The Struggle Against Corporate Takeover of the University


In 1984 I was invited to give a talk at Indiana University–Pennsylvania shortly after I lost my teaching job at a branch of the University of Wisconsin system. I entitled my talk “Toward a Corporate Service Station” because I believed this described the direction in which universities and colleges were headed. I thought that the ideals of the university, although often contested and interpreted differently by various constituencies, were being compromised by corporate power, and dissenters in the academy were being rooted out. It was a bad time and a “mean season” for anyone who questioned Reagan’s “morning in America” optimism.

When I look back at that period it seems clear that universities were beginning to mimic the conservative trend in politics that Reagan helped to popularize. This was not the first time that universities had lost their nerve and bowed to pressure from the right; much the same had happened during the McCarthy era. Despite their professed openness to a diversity of opinion, universities seem to be particularly vulnerable to political pressure from the larger society. My fears about the university turning into a corporate service station were well-founded; they prefigured what is happening now in higher education.

During the George W. Bush era, we have witnessed:

— A broad attack on the mission of the university, leading to a blurring of the lines between the university and the corporate world;

— A mobilization of bias to shape faculty research in the direction of corporate priorities, including an elevation of grantsmanship into a major criterion for evaluating faculty performance;

— An ideological offensive by the right on the professorate, spearheaded by David Horowitz’s shrill attacks on universities as havens for leftists;

— A reduction in the role of student participation in the college experience to those concerns related to being a “customer”;

— An assault on the craft of teaching and a questioning of the value of face-to-face teaching in higher education;

— A concerted effort against clerical, food service, and maintenance workers, as well as some professional staff on campus, through privatization and union decertification campaigns;

— A major effort by universities to outsource services previously performed in-house, such as maintenance of grounds and buildings, travel services, motor pools, food service, and the operation of bookstores; and

— An attempt to transform service to the community by faculty and students into service to government, corporate, and non-profit elites.

All these trends are much more pronounced today than they were in the 1980s, because of the failure by members of the university community to defend its democratic ideals against the attacks that began under Reagan. These ideals, despite the different ways they are viewed by different protagonists, constituted a bedrock defense of the university as being a distinctive place, necessarily separate from and sometimes incompatible with corporate agendas. Lulled into a false sense of security by the notion that the academy was somehow insulated from trends in the larger political economy, faculty often said to each other “it could happen someplace else – some lesser college or university – but it could not happen on this campus.” The university, for many faculty, was a sort of feudal castle guarded by a large moat which protected them from the encroachment of outside forces. By the 1980s the counterattack against the student and anti-war movements which had transformed academe in the 1960s and early 70s was well under way, and the academy became more inward-looking and consumed by status hierarchies that muted any remaining attempts at democratization.

However, in the new millennium the chickens have come home to roost and the democratic ideal of the university (which was always contested by social forces both inside and outside the institution) is now for sale to the highest bidder. This trend is more pronounced, of course, in the sciences than in the humanities and social sciences, but the threat of corporate domination over the university as a whole grows stronger each day. The entire university is being subjected to the logic of profit, which is reshaping the priorities of the institution and degrading the everyday practice and culture of higher education. Such has been the impact of the right-wing assault. As Frances Fox Piven shows in her 2006 book, Challenging Authority, during times in which progressive social movements are in retreat, elites seek to take back any earlier concessions. It is in this context that we must view the corporate counterattack. In a society in which hope for bringing about social change is often blunted by cynicism and rampant consumerism, corporations seek to turn universities into their handmaidens.

Evidence of an attempted corporate takeover of the university abounds. David Noble’s Digital Diploma Mills, for example, discusses the threat of distance education and efforts by universities to gain control over intellectual property. More recently, Jennifer Washburn’s University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education, highlights corporate abuses in the sciences. Chris Mooney’s book, The Republican War on Science, provides additional documentation of the attempt to corporatize science, raise doubts about scientific findings, and marginalize basic scientific research.

The attempted coup by big business is combined with an ideological onslaught on those who stand against corporate hegemony in higher education. Witness what has happened to Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado, Norman Finkelstein at DePaul University, or constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky at the University of California-Irvine (who was denied a deanship), as well as other faculty who have denounced the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. Websites which encourage students to report professors who exhibit “bias” have received considerable publicity. They define bias as simply questioning the status quo, or possibly noting instances in which the Bush administration has violated the Constitution, the law, or international agreements, or even just looking at American society from outside the mainstream.

