Rutgers, Inc., or How Thorstein Veblen Explains Today’s Policies in Higher Education

Commercialize and corporatize higher education? The idea is not quite as new as one might think.
By William Vesterman

On April 3, 2013, Rutgers University head basketball coach Mike Rice was fired for abusing his players. The university’s president had discovered the abuse in November 2012. This delay is representative of the wider institutional culture in modern American universities.

When Robert L. Barchi became president of Rutgers in September 2012, he proposed a year of university self-study. But after two semesters of strategic planning sessions, online surveys, town hall meetings, focus groups, and other dog and pony shows, nothing has changed. Barchi announced that Rutgers’s goals were still those he had proclaimed on his inauguration—teaching, research, and service. Entirely obvious and general functions for a university, these are hardly worthy results of a year of institutional soul-searching. They do remind one of

Virgil’s pretending to take seriously the advice of his slaves for the improvement of his farm—it made them more efficient by making them feel more important.

General goals take their specific meanings from the policies designed to achieve them. What are the specifics of goal-defining policies at Rutgers, and how are they manifested?

As in other American universities, the powers of defining policy at Rutgers are vested in its board of governors. If the goals of those policies are teaching and research (leaving service aside), why, then, are there almost no teachers, scholars, or scientists among the policy makers?

The Rutgers board is composed almost entirely of CEOs, directors, managing directors, and corporate lawyers. The two token faculty representatives both come from solidly vocational departments offering eminently “useful” courses—one is from the School of Business and the other from engineering. Another board member, though not directly from the world of commerce, is still very much concerned with finance. He is the speaker of the New Jersey State Assembly, which has maintained support for the state university at the funding levels of the early 1990s—despite increased enrollment. Though the single student representative hasn’t had much experience in teaching or research, he can’t lag far behind the CEOs and corporate counsels.

A final member, M. William Howard, pastor of the Bethany Baptist Church, has a spiritual calling, at least. Perhaps he has been appointed to pray for the plutocrats, that they may come to terms, as someday they must, with that famous admissions policy to come, the one featuring a camel and the eye of a needle.

Business and the Board

That the governing board of an American university should be dominated by people from business is hardly unique. In 1907, the economist Thorstein Veblen explored the issue in The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Businessmen (revised and published in 1918). Veblen’s book begins by stating that every civilization contains an organization concerned with its esoteric knowledge and “the systemization of fundamental and eternal truth.” Further, all systems of knowledge come out of “two certain impulsive traits in human nature: an Idle Curiosity and The Instinct of Workmanship.” By an idle curiosity he means not a lazy one, nor one without focus, nor an undirected musing, but disinterested curiosity, without any ulterior motive behind its search for new knowledge. What is discovered by “Idle Curiosity” may be acted on by “The Instinct of Workmanship,” the natural desire to make something new from new knowledge. A person’s passionate interest in mold might be laughed at as the oddity of an egghead. But penicillin and other antibiotics were created, one of them at Rutgers (streptomycin, the conqueror of tuberculosis), after the instinct of workmanship led to action on a discovery about mold made by an idle curiosity in Britain.

In any event, “the University is the only accepted institution of the modern culture on which the quest for knowledge unquestionably devolves.” In medieval universities theology was the queen of sciences, and the “fundamental truths” then systematized were largely religious ones. American universities developed from the earlier American colleges, institutions also largely religious in foundation, which existed mainly to train Protestant ministers. Their governing boards, like their faculties, were mainly from the clergy of their particular denominations—Congregational (Harvard), Presbyterian (Princeton), and Dutch Reformed (Rutgers). As Veblen says, “Higher learning takes its character from the manner of life enforced on the group by the circumstances in which it is placed.”

By the end of the nineteenth century, America had been industrialized and its values had become much more secular. “The place in men’s esteem once filled by church and state,” Veblen wrote of this period, “is now held by pecuniary traffic, business enterprise. So that the graver issues of academic policy which now tax the discretion of the governing powers, 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.” Yet that is not why boards are packed with businesspeople. As Veblen observed over a century ago, “The reason which men prefer to allege for this state of things is the sensible need of experienced men of affairs to take care of the fiscal concerns of these university corporations.” But the business affairs of any university and its endowment are handled internally by full-time administrators so that the “governing boards of businessmen are quite useless for any businesslike purpose.” Of course, a board member might also be appointed in hopes of inducing a large donation. Alas, on the banks of the old Raritan, we know the dangers of this approach to board appointments. The 1825 renaming of Queen’s College didn’t turn out as expected when Henry Rutgers’s will was read five years later: no more money was given. The good colonel had maximized his benefit and minimized his cost.

