Academia: liberal bastion or corporate dream?

Campuses, denounced as havens for socialism, actually embody a capitalistic model that conservatives should love

July 12, 2011|By Alexander E. Hooke

Is higher education a bastion of liberalism? Does it undermine its own principles of diversity by discriminating against certain political minorities?

Numerous conservatives contend that the answers to both questions are obvious. At least since Allan Bloom's "Closing of the American Mind" 25 years ago, critics have complained that colleges and universities are being overtaken and corrupted by liberalism — and even worse, "socialism." This victory has sparked not only a pernicious disregard for traditional education; it has also led to a degenerate climate where conservatives feel they are victimized as a minority. (As an example, a full-time college professor asserted on this page recently that he and other conservative academics feel they are targets of bias.)

Such complaints are ill-founded. During the last several decades, the academic world has increasingly become a conservative's dream: a citadel of capitalism. Yes, surveys show that most college professors claim some vague allegiance to liberalism, but this has minor significance. While they are allotted their trendy moments and causes — sustainability, multiculturalism, ecosensitivity and the rest, too numerous to mention — academics are largely subsumed by a pervasive, conservative corporate climate.

This begins with students. For years, they have been considered consumers and customers. They are investing in their future by taking out substantial loans to attend classes. Thus, schools expect to give them a "bang for their buck" or a "return for being a stakeholder." In precorporate academic life, orientation was a voluntary campus visit that lasted a couple of hours. Now it is often a mandatory two-day event to ensure that students are committed to their first major investment.

Faculty members contribute to this climate. Whereas in precorporate academic life a syllabus was one or two pages, today it serves as a quasi-legal document that runs up to 10 pages, replete with duties, deadlines and punishments. Students might be required to sign such documents, as if they are participating in a business contract. And it is their loss if they neglect to read the fine print.

The hierarchal and competitive nature of today's academic world should also please conservatives. Chancellors are now regarded as CEOs rather than as scholars hoping to nourish the college's intellectual traditions. Most readers know of the exorbitant money paid to college football and basketball coaches and how the millions of dollars pharmaceutical giants pour into research threaten scholarly integrity. Less known is that numerous professors are accorded superstar status. As free agents, they command huge salaries and reduced work load (even jobs for their spouses) from schools courting their services. Institutions can afford these superstars since much of their profits rely on a large and inexpensive labor pool of adjunct professors and graduate teaching assistants. And the superstars, liberal or not, acquiesce to this capitalist structure.

Like Fortune 500 companies pushing their employees to increase revenues, colleges and universities continually expand. Higher enrollment, more land and extra campuses are continually sought. One local university wiped out acres of urban forest to build a soccer stadium. Another school razed historic buildings to put up more dorms or parking garages. Objections from diversity enthusiasts were a footnote. Indeed, academic institutions resemble the little empires taught in political science and history courses.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently devoted an entire issue to the making of the corporate university. A variety of observers describe how universities hire outside consultants to give them an identity, market their reputation, and devise catchy slogans for multimedia exposure. Gaye Tuchman, a sociologist from Connecticut, drew a parallel between the audit culture of big business and the accountability obsession on college campuses. She depicted the mundane routines in which administrators, staff members, teachers and students are repeatedly asked to answer surveys and questionnaires that ostensibly help them to endlessly assess one another.

Being a college teacher is, in my view, a privileged position. In light of this sketch of the academic world, it is unfathomable how conservatives and professors continue to lament — whine might be more accurate — the rise of socialism on campus. The self-righteous pieties of liberal academics are mostly ripples in a very large lake of corporate culture.

Alexander E. Hooke is a professor of philosophy at Stevenson University. His email is ahooke@stevenson.edu.

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