Disciplines such as Women’s Studies, Afro-American Studies, Latina/o Studies, Native American Studies, and Labor Studies all bring perspectives which implicitly challenge the social order and provide a voice for those who historically have been marginalized. In recent years labor studies departments at UCLA and Indiana University have been under attack, and even the justification for having a labor studies department at a university has been subject to intense scrutiny. Departments which offer perspectives that challenge the mainstream have in the current climate become targets for possible elimination or downsizing.

However, it is not only potentially politicized departments which face the axe. In an environment dominated by the logic of business, departments which do not generate enough revenue for the university or have difficulty bringing in grant money are also threatened. Responsibility-centered budgeting, adopted by a number of universities, now treats individual units as self-contained entities which are supposed to pay for their expenses. Some departments simply cannot fund themselves but nevertheless make a unique contribution to the university. However, the single-minded focus on revenue-generation means that they must alter their mission and concentrate on chasing higher head counts.

In short, the so-called “free marketplace of ideas” which universities have always suggested was their trademark is not so free and is increasingly shaped by the power of capital. The attempt to turn the university into a business, to run it as a business, and to utilize corporate logic and practice in overseeing workers, students, and faculty is no longer just some far-fetched nightmare of leftists. Instead, such corporate practices and orientation are defining the university’s structure and its everyday life. One illustration of this is the outsourcing of university bookstores to big chain bookstores. Books that don’t come from mainstream publishers are often not carried by the distributional networks which service these big chains, and pressure is put on faculty to adopt texts that are more readily available. Therefore, faculty who order books from presses such as Monthly Review, South End Press, Common Courage, and other smaller presses confront growing institutional barriers to the selection of books for their courses.


So how do we conceptualize what is happening to higher education, and how do we resist its increasing corporatization? It is important to recognize that this is not a new problem, as corporations have tried many times to shape the university environment (as Thorstein Veblen pointed out in his book The Higher Learning in America, 1918). When social movements fight to reform higher education and democratic impulses prevail, corporations try to reverse these gains once the pressure from inside and outside the university subsides. For insight, I turn to C. Wright Mills, and particularly his book, The Sociological Imagination. Mills continually made the case that it was important for social critics to “think big,” that is, to connect social issues to the larger institutional order. He also repeatedly asserted that it was the duty of intellectuals to be critical of present institutional arrangements and to reject the idea that these arrangements were a given, or to be considered part of the natural order of things. For Mills, intellectuals who failed to question the status quo or the bigger picture abdicated their responsibility. Contemporary critics such as David Noble, Jennifer Washburn, Stanley Aronowitz, and Henry Giroux have made similar arguments.

Mills further contended that a well-developed sociological imagination integrated biography, history, and social structure, and was able to incorporate these different levels of analysis. He believed that the sociological imagination could play an essential role in taking what seemed to be “private troubles” and translating them into “public issues.” Mills, like Marx, stressed that people make history, but within definite limits set by the social structure and the historical era.

Applying Mills and other critics’ ideas to the corporatization of higher education is a complicated matter and involves many levels of analysis. The university as an institution occupies a contradictory location in capitalist society, as it represents a number of competing institutionalized thought-structures and constituencies. It is also a large employer, which at least in the past has provided relatively secure jobs to a wide range of workers. In recent years higher education has faced a changing environment with ever expanding financial pressures. State financial support for public universities has dropped steadily, and at the same time universities have been asked to play a bigger role in jumpstarting a stagnating economy.

On the surface it might seem that administrators, faculty, and students share similar goals, when actually their interests are often very much at odds. Add to this mixture the interests of people who work at the university in a variety of support positions and you have a unique collection of perspectives. Of course, there is great diversity of opinion within and among these different segments of the university community, but they are all increasingly buffeted by corporate influence over the university climate. In these times it seems “natural” to many people at the university and in the community to endorse and advance a corporate agenda.

Nevertheless, it is crucial not to get lost in analyzing the internal dynamics of higher education institutions. Clearly there are important struggles going on at this level, but what happens within the university must ultimately be situated in its larger context, which is the political economy of capitalism. Higher education has come to acquire greater importance in the current era because 1) it is a significant source of employment, 2) it is supposed to play a bigger role in workforce development in late capitalism, 3) it is depended upon to generate product spinoffs and intellectual property that are to fuel the knowledge-based economy, 4) it is to produce the so-called “symbolic analysts” that Robert Reich and others feel are so important to a creative society, and 5) it plays such a crucial role in producing ideological justifications for the current social arrangements.