Veblen says that businessmen dominate boards of governors because “business success is by common consent, and quite uncritically, taken to be conclusive evidence of wisdom even in matters that have no relation to business affairs.” We see “the directorate’s solicitude for a due and creditable publicity, a convincing visible success, a tactful and effectual showing of efficiency reflected in an uninterrupted growth in size and other tangible quantitative features. This is good policy as seen from the point of view of competitive business enterprise.”

Mike Rice and the Captains of Erudition

Many think of the university in part as a locus for sport. The policy here again is to promote creditable publicity, though a coach might feel the need to beat his players to ensure that they beat their opponents. In the case of Rutgers coach Mike Rice, the man was fired not when the facts became known to the administration (in the fall) but when they became known to the public (in the spring)—and hence became discreditable publicity. Even in 1907, Veblen could write, “one may find a football or baseball coach . . . carried on the academic pay-roll, in a university that practices a penurious economy in the equipment and current supply of materials and services necessary for the work of its scientific laboratories, and whose library is in a shameful state of neglect for want of adequate provision for current purchases and attendance.”

To the business mind, real estate is an asset while books and wages are expenses. It is obvious that the one should be increased and the other kept low. So it is at Rutgers that a library budget, inadequate in the first place, has remained static—but we have no trouble building enormous new high-rise welcome centers and sports venues while creating greenways. As the unseen has no creditable publicity value, the elegant “colonial” exteriors of the campus dormitories have interiors that are overcrowded, incommodious, and ugly.

Besides controlling budgetary policy, the board’s greatest power is to select a president, and when “it delegates powers to the university’s governing head, it delegates those powers to one of their own kind, who is somewhat peremptorily expected to live up to the aspirations that animate the board. . . . As to the requirements of scholarly or scientific competency, a plausible speaker with a large gift of assurance, a businesslike ‘educator’ . . . some astute veteran of the scientific demi-monde, will meet all reasonable requirements.”

“Conceived as a business house dealing in merchantable knowledge,” according to Veblen, the university is

placed under the governing hand of a captain of erudition, whose office it is to turn the means in hand to account in the largest feasible output. . . . He is held to such a conspicuously efficient employment of the means in hand as will gratify those who look for a voluminous turnover. To this end he must keep the academic administration and its activity constantly in the public eye, with such “pomp and circumstance” of untiring urgency and expedition as will carry the conviction that the university under his management is a highly successful going concern, and he must be able to show by itemized accounts that the volume of output is such as to warrant the investment. So the equipment and personnel must be organized into a facile and orderly working force, held under the directive control of the captain of erudition at every point, and so articulated and standardized that its rate of speed and the volume of current output can be exhibited to full statistical effect as it runs.

Under this rule, “the faculty is conceived as a body of employees, hired to render certain services and turn out certain scheduled vendible results.”

In the spirit of such polices we see at Rutgers no change relating to the announced goals of teaching and research, but instead the creation of an army of chancellors, provosts, assistant vice presidents, and associate deans forming a well-tempered chain of command for the transmission of top-down orders. This chain shows its weakest link, the top one, in the case of Mike Rice. The president claims he didn’t bother to view the film that made up the basis of his initial decision, imposing a brief suspension and a fine of $50,000 designed to teach the coach a lesson without embarrassing the “teacher.”

When the film became public, the price went up. It cost more than $1 million to get rid of the offending coach, another $1.2 million for the athletic director to go, and more than $400,000 to see the last of the university counsel who had advised the president. They join another former athletic director and other former coaches and former administrators, people who continue to cost the university millions of dollars while its library cancels subscriptions to learned journals and its catalog shows it cannot afford to buy all of the books written by Rutgers faculty members. Meanwhile, multimillion-dollar contracts, subsidized houses, and summer camps are “needed” in the search for replacement coaches and athletic directors to restore the creditable publicity of sport. More than $6 million for a coach who lied on his résumé about being an alumnus; half a million a year for a new athletic director who was immediately accused of Rice-like abuse in a previous position. But this discreditable publicity was met by an old public relations standby—“We must move on and work to put all this behind us.” Over $10 million. That could buy a lot of books and periodical subscriptions.

As to the academic staff, an efficient president, according to Veblen, will see to it that “a goodly number of the faculty will be selected on grounds of businesslike fitness, more or less pronounced . . . the special aptitudes and proficiency that go to the making of a successful advertiser.” In the spirit of advertising rather than in that of the liberal arts and sciences, we see the creation of Institutes of Whatever, Centers for Stuff and Nonsense, Special Certificate Programs, and so on—all full of funding potential and run by apprentice captains of erudition. One of them recently discovered, announcing it in his institute’s inaugural address, that, gasp, the views and values of the younger generation differ from those of their elders.

For any captain of erudition, Veblen says, “expediency and practical considerations have come to mean considerations of a pecuniary kind; good, on the whole, for pecuniary purposes only; that is to say, gain and expenditure for the sake of further gain and expenditure with nothing that will stand scrutiny as the final term for this traffic.”

