The "corporatization" of higher education


Chuck Doswell

Posted: 11 May 2002 Updated:

As usual, this reflects my own opinions only and is not officially condoned or approved by anyone but me. This material is copyrighted, so please ask me [] before any duplication or use of this essay. You also are encouraged to engage me in discussions about this topic.


It seems to me that universities and colleges are looking less and less like educational institutions and more and more like corporations. At the same time, what used to be correctly seen as "state-supported" schools have changed into "state-associated" schools; that is, the fraction of the university budget provided by the state has rapidly dwindled, to the point where it is now only a small part of that budget in many universities described as "state supported" schools. The increasing parsimony of state legislatures with regard to higher education is mystifying, as the value of education to a state ought to be obvious, but it seems that universities have acquiesced to budget cuts and indeed sought elsewhere to make up the deficits.

This means that if the university is to continue to operate its programs, it necessarily must seek support elsewhere. There are several avenues available:

I will talk about each of these, in turn, and then consider some other things I see happening.


Federal Research Grants

Federal research grants nominally support only individual researchers, but universities typically charge overhead beyond the actual needs of the researchers. These are known as "indirect costs" and are, in my opinion, quite legitimate. That is, if a researcher does some work at the university, s/he is using a considerable infrastructure provided by that university. Therefore, it is proper for that university to ask the funding agency to help support that infrastructure in which the research takes place. To some extent, the university may actually use that overhead income to support that particular researcher, directly or indirectly (through spending in support of the department in which the research takes place). This is the way in which a lot of scientific research in universities gets funded, and universities are increasingly asking their faculty to support themselves via this "soft money" process, owing to shrinking state budgets for higher education.

It has been traditional for many faculty to receive 9 months support from the state to serve as an academic professor: teach courses, advise students, and generally serve as a teacher and mentor of the students. The tradition also held that the faculty would have to seek "soft money" support through grants to cover the remaining 3 months of the year - the "summer" when they would not necessarily be serving the students.

Of late, it seems that this traditional arrangement is changing. Often, fewer than 9 months of state support are being provided, and so the faculty more and more are coming to depend on soft-money support. There are various ways to view this, but one facet is that many faculty have come to see teaching as an impediment to their research programs! The university and department administrations clearly are happiest (which means promotions, favorable tenure decisions, monetary awards, etc.) when faculty members are bringing in lots of soft-money support. The sacred triangle of academic faculty - teaching, research, and "service" (to the university) - is being tilted heavily in favor of research because that's where the money is! If you bring in money, then no one cares a lot about how much service you actually do, or how good a teacher you might be.

At most "big time" research institutions (the big "state-supported" universities), teaching and mentoring students is becoming an afterthought to many faculty members, and when faculty members are largely responsible for their own soft-money support, they can avoid much of a teaching load. They become prima donnas, since they generally don't have to answer to anyone except the funding agencies for whom they truly work! Students at these schools often rightfully feel they the faculty aren't very concerned about their needs as students. They become merely a source of low-paid help that do the "grunt work" for research projects.

Curiously, at the "second tier" universities, which have traditionally emphasized teaching and which typically have little or no research support infrastructure, faculty are increasingly being forced to do "research" as well as carry their standard high teaching load. This is apparently because the research is seen by the university bureaucrats as adding to the prestige of the university. The fact that the university is ill-equipped to do first-rate research at the same level as their rivals at the "big time" research schools is apparently not relevant ... reminds me of some "Dilbert" cartoon. Prestige means the university can ask for higher tuition, alumni donors become more generous, etc. In other words, it comes down to money, again, even at what used to be essentially teaching institutions!

Seeking grants, then, has become a major force influencing professors in the academic world. The time spent writing grant proposals is time that must be subtracted from teaching, research, and service ... after all, the time available for a professor is a fixed quantity.


Tuition Increases

There have been several trends seen recently in academia that obviously are tied to the increasing role that tuition plays in the university budget. First, there is a premium placed on the importance of potentially large enrollment courses offered by some departments. Given the standard curricula in most departments, general education ("gen ed") courses have high enrollments and, therefore, are big income generators. The same can be said for "service" courses that are required in most curricula. The introductory math, chemistry, physics, etc. courses that are standard prerequisites for many different programs around the university (i.e., are required for most curricula) also generate large enrollments (and lots of tuition dollars!). Some departments may be compelled to offer introductory courses for non-majors simply to compete with departments having many "service" courses for the tuition dollars they provide.

Programs that have considerable intellectual rigor (notably, math and science programs) and which challenge most incoming students often struggle to get enrollment numbers when they're not "service course" departments. Meteorology is often at this disadvantage in the university department evaluation process ... it's too difficult a subject to attract large numbers of students if they're not required to take such a course.

Second, there is the so-called retention problem. If students change majors or drop out of the university before they complete a departmental curriculum in their declared major field, then this means that department isn't bringing in the full 4-5 years' worth of tuition for the university. There is pressure being brought to bear by university administrations on departments to increase their retention percentages (i.e. those who graduate after completing a full program). Inevitably, this boils down to a call to reduce academic standards, and it also puts departments that teach challenging material at a competitive disadvantage when compared to programs that are less demanding of students.