The attempted corporate takeover of the university is part of the ever-present search by capitalists to cultivate new areas of profitability and to pacify an institutional sector (higher education) which historically has fostered dissent and resisted commodification. Higher education has also frequently served as an agent of social control by socializing and “cooling out” the next generation. That higher education would be targeted as this point for further corporatization is predictable, because it constitutes a critical sector in the so-called “new economy.” The university’s twin functions – as an engine for the knowledge-based economy and as an agent of social control – make it an important arena of class struggle.

Capitalists seek not only to mold the university to their own interests, but also to marginalize challengers to corporate hegemony. To accomplish this task, university culture must be commodified, and the logic of capital must thoroughly penetrate the university’s administration. While big business and the university have always been linked, the current corporate counterattack is much more explicit. Business models for running higher education have become more acceptable in an era when countervailing social forces (unions, social movements) have been substantially weakened and the range of alternatives considerably narrowed. The more successful this corporate penetration becomes, the more the logic of profit presents itself as the natural order of things, until members of the university community do not see any other reasonable alternatives. Nor do they see that there is a problem with the university being run like a business.

In an age in which state legislatures are very stingy in their support for higher education, the call for more efficient allocation of campus resources seems to be a necessity. As Jennifer Washburn argues in her above-cited book, the “public interest” is equated with serving the needs of private industry:

Traditionally, the university‘s public-interest mission was far more expansive: to open new scientific frontiers, to educate and train the next generation of scholars and world leaders, to advance technological and industrial development, to perform disinterested research, to preserve humankind’s great intellectual and cultural achievements, to provide expert advice and public service, to protect the public domain of knowledge, and to serve as a critic and conscience of society. “Public service” meant providing service not only to powerful constituencies … but also to farmers, laborers, the poor and disaffected. (227)

But in a university oriented toward profit, the goals of the institution have been substantially altered. As Washburn observes,

In the classroom, deans and provosts are concerned less with the quality of instruction than with how much money their professors bring in. As universities become commercial entities, the space to perform research that is critical of industry or challenges conventional market ideology – research on environmental pollution, poverty alleviation, occupational health hazards – has gradually diminished, as has the willingness of universities to defend professors whose findings conflict with the interests of their corporate sponsors. Will universities stand up for academic freedom in these situations, or will they bow to commercial pressure out of fear of alienating their donors? (227)

Of course, this shift in orientation toward corporate priorities happens at different rates depending on the institution, but it nevertheless defines what has become the prevailing “mobilization of bias” on a growing number of college campuses. Power becomes centralized, administrators proliferate, and the faculty has far less influence (except for a few “stars” who are usually close to business and industry because corporations influence the definition of a “star” and endow these prestigious positions). Campus workers’ unions come under added pressure as their work is contracted out and privatized, and students become “customers” and ultimately cash cows for the knowledge-based economy. Students face a range of obstacles that limit their opportunities to engage in political activity as they contend with higher tuition and fees, exploitative lending institutions, hyper consumerism, greater police presence on campus, and the overall degradation of their college experience.

In the present era universities mirror the vast inequalities found in other parts of American society. Some university employees live incredibly privileged lives, while others experience pay cuts, benefit cuts, higher insurance co-pays (if they have health insurance), and other forms of marginalization. Since the university is also central to the defense and reproduction of corporate hegemony, students and others must wade through the many layers of ideological obfuscation which fragment opposition in a capitalist society and produce contradictory consciousness. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that hegemony is never one-sided domination and its contradictions leave openings for ideological and political struggle.


In the face of this aggressive corporate agenda, it is important to recognize the university as an arena of struggle. As universities run more like businesses, they not only degrade university culture and everyday life; they also create their own opposition. Moreover, they create possibilities for more unified resistance. In recent years there have been numerous examples of students, campus workers, and faculty contesting the corporate takeover. Groups united to oppose tuition increases, to block the outsourcing of campus services, to defend campus workers’ unions, to highlight the exploitation of adjunct faculty, and to criticize the emphasis on corporate-oriented research at the expense of pure research are some examples of recent responses. Parents and students as consumers of higher education have challenged college loan policies, tuition hikes, the imposition of new fees, cuts in state funding and federal support for higher education, and the singular focus on research at the expense of teaching.

In order for these actions to be effective, the level of critical consciousness must grow among all sectors of the university community. It is folly to believe that corporate forces can be effectively neutralized by actions of faculty alone. We must examine the bases of unity and strategize to oppose the degradation of university life. The common ground in this struggle is the widespread alienation and estrangement experienced by various segments of the university community. With record endowments at many universities, students, faculty, and staff wonder why some of the money is not used to lower tuition, improve services, and address other significant inequities on campus.

