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From the President: What’s New about Today’s Corporate University?

By Rudy H. Fichtenbaum

Corporate influence on higher education has been with us since the AAUP was founded: this is an old problem. What is new about corporate control of universities and colleges today?

The economist Thorstein Veblen wrote about corporate control of universities in his 1918 book The Higher Learning in America. To Veblen, universities should be concerned with “the systemization of fundamental and eternal truth.” Thus, he wrote, “The University is the only accepted institution of the modern culture on which the quest for knowledge unquestionably devolves.”

Initially, universities were primarily religious institutions aimed at educating clergy and leaders of “civil society.” But Veblen recognized the Industrial Revolution’s impact when he wrote, “The place in men’s esteem once filled by church and state, is now held by pecuniary traffic, business enterprise. So that the graver issues of academic policy . . . reduce themselves in the main to a question between the claims of science and scholarship on the one hand and those of business principles and pecuniary gain on the other hand.”

Upton Sinclair first addressed corporate control of higher education in his self-published 1923 book The Goose Step. There, he wrote: “Our educational system is not a public service, but an instrument of special privilege; its purpose is not to further the welfare of mankind, but merely to keep America capitalist.” In fact, Sinclair refers directly to the AAUP in his book, naming it the “union of our higher educators.”

In the late ninetieth and early twentieth centuries, corporate control didn’t focus on the classroom. Indeed, during the period written about by Veblen and Lewis, most university students came from society’s top echelon, the ruling class. Universities were not training centers! For example, before 1911 and the publication of the Flexner report on medical education, most physicians were educated at proprietary medical schools or as apprentices, and legal education operated similarly. The Wharton School, founded in 1881, was the first school of business; business schools didn’t become widespread until the twentieth century. Even teachers were not educated in colleges until “normal schools” were founded in the mid-1800s to improve teacher education (the name comes from teachers’ duties to promote certain “social norms”).

The widespread growth of state universities ensued from the Morrill Land Grant Colleges Acts of 1862 and 1890. The land-grant state universities were initially focused on agricultural and technical education. Thus, they were more concerned with training than education. Only later did they begin offering a broader liberal arts and sciences curriculum.

The early critics of corporate and business influence in higher education were most concerned about what the AAUP would call the extramural statements of professors who took public positions on issues that were controversial at the time—for example, by opposing child labor, supporting a minimum wage, favoring unions, or criticizing imperialist adventures.

From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution until the middle of the twentieth century, most scientific research was done at places like Menlo Park, Bell Labs, Rand Corporation, DELCO, Battelle, and Hughes Aircraft. With the advent of the Cold War and the beginnings of the scientific-technological revolution, the locus of research shifted to universities. Research was funded by the government and then used by corporations to make profit.

Until recently, most corporations did their own training. But increasingly, corporate leaders are seeking to offload their training expenses on public institutions. The movement for “assessment” and “accountability” promoted by the Gates and Lumina Foundations is just a cover for corporate leaders’ unprecedented attempts to mold the curriculum itself to their needs. And what better way to do that than to discard tenured faculty? Replace full-time faculty protected by tenure with just-in-time trainers—part-time faculty who rightly fear losing their jobs if they question the dictates of the growing army of administrators that supervises them—and, voilà! The faculty no longer control the curriculum; the professional administrators puppeted by corporate interests do.

Limit the tenure-track faculty to research and teaching doctoral students, mainly at elite schools, including some elite public institutions. Focus on graduating students trained to produce, not to think critically. Degrade the humanities and liberal arts. These actions define the modern corporate university.

So what’s new about today’s corporate university? Corporations today are interested not just in controlling those who might criticize their agenda but also in using institutions of higher education as publicly financed research centers and privately financed (tuition-funded) training facilities that focus on workforce development. 

Note: The print version of this essay and an earlier online version mistakenly attributed the authorship of The Goose Step to Sinclair Lewis. 

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