The burden of increased tuition falls naturally on the parents of enrolling students, who will be providing the lion's share of this. It certainly can be argued that students (and their parents) should bear some of the costs of a program that increases the value of its graduates in the workplace. However, this also implies that the primary reason for an education is an economic one. While there can be no doubt that the economic value of a university education can be substantial, there are some degree programs whose economic value is obviously much lower than that of other programs. Such a value system puts those programs at a disadvantage, and more so if they are rigorous programs, as noted already. Their course tuitions are the same as those for courses that have large economic value for their graduates.

Third, a direct consequence of depending on tuition for an increasing share of the budget is the ugly and pervasive reality of rampant grade inflation and its corresponding dilution of educational standards. Between the university administration not wanting many students to flunk out (and take their tuition dollars with them), and the lawyers pushing litigation against faculty members who attempt to maintain academic rigor, it seems that A's have become an expectation of most students. It's hard to imagine all the negative consequences of this egregious practice. When I was in high school (the same applies to universities), my 2.97 GPA was actually in the top 10 percent of my graduating class ... when my son graduated 30 years later, his 3.25 GPA wasn't even in the top 25 percent! We had one 4.0 GPA in my class of 400+ graduates ... in my son's class of 600+, there were more than forty 4.0 GPAs! I shudder to think how this has grown in the nearly 10 years since my son's graduation. How do we recognize truly exceptional student performance, when "perfection" is so common? Do we actually believe that students have become that much smarter and more truly successful? I have written about academic standards elsewhere, so I won't belabor the point, but an obvious consequence of tuition hikes as a way to recover lost state revenue support lead universities pretty much inevitably to grade inflation and lowering of academic standards!


Donations from Alumni and Other Benefactors

A common theme for graduates of any institution these days is a flood of junk mail, dunning alumni to send in their contributions. When I recently donated to two universities on behalf of a student who was tragically killed before completing his Ph.D. program, I suddenly found myself on their mailing lists for all the crap they normally send to their alumni. Now, not only do I have to dump the trash that arrives from my two different alma maters, but I'm getting the same junk from two more! How long will it take for the cost of the junk mailings to eat up all the donations that I gave? It seems of late that universities have joined the long list of institutions, organizations, and businesses that devote considerable resources to seeking more resources!! Apparently, they are successful enough, on average, to more than repay the costs of all this, but it is annoying and disturbing to see how much money it takes to raise money these days. To say nothing of having to deal with the torrent of junk mail.

If one is rich, of course, it's possible to buy "immortality" by getting a building named for you, or by funding an endowed chair in your name, or whatever. University administrations are actively preying on wealthy peoples' need to feel important. It also works by laying a guilt trip on alumni. But what matters, of course, is the "bottom line" ... it apparently works! Universities are often quite willing to suck up to rich alumni, regardless of the consequences or conditions. I don't deny it is the right of benefactors to set conditions, but I also believe that universities should be willing occasionally to refuse to submit to some conditions set by potential benefactors.


Sports program and donations

Another way to get alumni donations, of course, is to have successful sports programs. Student athletics has become "big time" sports business in many universities. If your school is contending for a national championship in your favorite sport, then you not only are more willing than usual to send in your alumni donations, but you buy the official university paraphernalia: t-shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, caps, university license plate holders, coffee mugs with the university logo, souvenir flags, university mascot stuffed dolls, etc., etc. The university takes a cut from such licensed sales and pursues prosecution of unlicensed "knock-offs" with the full vigor allowed by law. A successful sports program (i.e., contending for national championships) is a "cash cow" for any university.

Hence, athletes get special treatment, successful coaches get high salaries, and considerable resources go to build new additions to stadiums, etc. Whereas academic programs get in trouble for being selective and tough on students (academic standards ... remember?), athletic programs are rewarded for seeking the best "students" that money can buy and washing out the also-rans! It once again comes down to money. Athletic success brings in those alumni and benefactor dollars ... period!


Budget Cuts

When budgets shrink, it is typical for bureaucrats to impose them as across-the-board cuts, rather than making decisions about what programs to cut versus those that should be retained. It's easier as a bureaucrat to impose a small pain on everyone, instead of focusing the pain on a few. The pernicious part, of course, is that programs die a slow death this way ... the torture of a "thousand cuts" instead on one quick execution. Universities , as well as government institutions (including legislatures), are run by bureaucrats (and/or politicians). They share this spineless approach to dealing with budget reductions. I think it is more courageous for those proposing cuts to make hard decisions about what matters, rather than simply spreading the agony around. But courage among bureaucrats (and politicians) is in short supply ...


Corporate Support

Given that corporations are the beneficiaries of the education provided by universities, it is perhaps logical and appropriate for them to support them. That is, the graduates have been certified as having successfully completed programs that companies feel are beneficial. However, there are some thorny issues posed when corporations underwrite university programs. It's clear that whoever pays the piper calls the tune. It is not difficult to imagine that corporate support for universities may well come with strings attached. These might be subtle but will be there, nevertheless. It's virtually inevitable.

