The commercialization or “corporatization” of American higher education has dramatically changed the character and conduct of colleges and universities over the past quarter century. The literature on this subject is large and growing. A mere sampling of recent works includes: Universities in the Marketplace, by Derek Bok (2003); University Inc., by Jennifer Washburn (2005); Academic Capitalism, by Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades (2004); Knowledge and Money, by Robert Geiger (2004); and the wonderfully titled work by David L. Kirp, Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education (2003).
The process these observers describe has taken place within the context of extraordinary developments in the American economic system. Over recent decades the United States has been on what the popular economist Robert Samuelson has aptly called a long “consumption binge,” during which Americans have been able “to indulge their self-indulgence.” The spectacular economic stimulus provided by the supercharged American consumer has guaranteed growth not only in the American economy but in other parts of the world, which work to satisfy the voracious American appetite for all sorts of goods and services. Whatever the economic consequences, the mentality of consumption is deeply rooted in the American psyche. The powerful advertising industry and the skillful work of the marketers plant the desire for things within us, and we find it hard to resist.
In the contemporary economic system the corporation dominates. The negative press resulting from the greed and criminal activity pervasive in onetime corporate giants like Enron and Tyco has led to no reining in of corporate influence. Organized labor is weak and the public sector deemed suspect. The techniques of the successful corporation are to be admired and emulated. Market share must be maintained and increased or a market niche defined. Profit must be maximized. To serve the bottom line, cost-cutting, downsizing and outsourcing become the norm. The point hardly needs to be belabored.
The nation’s colleges and universities naturally sought to benefit in the situation of heightened business dominance. Since the late 1970’s Derek Bok, then president of Harvard University, has been making the argument, “Universities have been much more aggressive than they previously were in trying to make money from their research and education activities,” as they launched “vigorous patent licensing programs, for-profit ventures in Internet education, and a wide variety of other commercial initiatives.” The pace of such activities has only quickened in the past decade. As Bok notes, entrepreneurship is no longer the province of the athletic departments and development offices. Commercialization now spreads through science and engineering faculties, business schools and far beyond.
Critics of the commercialization trend in higher education present the development as a result of the effort to “commodify” education. In their more fevered descriptions, this effort is promoted by businessmen and corporate lawyers on university boards of trustees and aims to reduce the faculty to the status of employees and to make the universities simply serve the interests of corporate America. The ever-sober Bok places the blame elsewhere. In his portrayal universities, especially the elite research institutions, simply could not resist the temptation of “the rapid growth of money-making opportunities provided by a more technologically sophisticated, knowledge-based economy.” The heightened competition among institutions to secure their reputations and rankings demanded ever greater resources. In such circumstances schools could not pass up the chance to make money that could make them “bigger and better.” It surely would have been un-American for them to do so.
Indeed, American universities always have had a well-developed readiness to obtain money and resources wherever they might be found, whether the source was public or private. The 19th-century land-grant schools and the great private institutions built upon the huge benefactions of one-time robber barons transformed into philanthropists illustrate this well. Funds from the G.I. Bill aided many colleges and universities after World War II and set a trend that made the federal government a preferred source for funding. In the cold war era, schools like M.I.T., Cal Berkeley and Stanford raked in millions of federal dollars for science and engineering research. At the same time, the universities sought out foundation support and were untiring and increasingly sophisticated in their efforts to obtain gifts from wealthy alumni and other major donors. (Most Catholic colleges and universities were slower in these efforts than their private and public peers, but it is fair to say that they have caught up in their eagerness to raise funds.)
While the aggressive effort to raise money is hardly new, the most recent approach to doing so through the commercialization of higher education has raised significant questions about its consequences for American colleges and universities. The impact of this process has been wide and not only has touched most of the key elements that constitute the contemporary university but also has influenced the very language used by academic administrators to define what they do.
Jennifer Washburn in University Inc. noted that academic administrators increasingly tend to refer to parents as customers, to students as consumers and to education and research as products. They talk about branding and marketing and place great emphasis on advertising. Schools seek to convey an image and to appeal to a certain market. Some of this is surely necessary—one must recruit students, after all—but in institutions dedicated to the search for truth, irony intrudes in the development of public relations strategies modeled on the corporate sector. The language of the corporate sector has entered the lexicon of university administrators beyond the realm of public relations. Performance assessment, quality control, competitive edge, pricing structure, multiskilling and (the current favorite) metrics are now well lodged in the academic lingua franca.
The presence of corporate operations on campus provides visuals, so to speak, to confirm the commercialization trend. At my university we have “outsourced” the selling of books and apparel, copying, fast-food service and coffee-making to Folletts, Kinko’s, Burger King, Subway and Starbucks. But it does not stop there. For strategic planning we call in McKinsey and Co. For hiring academic administrators, we enlist the services of outside head-hunters. We contract with Adidas and, as college football fans know well, with NBC. These arrangements—with the exception of the NBC contract—are mirrored on most campuses and when assessed on their own terms are defensible, for the most part. Yet unquestionably they contribute to a pervasive business atmosphere on campus.
Few of the major groups that form the contemporary university remain untouched by the commercialization emphasis. Governing boards at most American universities tend to be dominated by business executives and corporate lawyers. Understandably, given their backgrounds, they look at universities and find “inefficiencies” in lots of areas. They favor the introduction of “proper” management techniques and welcome the use of corporate language. They bring the corporate mentality to campus.
According to Washburn, today’s university administrators appear little troubled by the commercialization/corporatization process, because increasingly they are selected not for their educational expertise but for their corporate know-how. In a rather shocked (and somewhat naïve) tone she reveals that even university presidents “are chosen on the basis of their ability to raise money and [for] their close ties to the corporate sector.” Some presidents of major American universities now sit on the boards of directors of large corporations and, not uncommonly as Washburn notes, “they earn executive-level salaries.” In such circumstances should it surprise anyone that contemporary university leaders are willing to adopt a more corporate style of management?
