The University corporate problem

University of Virginia fiasco reveals higher education’s corporate problem.

Trent M. Kays

The last two weeks have been tumultuous for the University of Virginia. The university’s Board of Visitors secretly dismissed Teresa Sullivan, UVa’s popular president, for not moving forward with costcutting fast enough. With no evidence to support the dismissal, protests rocked the campus, and faculty and students both called on the Board of Visitors to reinstate Sullivan and explain the motive behind her dismissal.

The dismissal highlighted the chasm between encroaching business ethics into universities and universities’ mission to serve the public good and disseminate knowledge. I was shocked and proud to see so many come to UVa’s defense.

Indeed, the corporate takeover of the academy is well underway. We have governing boards appointed by politicians, and many on those boards —business people, donors, former politicians — have little understanding about how universities operate because most have never worked in a university environment. So, why would we trust them with appointing the leader of a university when they have no idea what it is to lead an institution of higher education?

It is not a decision based on what is best for the university; it is a decision based on who spent the most and lobbied hardest. Certainly, it is important to have people governing the university as a good check against the authority of the administration, but significant authority should also be given to university members.

The UVa scandal shows what can happen when a corporate-minded will is forced onto an institution of higher learning. While the UVa community balked at this will, universities around the country need to decide whether they will put up with corporate materialism too.

Universities have seen large cuts in funding; students arguing that teachers are their employees; and focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics-orientated disciplines. The combination of all these issues is creating a perfect storm of corporatized learning, a storm that could be higher education’s undoing.

More arguments will be made for added online courses, but online coursework is no panacea for the numberous funding issues. The student attitude toward teachers has only been reinforced by capitalist culture and the encroaching corporate materialism on university campuses. STEM courses seem to be the prized child of the university, while the other children are left to survive on mere crumbs. This is U.S. higher education in the 21st century.

Watching the UVa protests erupt, I was reminded of the passion often inherent in universities. I was proud to see so many giving selflessly to a cause truly affecting everyone in higher education.

Every university community needs to decide if they are okay with allowing a few wealthy privileged individuals to have so much control via governing boards and other interests over something so important: the future of higher education in this country. I, for one, am not okay with such a thing.

There needs to be a higher education revolution. There need to be more faculty and student voices on governing boards, and they need to have voting privileges. There needs to be transparency and a showing of commitment to the public good. There need to be more active voices among university members. We can no longer afford to let our universities be marginalized or monopolized by corporate thinking, especially when a university is not a business: It’s an investment in the fabric of our future.

We must act soon, or it may be too late. The time for the revolution is now.