Moreover, corporate-sponsored research in universities is full of potential pitfalls when it comes to who owns the results of that research? If a research program leads to successful results, is it in the interest of the corporation for those results to appear in a refereed journal for all to read and use? Might they prefer to consider the results of research they've sponsored to be proprietary information? Many ethical pitfalls can be created by corporate sponsorship of research. Of course, as Federal funds in support of research fluctuate, it becomes increasingly attractive to seek corporate contributions. Then there is the ugly prospect of an Enron-like, scandal-driven corporate collapse and the fallout it might have on university programs sponsored by that corporation.

Universities traditionally have been places where wide diversity of ideas is encountered and tolerated, even those ideas that are unpopular in the states that "support" the university . [See here for an example] When corporations provide a substantial share of the university's budget, how tolerant will they be of professors and students who question corporate practices and products? It's not hard to imagine threatened withdrawal of corporate support when the heat is turned up by social activists on a university campus who are pursuing ideas contrary to the pecuniary interests of a sponsoring corporation. Is this the kind of university we want, where only "mainstream" ideas are permitted expression? Do we want professors (and students) who advocate unpopular ideas to be driven from our campuses? Is a whitewashed environment the best environment for challenging our young people?


Influence of the "Business Model"

As the process of withdrawal of state legislature-funded university support goes on, and the aforementioned funding sources become the predominant means to maintain university programs, the influence of the "business model" grows in proportion. An apparently major factor in selecting members of state higher education governing boards (e.g., "Regents") in today's world is that the candidates often are wealthy business patrons of the university. What qualifications do many state governing board members have to set policy for an educational institution? In many cases, it seems to me that their qualifications are minimal ... except that they're wealthy, successful business people. [In some situations, bankers on the board could be said to have a direct conflict of interest when it comes to tuition increases ... the parents and students go to banks for loans to pay for increased tuition!] The administrators of the universities are increasingly seen as successful in terms of their fund-raising abilities. Thus, the university administration is likely to evaluate their programs primarily on their income-generating activities, rather than their commitment to the actual education of students.

Another facet of the traditional educational institution is an emphasis on giving students a basic education to equip them to function in virtually any role in our society. That is, the emphasis has traditionally been on education, not training. Training for specific jobs used to be a function that the university expected to be covered by the employers of its graduates. As the influence of the "business model" grows, it seems to me that employers are increasingly expecting the university to provide what used to be considered training programs that, in the past, have been covered by trade schools or the employers themselves. Student expectations of the university have changed, as well, such that students are less concerned with getting a diverse, basic education that was the traditional fare in a university, and more concerned with obtaining what amounts to job-specific training!


Reflections on the future

Perhaps I'm simply a dinosaur, watching the arrival of the doomsday asteroid and failing to accept that the world is changing. I wonder how today's graduates are going to fare in the real world that demands they be well-equipped to make important societal decisions about many diverse issues. How will things go for them if their first job turns out to be not what they wanted? Will they have a flexible basis for re-training in some new job? I believe that there is great value in a truly "liberal" education* that serves university graduates well through all of life's complex twists and turns, equipping them to be not simply productive jobholders but also to be responsible citizens in a representative democracy, which puts a premium on understanding of complex issues.

The world may indeed be changing, but many human problems and concerns remain very nearly constant. When we're young, we tend to regard adults as old fuddy-duddies who just don't understand what young folks are about. They seem dumb and out-of-touch with our version of "reality." It's only later when we learn that the oldsters were often right about a lot of things and they actually weren't all that different from us! Evolution drives a lot of what we are and so many facets of our lives are tied to that slowly-evolving part of what a human being is. Surely culture change doesn't remove many of the basic human drives and needs (food, shelter, sex, etc.), and those are necessarily major factors in any culture.

If universities are to become little more than extensions of the corporate world, instead of retaining their traditional role of exposing students to diverse opinions and giving them a flexible basis for their future, then I believe they will need to be replaced by some new institution that will actually take over this role. If we allow our citizens to be successful jobholders without simultaneously being responsible citizens, then I despair for the future of our great nation. We will slide into some ugly fate, at least some aspects of which might unfortunately be accurately portrayed in any of a large number of science fiction books and movies about a rapacious, technology-driven, corporate-dominated future.

* Note that a "liberal" education has nothing to do with liberals vs. conservatives! Rather, the phrase describes a wide-ranging program of arts, sciences, communication skills, mathematics, history, and so on. Many believe that the so-called "liberal arts" are limited to subjects other than math and science. Perhaps I'll write another essay on this topic someday. For the moment, suffice it to say that someone in today's technology-dominated world who has no math and science background is ill-equipped to make responsible decisions as a citizen in a representative democracy. Actually, I think I can do no better than the fine essay on the subject written by John P. Wiley, Jr., in the Smithsonian Magazine (October 1997).