Article in Trusteeship
Complaints about corporatization in academe are overstated and polemical
by William G. Durden
The catchword "corporate" has recently gained sufficient traction to instill fear and trembling in higher education circles. The term is used by critics to account for a variety of perceived negative developments within the academy. Supposed ramifications of "corporatization" are so sweeping that some commentators, such as John Merrow in a recent PBS documentary and book, Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk, assign all the alleged faults in higher education over the last quarter-century to institutions that "have become a business... less [worried] about teaching and learning."
I don't buy it-nor should faculty or trustees. The current promiscuous use of "corporate" is political namecalling at its most mundane. When scrutinized, the charge merely advances the hackneyed dichotomy of faculty versus administration-with trustees grouped with administrators. Increasingly, whenever a party objects to a new policy or development, "corporatization" is evoked as the culprit. The expectation is that this word is so abhorrent to faculty that most will immediately empathize and not think about the issue more deeply. The "true believer" mentality that "all business is bad" is counterproductive in academe.
"Corporate" is, in fact, so misused in academic circles that what is frequently attributed to the word actually originates in academe itself. For example, some critics argue that the "corporatization" has led to the "dumbing down" of content in undergraduate curricula by pushing colleges and universities to "meet consumer satisfaction."
This development-to the extent that it exists-was actually introduced decades ago by concerned faculty in pursuit of greater relevancy and connection to students' lives. While many in the academy judge this as positive, critics rail against the "corporate" for breaking up the traditional coherence of the curriculum- downsizing the "common" course of study. Unsaid is that this break-up occurred decades earlier during the "culture wars" fought within academe by academics.
Others lament that humanities publications, if not the humanities as a whole, are threatened because the academy so obsessively pursues external support for scientific research- the product-centered business model. But who established such concern for productivity in universities? I suggest that it arose out of academe itself in mid-19th-century attempts to replace the "gentlemanly" (even theological) understanding of higher education in America with the German model that valued the primacy of research, productivity, and the ceaseless creation of new scientific knowledge.
Critics would have us believe there was once a "Golden Age" in American higher education when knowledge for knowledge's sake reigned. Not so. Before the American Revolution, colleges and universities had a vocational purpose-to supply Protestant clergy for colonial society. After the revolution, institutions practiced unabashedly "corporate" techniques that included development, marketing, branding, and enrollment management.
Lacking the luxury of benevolent patronage to support higher education as existed in England, early American educators had to be resourceful and self-sufficient. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a physician, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Dickinson College's founder, embraced "corporate" vices with vigor. He joyfully engaged in entrepreneurial strategies to attract students, such as going into debt to procure the most advanced scientific equipment to give Dickinson a competitive edge over its peers.
The basic disposition to advance the reputation and financial status of American colleges and universities has always been present. In fact, it distinguishes us even today from the primarily government-supported universities in other countries.
Finally, campus practices labeled "corporate" in today's rhetorical frenzy are often characteristics of solid leadership. Astute faculty recognize this.
So, what is to be done? I suggest that we all-faculty members, administrators, and trustees-avoid stereotype- laden invocation of the term "corporate." Instead, as leaders of higher education institutions, we should, without rhetorical blinders, develop and evaluate practices that advance our academic excellence and purpose, regardless of their origin and absent potentially misleading or inflammatory labels.
William G. Durden is president of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.
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