“This perfect scheme of low-cost perfunctory instruction, high-cost stage properties and pressagents, public song and dance . . . is never fully rounded out.” Thus, Veblen argues, “The felt need of notoriety and prestige has a main share in shaping the work and bearing of the university at every point. Whatever will not serve this end of prestige has no secure footing in current university policy. The margin of tolerance on this head is quite narrow; and it is apparently growing incontinently narrower.” So much for, say, the study of comparative literature, which has lost the requisite prestige since the days when Sputnik was driving federal funding and Hyman Rickover, father of the atomic submarine, recommended the study of foreign languages as a way to catch up with Russian science. That was then; this is now.

In intercollegiate relations, the captain of erudition assumes that “universities are competitors for the traffic in merchantable instruction, in much the same fashion as rival establishments in the retail trade compete for custom. Indeed, the modern department store offers a felicitous analogy.” This competition for traffic, for ever-increasing enrollments, is heard today at Rutgers most loudly in presidential clamor for increasing the number of out-of-state students.

The great university Barchi calls for is assumed to be a “large” one with a greater “market share” for its “brand” and a volume of educational trade outdoing sister institutions. But “since learning is not a competitive matter; since, indeed, competition in any guise or bearing in this field is detrimental to learning; the competitive maneuvers of the academic executive must be carried out surreptitiously, in a sense, clouded as a non-competitive campaign for the increase of knowledge without fear or favor.”

The president’s first duty, Veblen says, “is to see to the organization of an administrative machinery for the direction of the university’s internal affairs, and the establishment of a facile and rigorous system of accountancy for the control and exhibition of the academic work . . . a rigorous parcelment and standardization of the instruction offered . . . because of the difficulty of controlling a large volume of perfunctory labour, such as is involved in undergraduate instruction, the instruction must be reduced to standard units of time, grade and volume.” So it is that we all know that an advanced course in biophysics is worth the same number of credit hours as Eating Right: The Ethics of Food Choices and Food Policy, just as we all know that 120 credit hours qualifies one for a degree of BA or BS. And we all know where the idea of a credit hour comes from and what it means—don’t we?

“Sane competitive business practice,” Veblen writes, “insists on economy of cost as well as a large output of goods. It is ‘bad business’ to offer a better grade of goods than the market demands, particularly to customers who do not know the difference, or turn out goods at a higher cost than other competing concerns . . . [so] a species of skilled labor [is] to be hired at competitive wages . . . letting the work of science and scholarship to the lowest bidder.” And so, some 30 percent of Rutgers courses are taught by part-time, low-wage instructors, mostly graduate students.

“The manifest aim, and indeed the avowed purpose, of these many expedients of management and concession to fashion and frailty is the continued numerical growth of the undergraduate school—the increase of the enrolment and the obtaining of funds,” Veblen observes. But “whatever expedients of decorative real-estate, spectacular pageantry, bureaucratic magnificence, elusive statistics, vocational training, genteel solemnities and sweat shopped instruction may be imposed by the exigencies of a competitive business policy, the university is after all a seat of learning devoted to the cult of idle curiosity—otherwise called the scientific spirit. And stultification, broad and final, waits on any university directorate that shall dare to avow any other end as its objective. So the appearance of an unwavering devotion to the pursuit of knowledge must be kept up.”

According to Barchi, the university needs to balance teaching and research with the need to “generate revenue”: “Everyone recognizes that we want to raise the level of excellence in the institution. We don’t want to lose one when we’re trying to get the other. And we’re certainly not going to go for excellence by doing away with one.” Certainly not! Here we see the chop-logic juggling of metamorphosed “wants” and “needs” so common to captains of erudition. As president of Thomas Jefferson University, Barchi sold that institution’s most prized artistic possession, Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic, to “generate revenue.”

Veblen does not end on an optimistic note: “Nothing but the same continued contact with the relevant facts could persuade any outsider that all this skillfully devised death of the spirit is brought about by well-advised efforts of improvement on the part of men who are intimately conversant with the facts.”

“But a good rule works both ways,” he observes. “If scholarly and scientific training, such as without shame be included under the caption of the higher learning, unfits men for business efficiency, then the training that comes of experience in business must also be held to unfit men for scholarly and scientific pursuits, and even more pronouncedly for the surveillance of such pursuits.”

The captain of erudition might reply that many of the arts and sciences “need” to support themselves by “generating revenue,” by attracting significant “outside funding,” and by guaranteeing solid “career paths” for their students. Of what use is teaching and research in poetry when what is “wanted” are ways to pay off student loans?

Veblen replies to this self-styled “pragmatic” line of reasoning by citing the great pragmatist Benjamin Franklin in response to a similar objection: “Of what use is a baby?”


In September William Vesterman began his fiftieth year of teaching English at Rutgers. His e-mail address is [email protected].