To address these issues we must look at the negative effects corporatization has had on the most vulnerable and potentially the most strategically located: campus service workers, clerical employees, students, and lower-level professional staff. As we saw in the 1960s, a student movement can challenge the structure of the university and bring about substantive changes. In unity with campus workers and supportive faculty, students can bring “business as usual” on campus to a halt. A new democratic movement which seeks to link the battle inside the university with community struggles and is attentive to the many ways that race, gender, and social class interact has the potential to spur student activism. As capitalism degrades life more generally in the U.S. and elsewhere, it creates opportunities for social movements to galvanize opposition.

In order to build on such opportunities, we must assist students and others on campus to translate their “private troubles” into “public issues,” to “think big,” and to reject the status quo. This will require them to develop a critical consciousness and to ultimately build a counter-hegemony which challenges corporate domination. Mills’s arguments and the work of Gramsci, Freire, Giroux, and others help clarify what is necessary to build critical consciousness in higher education. However, there are many barriers to building a political coalition on campus. Despite efforts by the right wing to paint the campus as a haven for radical leftists, the university is a conservative institution at the higher levels. Institutions of higher education change slowly because they are enmeshed in bureaucratic and ritualistic forms of organization. Potential oppositional forces are too often stuck in their own local milieux and treat university life as abstracted from the rest of their lives and from the community. While this is understandable, especially for students with job and family obligations, it is nonetheless a serious hurdle.

To escape the local campus environment that limits as well as promotes critical consciousness, it is important to link the problems faced on campus to the larger society. By translating private troubles faced on campus into public issues, there is a much greater possibility of transcending the barriers presented by the ivory tower.

Yet, these barriers are frequently disguised and difficult to apprehend. A constant obstacle to effective grassroots activity on campus is the threat of cooptation. An example of this is the current trend toward supporting service-learning projects. The transformation of student consciousness and the creation of links to community campaigns will not be forged by corporate, government, or university sponsored service-learning programs which pay little attention to social justice and structural inequities. These programs, which have received increased financial support from business and universities, create an illusion of acting in solidarity with the community. However, more often than not they blame the victim and serve the interests of elites by generating favorable public relations for the very institutions that generate inequality, regulate the poor, and promote institutional racism and sexism.

In place of such symbolic and largely top-down community involvement, a new grassroots student and worker movement must be carefully linked to the larger struggle against the reign of capital, and it must be mindful of attempts by elites to shape and redirect political activism. This movement must be engaged in both an ideological battle – a battle of ideas and an effort to unmask and critique conservative justifications for existing social arrangements – and an economic and political fight to improve the conditions of work and learning in the academy. The struggle against the corporate takeover of the university is an important part of a larger campaign for social justice and democracy.

The recent formation of the new Students for Democratic Society (SDS) is an encouraging development on this front. Despite having to address some of the political baggage and long-lasting conflicts associated with the SDS of the 1960s, students have organized more than 250 chapters of the new SDS on campuses ranging from high schools to universities.

At their founding convention in August 2006, the new SDS confronted a number of important issues related to autonomy of local chapters, links to faculty support groups, and involvement in labor and community struggles. Adopting some of the strategies of web-based organizing campaigns and of other student protest groups, as well as lessons learned from grassroots consensus-based organizations, the new SDS shows considerable promise. While students seem more open to progressive political ideas in recent years, they now confront a growing and more resourceful military-industrial-academic complex. In response, the new SDS has conducted multi-issue campaigns which transcend campus boundaries and seek to build broader alliances. So far, these campaigns have been locally centered.

What remains to be seen is whether the new SDS can effectively organize on a national basis as well as reach working-class students who are necessarily preoccupied with trying to stay in school in an uncertain economy. The absence of a military draft as a galvanizing force and the myriad problems facing students in this era (including much more sophisticated repressive measures) make it more difficult for the SDS to build a wider social movement. Despite these barriers, student leaders have displayed considerable awareness on a range of issues and a commitment to bringing business as usual to a halt.

As Henry Giroux argues in his new book, The University in Chains, a multi-layered strategy is necessary to retake the university. The corporatized, militarized, and intellectually compromised university must be challenged on all levels – economic, political, cultural, and ideological. The battle to retake the university is just one of the fronts in the fight for social justice and democracy. However, this front is growing in significance and has the potential to be a catalyst for other oppositional social movements.


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