The business of education and other lies

It’s axiomatic today that organizations are best run like a business. In reality, however, it’s because we’ve been running everything like a business that our civilization now faces a multitude of systemic, possibly fatal problems. Among these is the decline in the quality of education.

 

Last week, I wrote about the compensation gap that separates full-time from adjunct faculty at UVU. The gap is a manifestation of what writer Wendell Berry calls the “divide and conquer strategy of industry,” which destroys natural communities such as a faculty for the sake of short-term efficiency and profit.

 

This compensation gap is the result of the university’s borrowing its operating paradigm from business. Full-time faculty salaries, especially in science and technology, are thus directly linked to those in industry. The trouble with this practice is that unlike industry, universities are not, and should not be, profit centers, the so-called “University” of Phoenix notwithstanding. To keep up with salaries in the private sector, universities must therefore increase tuition and hold other salaries such as those of adjuncts to a minimum. Like all economies of scale, this is a false economy, for it hides the true cost of doing business, the cost that adjuncts feel when it comes time to pay THEIR bills.

 

The compensation gap, however, is but one symptom of the false industrial economy that now governs academics. Other symptoms are all around us. They include the outright purchase of academic talent and good will by industry.

 

At the University of Utah, for example, Energy Solutions, the nuclear waste company, recently bought $1 million of academic good will by endowing a chair in nuclear engineering. Administrators at the U. will probably disagree with my assessment of this gift as buying favor. They’ll respond that Energy Solutions is just doing the public-spirited thing by supporting a local school.

 

But the danger of such gifts, like those the Greeks gave to Troy, is that they usually come at the cost of our independence and indeed of our lives. The danger that Energy Solutions potentially poses to Utahns scarcely needs elaboration. Where in the local community will we find independent experts able to objectively evaluate such risks if not at our universities? How objective can such people be when they’re beholden to the firms they’re evaluating?

 

Are my concerns overblown? Let’s consider another case from the U. An acquaintance of mine is a senior faculty member in the engineering department. Until a few years ago, he was an outspoken critic of fossil fuels. Then one day his dean called him in and warned him to soften the criticism because it was putting corporate investment in the department at risk. The dean even had the temerity to call my friend’s wife, who is also an outspoken critic, and lecture her. Since that time, my friend has been noticeably absent from public debate about fossil fuels in Utah. Thankfully, his wife remains vocal. She does not draw a paycheck from the U.

 

Similar kinds of conflict of interest can be multiplied ad nauseam. But our universities are not paying heed to the ethical compromises they’re making. Indeed, universities are themselves actively commercializing their “intellectual property.” And faculty themselves often lead dual lives of “academic” research and private business building. Students are inevitably drawn into this dynamic as research assistants and as captive audiences in the classroom.

 

Even more worrying, though, is the way that this business-oriented approach has come to define the purpose of education in general. In the minds of most Americans today, education isn’t about the refinement of the mind or the shaping of character but about job training. Students leave the university narrowly prepared for their chosen career–a career that will likely change three or four times during their life–but unprepared for almost everything else. They’re especially unprepared to deal with the kinds of human issues for which corporate America has no time.

 

Yet it is these human issues that are the decisive problems of our time. Preventing catastrophic climate change, for example, is not principally a challenge of science or technology. We actually have the science and the technology to solve this problem. Our failure to do so is not the result of inadequate technical know-how but of inadequate imagination and will. It’s a failure of ethics and spirituality. It’s a failure of all those qualities of life that come under the rubric of the humanities, those increasingly marginalized subjects that people like me get paid a pittance to teach.

 

Industry has infected academics, perhaps fatally, with the culture of artificial cheapness and the lure of profits. With the lure of profits, industry buys our finest minds. In so doing, its ultimate act of “divide and conquer” is to separate us from our own best interests, for profit-making in modern America almost always comes at the cost of general well-being.

 

We’ve become blind to this fact thanks to another of industry’s insidious influences: specialization. In the compartmentalization of knowledge and action that now characterizes American university life, faculty and students can take refuge in the idea that the big problems that face us are outside their realm of expertise and therefore also outside their moral responsibility. Herein lies the greatest problem with running a university like a business: businesses answer principally to the bottom line. Their obligations to humanity are among the many externalized and quickly forgotten costs that are at the heart of our biggest problems. In reality, we have no environmental problems or educational problems or health care problems today; we have only ethical ones.

 

By Ed Firmage, Jr.
Guest Writer

Ed Firmage, Jr. teaches Latin and humanities at UVU. Trained in classics at Princeton, he holds an M.A. in ancient history from U. C. Berkeley, where he was a Mellon Fellow in the Humanities. From 1986-1988, he was a Rotary Foundation Scholar at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

One Response to "The business of education and other lies"

  1. Scott Abbott   April 4, 2012 at 6:56 am

    Academic freedom is the sine qua non of a university. When it is run as a business, as Professor Firmage so well points out, we’ve got something other than a university.

    Reply

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