The corporate college
In "Degrees of influence," David L. Kirp argues that the commercialization of the university is threatening the liberal arts and depriving poor and working-class students of access to knowledge. Do universities benefit when they adopt practices from the business world?
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In Morte Darthur (King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table), Sir Thomas Malory says that we should make the maximum profit for the minimum effort. So it's in one of the great books of Western culture to maximize profits. Universities are part of that culture. Mark Twain, however, in A Tramp Abroad, in a mountain climbing analogy, advised that what seems to maximize your profits might not really be the maximum. In other words, it's possible to miscalcuate the maximum. How does that apply to universities being run like businesses? Universities need to stay afloat financially, but they should not overemphasize business priniciples. A business will make more profit from an employee who is grounded in the great books (plus technical skills) than from a less well rounded employee. So a wise university will adopt some business principles but should realize that the liberal arts are like the foundation of a house. You're not overly aware of it, but you wouldn't have a house without it. Also, a university runs the risk of having good professors go elsewhere or retire early if they try turning them into bean counters.
The facts speak for themselves. Look at any news source in the last year(and more) and the headlines are all about where business has led us. It is not a pretty story. We must remember that the prime function of business these days is to increase profits on a regular basis-(grow or die is the motto). To do this consistently the easier road is all to often the less ethical route. In my freshman year at a business college we were told that business had 3 responsibilities: a. to it's employees: b. to its ccustomers and 3. to its owners. That is now history-- the sole aim of business is to the 'bottom line'- which has come to mean the executives and then the shareholders. The public are now merely a revenue source and the employee a disposable asset. We should review how corprations came to be and the control government exercised over their continuation of their existence which was dependent on their performing the service for which they were given life--e.g. the benefit of the citizenry. Now the corporation has becomethe master of all- government included. To allow for this kind of oversight of our educational institutions is to assure that social responsibility and even intellectual pursuits will also be-as the saying goes- history. We are becoming all to rapidly an arcane society--a society of moles who work without end and are to exhausted to do aught else. We already work a longer week and have less vacation (free) time than any of the other 'developed' nations.
I disagree with Mr. Kirp. Today's university, specifically with respect to the liberal arts, is a system that can arguably be described as utterly useless to poor and working-class individuals, under most circumstances. This is the case regardless of whether the given university adopts the practices of the business world. Kirp appears to be blaming the lower graduation rates of students from lower income families on seemingly every factor imaginable with exception of the one that I personally witnessed dozens of times in both undergraduate and graduate liberal arts courses - the students became bored with the material and simply decided to drop out. Others decided that the promise of a paycheck at a regular full-time job trumped sitting through lectures of the War of 1812. Still others got tired of the left and ultra-left leaning rantings of tenured radical professors entrenched in the liberal arts departments, or having their opinions snuffed out by the same "scholars." Scores of students choose to drop out because of the politicalization of liberal arts programs, where race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual preference and a whole host of other meaningless factors trump the very universal ideas that liberal arts at one time sought to bestow on students - the universal feelings of pain, joy, guilt, etc. that we as humans share. One must also keep in mind when writing about kids of poor and working-class families (this writer among them) that the values and family systems in which they were raised play a significant role in their choice of educational institute, length of their education and tolerance for the high-minded emptiness that makes up much of liberal arts education today. Many of my undergraduate colleagues chose to abandon their studies as sophomores or second-semester freshmen because the promise of a good job at a local company was far more enticing than sitting through the rantings of a professor whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to prove that white, Judeo-Christian, heterosexual men were in fact the devil incarnate. I can't begin to tell you the number of times that I had to explain to the mostly blue-collar members of my extended family what a degree in history was good for, if not teaching. In any case, these classes of students may not exactly get the kind of support at home that more well-off students will get to stay in school and get their degree, which may be of little use when they must join the real world. There are also many other options out there for lower-income family students, such as career-based programs at more reasonably-priced institutions, that offer the kinds of skills employers tend to value over "who knows the most about Chaucer." Lastly, if a person graduates from high school and is expected to work to help support their family, they are most likely to choose part-time education at a community college, skills-based training or perhaps a technical trade. Their own personal cost-benefit analysis will also tell them that the office desk, call center, shipping dock, dentist's office or retail store (with the pay and benefits attached thereto) is of far greater value in the short-term than any long-term benefits of sitting through another lecture in "American Imperialism."
Universities benefit or lose when they adopt ideas from business depending on the particular ideas they adopt. Large companies and universities are both complex organizations, and can benefit equally from insights into how to manage a large organization and use organizational resources (staff, money, physical assets, reputation) well. Universities can also benefit from the segment of the business literature that emphasizes doing business in a dynamic and uncertain environment where the firm flourishes by empowering teams of employees because decentralized pursuit of opportunities (knowledge) and decisions about how to bring them to the firm and to customers (the university and students or other learners) is similar in the two sorts of organization. Universities do not benefit by adopting ideas from "top-down" firms in which the CEO expects everyone else to be an order-follower. Nor do universities benefit from thinking of students as "customers" who have a fairly focused need for a particular good or service and can assess ahead of purchase whether what the firm can supply will serve. Universities are providing an education that will carry students through life, not only as workers or consumers, but as members of families, local communities, and wider social and political communities. Students need to be trained in habits of mind that prepare them to deal with all these roles, as well as to form and re-form their own career expectations as the increasligly globalized economy and polity in which they live changes.
MJ, Hadley MA
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