Higher Education is More Than a Corporate Logo
Anyone who spends anytime on a college campus these days cannot miss how higher education is changing. Strapped for money and increasingly defined in the language of corporate culture, many universities seem less interested in higher learning than in becoming licensed storefronts for brand name corporations--selling off space, buildings, and endowed chairs to rich corporate donors.
College presidents are now called C.E.Os and are known less for their intellectual leadership than for their role as fund raisers and their ability to bridge the world of academe and business. Venture capitalists now scour colleges and universities in search of big profits made through licensing agreements, the control of intellectual property rights, and investing in university spinoff companies. In the age of money and profit, academic subjects gain stature almost exclusively through their exchange value on the market. This is all the more so as the Bush Administration attempts to privatize higher education by cutting social programs, plunders public services and pushes states to the brink of financial disaster.
As higher education increasingly becomes a privilege rather than a right, many working class students either find it impossible financially to enter college or because of increased costs have to drop out. Those students who have the resources to stay in school are feeling the tight pressures of the job market and rush to take courses and receive professional credentials in business and the bio-sciences as the humanities lose majors and downsize. Not surprisingly, students are now referred to as "customers," while faculty are rewarded less for their scholarship than their ability to secure funds and grants from foundations, corporations, and other external sources. Rather than being rewarded for critically inventive teaching and rigorous research, faculty are now valued as multinational operatives, even as the majority of their colleagues are increasingly reduced to contract employees. Some university presidents even argue that professors be labeled as "academic entrepreneurs."
As the line between for-profit and not-for-profit institutions of higher education collapses, the tensions between democratic values and market interests blur and the distinction between education and job training breaks down. Not surprisingly, it has become more difficult for the public to recognize that the problems facing higher education have less to do with corporate management, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness than with the erosion of democratic ideals.
Fortunately, there is a long tradition in American history that rejects the notion that higher education should be treated as either a brand name product or simply as a training ground for the corporate workforce. In this more noble view, extending from Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann to W. E. B. Du Bois and John Dewey, higher education was defended as both a public good and an autonomous sphere for educating students for active citizenship, civic courage, and the development of a substantive democratic society. If higher education is to meet the challenge of the new millennium, universities and colleges need to reclaim this legacy and redefine themselves as sites for critical learning and active participation in civic life.
This view of education as a civic ideal suggests respecting educators as both teachers and scholars, offering students the necessary knowledge for learning how to govern as opposed to being governed, stretching the boundaries of their imagination, and furthering the promise of a vibrant democratic social order. Addressing education as a democratic endeavor begins with the recognition that higher education is more than an investment opportunity, citizenship is about more than consuming, learning is about more than preparing for a job, and democracy is about more than making choices at the local mall. Higher education is a hard won democratic achievement and it is time that parents, faculty, students, college alumni and concerned citizens reclaim higher education as a fundamental public good rather than merely a training ground for corporate interests, values, and profits.
At the heart of such a struggle is the notion that democracy is the outcome of struggles rooted in a militant utopianism in which hope becomes the precondition for both thinking otherwise and acting with courage and responsibility. Democracy is in crisis throughout the world, and one way of addressing this crisis is through modes of education that not only take place in a variety of spheres including public and higher education, but also through a commitment to utopian longings in which we can glimpse communities organized around courage rather than fear, shared human needs rather than amoral values of the market, and moral principles that provoke us to not just hoping, but acting to eliminate human suffering and exploitation while expanding democratic rights, identities, and social relations.