One might have expected the faculty to provide some brake on the commercialization process, given their survey-substantiated liberal political leanings. This, with notable exceptions, has not happened. Faculty in the elite and trend-setting institutions adjusted easily to the notion that they were academic entrepreneurs, who had to look out for themselves. In 1991 Henry Rosovsky, then dean of Harvard’s School of Arts and Sciences, observed that the faculty had “become a society largely without rules, or to put it differently, the tenured members of the faculty—frequently as individuals—make their own rules” regarding such matters as teaching loads, outside business ventures, consulting time versus teaching time and so on. In Rosovsky’s portrayal, a me-first ethos was destroying what was left of an older civic attitude, according to which “a professor’s primary obligation is to the institution—essentially to her or his students and colleagues and that all else is secondary.”
It is hardly surprising that students, for the most part, adapt to the prevailing ethos on campuses. Even at the best campuses, the idea of learning for its own sake or as an avenue to wisdom seems outdated and naïve. Ross Gregory Douthat suggested in his memoir, Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (2005), that “the real business” of a Harvard education should be understood as “the pursuit of success and the personal connections from which such success has always flowed.” Seen from his close-up vantage point, Harvard students emerged as “corner-cutting careerists,” whose sense of worth was tied up with the future wealth and power they would accumulate. Of course, careerist tendencies are hardly limited to the banks of the Charles River. Students at most institutions increasingly see themselves as preparing for a place in corporate America so as to earn a good income to allow for appropriate levels of consumption (and to allow them to repay their college loans).
Predictably the business emphasis on campuses has implications for what is taught there. In a world where consumer demand guides the curriculum, the humanities are on the defensive. Computing and information technology, along with biotechnology, are the rage. When the norms of what Bok calls our practical and profit-driven culture prevail, it is likely that certain disciplines will be dispatched to the intellectual burial ground—classics and the languages of old Europe today. Tomorrow the inherent value of the “non-practical” humanities may be questioned.
A Catholic Response
Catholic colleges and universities have been less affected by the mixing of educational activities and commercial ventures than many of the major research institutions. Their continued commitment to some kind of core curriculum, the place of undergraduate education at the center of their activities and the communal spirit evident on many campuses help in this regard. But the current experience of larger schools, like Notre Dame, with the business paradigm and the changing focus in many places on what is taught suggest that this broad development should be of concern to all involved in Catholic higher education. Dangers loom along with opportunities.
If Catholic colleges and universities are to be faithful to their mission, as set forth so beautifully in Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990), they must certainly resist any temptation to pursue a path that might lead them to become mere training centers for those who staff the existing economic system and research facilities for American corporations. Here Catholic universities and colleges have a distinct advantage over so many of their secular peers, whose missions have become vague. The clarity of purpose of Catholic universities consecrated to “the cause of truth” and to serving “both the dignity of man and the good of the church” provides a real counterweight to the lure of money that drives the commercialization impulse.
One might expect that Catholic institutions faithful to their mission will develop a vision of life and a moral compass within their students such that more than material success is used as a measure for a good life. Catholic institutions founded on the conviction that human persons are created in the image and likeness of God and called upon to follow the way of Christ can hardly acquiesce in a system that views men and women as mere economic units.
It is easy to suggest, of course, that Catholic institutions must be mission-driven rather than market-driven. Mission-driven programs will be much harder to implement and will require the support of all the key elements in any institution. Governing boards must understand and support the distinct mission. Administrators must determine priorities in light of it. They must even accept that bigger does not always mean better. Faculty must resist the me-first ethos and sign on to the communal endeavor that characterizes any genuine Catholic university. Hiring for mission should involve selecting faculty who want to participate in an intellectual community rather than those who look for a temporary base to pursue their own academic entrepreneurship. Students who enroll must be open to reflecting on what matters most in life as contrasted with a desire simply to get a degree or job ticket to secure a well-paying position.
Realists on Catholic campuses know full well that business pressures and commercial practices are not easily restrained. In fact, Catholic schools should employ such practices so long as they serve rather than determine the mission.
Might this be the right moment for the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities to consider the commercialization of Catholic higher education and to take measures to assure that the corporate influence does not overwhelm its member schools? The A.C.C.U. has given much attention to the relationship of the institutional church to Catholic universities. They should give at least some treatment to this growing concern.
In the end, if Catholic universities are serious about their mission, they will offer clear instruction in Catholic social teaching, with its foundational principles of the dignity of the human person and concern for the common good. If they do so with any rigor, they will go on to raise some sharp questions about the present distribution of wealth and about people enslaved to material possessions. In short, a Catholic university should be a place where a serious critique of the consumerism and corporate capitalism that so dominates our age is consistently aired. A Catholic university overwhelmed by the commercial/corporate model will be incapable of such an endeavor.
Let me offer two proposals. If these were implemented in concert by American Catholic colleges and universities, they would have a real impact and be a serious expression of the institutions’ fidelity to their mission instead of to the market. These develop from the suggestion of the U.S. bishops made back in 1980, that “for the college or university to be an authentic teacher of [social] justice, it must conduct its own affairs in a just way.” In light of this, Catholic schools, especially those with significant financial resources, should undertake to provide a “living wage” for their lowest paid employees. And as a matter of urgency, they should take the lead in American higher education in providing just compensation for adjunct faculty. The exploitation of such folk should end on Catholic campuses. Dare one say that this accomplishment might even be something “marketable” in American higher education?