Rob Jenkins

Associate Professor at Georgia State University Perimeter College

Of Corporations, Corporatization, and Corporatism

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In response to my recent post on the connection between corporate influence on higher education and the decline of shared governance, one reader wrote: “More ‘corporations are bad’ blather.” Another congratulated me for “taking on the corporatization of higher education.”

Both, unfortunately, missed the point. I wasn’t trashing corporations. And I wasn’t talking about corporatization; I was talking about corporatism.

Perhaps that sounds like a distinction without a difference. I would disagree. But before I go into that, let me first make it clear that I have no problem with corporations per se. I don’t believe they’re inherently evil. In my experience, corporations are as good or as bad as the people who run them. They have great potential for good—driving economic growth comes to mind—as well as great potential for bad. Just like most people I know.

It does seem that the larger a corporation grows—and the more the decision-making and the responsibility for those decisions get spread around—the less socially responsible and accountable to the community it becomes. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that even large corporations are inherently bad.

That said, for-profit corporations are not the same kind of entity as not-for-profit higher education institutions. The former are concerned primarily with making a profit, and only secondarily (if at all) with serving the public. The latter should be focused on the public good, first and foremost, and also on managing their resources wisely and being good stewards.

No doubt, in their efforts to be good stewards, there is much that colleges and universities can learn from responsible corporations about best practices in areas like accounting, purchasing, and financial management—areas in which many institutions are notoriously deficient. But when institutions start making decisions about academics and student services based solely on the bottom line, as if they were for-profit corporations, we refer to that as “corporatization.”

And yes, I do believe that’s a bad thing to the extent that it conflicts with our responsibility to serve the public. Corporatization is also antithetical to true shared governance, because the last thing bean-counters want is academics in a position to oppose the bottom-line agenda.

However, even worse than the corporatization of individual campuses is what I described in my last post as “corporatism.” Corporatization is a set of practices, an approach to management. Corporatism is a larger philosophy which posits that all social institutions, including and perhaps especially public education, exist to serve corporations. In a corporatist society, the interests of the state become virtually inseparable from those of large corporations and their major-donor CEOs. We sometimes refer to this as “crony capitalism.”

We already see this philosophy at work across the country in secondary schools, where the vast majority of students receive only the most basic instruction, which equips them for college only barely (if at all). Select students take more-advanced courses, and an even smaller number are placed into special programs that prepare them to be “the leaders of tomorrow.” This closely mirrors the standard corporate structure in which most workers are basically drones, with a smaller management class and an even tinier cadre of executives.

The same philosophy is now finding its way into higher education. Corporate apologists and sympathetic politicians, with the support of large corporations and allied foundations, argue that higher education can function more efficiently by herding the vast majority of students—at community colleges, regional universities, and branch campuses—into massive “open” courses, vocational “training” programs with little or no academic component, and other quasi-educational venues. Meanwhile, the future leaders of our public and private sectors will continue to receive personalized instruction at their elite institutions.

That’s the corporatist agenda, and it goes far beyond mere bottom-line decisions in the executive suite (although such decisions serve the corporatists well). It directly conflicts with our agenda as faculty members—or what ought to be our agenda, which is to provide the best possible education for all students, regardless of whether they’re at Harvard or at a community college. That means teaching them to think for themselves, helping them reach their maximum potential as human beings, and preparing them not just for careers but for life. Corporatists, by and large, want only a limited number of people who can think for themselves. The rest should be able to perform certain specific job functions and otherwise do as they’re told.

That’s why corporatism and shared governance are natural enemies: because shared governance is the only means by which faculty members can fight back against corporatist attempts to subvert our ideals. And that’s why the corporatists have recently ramped up their attacks on tenure and academic freedom—the twin pillars upon which true shared governance rests.

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