some students whether they’d be in favor of having exciting amenities such as a cosmetics counter or more name-brand chain restaurants.

This says a lot about how little respect the administration has for the student body as a whole. In fact, students aren’t even allowed to put fliers up in Coffman – you have to turn your fliers in to the information desk (limit: five) for approval and placement in designated areas.

Corporate values are not only totally antithetical to democratic values; they clash with the types of values that foster a vibrant intellectual community. It’s time for the administration to radically re-evaluate the way it governs the University – students, faculty and staff are growing weary of asking politely for change.

Nick Woomer welcomes comments at [email protected]