Opinion: Let the pandemic kill corporate higher ed

Caleb Owens HeadshotXander Opiyo/THE REVIEW


You have, by now, probably read a number of optimistic predictions about what will follow the current crisis. Prefaced by the (irrationally, though comfortingly) hopeful clause of “when this ends,” pundits of all stripes have been envisioning a better post-pandemic future, one with improved public healthcare, universal base income, more generous leave policies and a general prioritization of the common good.

I hope they’re right. But in one arena — higher education — uncertainty about the new future continues to abound. As profit-minded corporate “innovators” grow giddy at the opportunity to sell their “educational technologies,” and as some welcome the era of online “learning,” professors despair that these changes will stick, and that classroom instruction is beginning its descent into digital death. Students anxiously await word on refunds, both for the now-clearly-unjustifiable costs of housing, as well as now-online instruction they know will be necessarily inferior. Small liberal arts schools, who actually respect their students, may well shutter permanently, while corporate behemoths such as the University of Delaware, who don’t, will reap the spoils.

Perhaps. Here, however, I’d like to express some cautious optimism that a better system of higher education might emerge from all of this, and explore how a system currently corrupt beyond repair might be rebuilt from the coming rubble.

First, that system.

The core of everything wrong with this university and so many others concerns its “corporate” structure. What does this mean, exactly? As the university itself will tell you each time it attempts to evade public transparency, this institution of learning, like most others, is run “like a corporation.” We have a board, comprising people with neither expertise in nor commitment to public education. We have lobbyists, who hang out in Dover and D.C. to ensure that the university continues to make more money. Like all other corporations, we have propaganda organs (UDaily) and a department (The Office of Communications and Marketing) devoted to regulating speech that might be bad for our brand.

In short, it means everything here — you included — is reducible to dollar signs.

We treat people as commodities, robbing them of tens of thousands of dollars and working to sedate them — whether with fancy dorms, dining halls, gyms or tacit encouragements to get sloshed every night — under vague and misleading assurances of post-graduation prosperity. Other victims of the corporate structure, found everywhere from labs to Faculty Senate meetings, compromise their principles daily to secure needed funding or guarantee their own success on the tenure track, the specter of underemployed alternatives haunting their every movement.

If you’re just now waking up, welcome to our Brave New World.

This setup thoroughly corrupts every facet of university life, and stands in diametric opposition to the now-empty ideals the university touts. Students become sources of revenue, rather than people with dignity, and so are baited and kept around with shiny new buildings and ever-diminishing standards. The administration, rather than protecting student speech and cultivating a robust and critical campus culture, aims to suppress it at every turn (just check my inbox!). For students and faculty, research programs are guided by market incentives rather than knowledge, and faculty are hired on the same bases (but rarely as full-time employees!).

Graduate students, rather than being treated and trained as tomorrow’s leaders of the academy, are instead seen as cheap and inexhaustible teachers’ assistants and lab labor. A multimillion industry is built atop the empty jargonized bullshit so foundational to the Division of Student life — with its platitudes about “engagement” and “campus life” — and armies of mental health professionals and their related programming profit from the depression and anxiety this system is designed to produce in students, far from home and stuck in an social and economic pressure cooker. These same conditions often prevent students from speaking out in protest, the potential costs too steep.

Anybody who has been paying attention knows that the total collapse of this system was coming, and understands how the pandemic is simply expediting the inevitable. Just like Wall Street, universities such as our own have built themselves on fantastically naive assumptions of perpetual growth, dependent on a constant increase in both students and the tuition they are willing to pay. In turn, they have ignored the well-researched plunges in college-aged students this decade will bring. Class-action lawsuits were likely to, and may still, proliferate, as unemployed graduates become aware of just how badly they were exploited.

Doom was imminent, and bound to be ugly.

The present crisis may, in this regard, save higher education. As students, demanding housing refunds, face intransigent administrations and as they enjoy real food at home for the remainder of the semester, it will become clear that their 12×12 dorms and their dining hall meals were never worth $12,000, and that the university never really cared about them. As classes move online, and fail utterly, the vital importance of the classroom experience will no longer require defense. As graduates and near-graduates leave campus in debt amid a recession, the patent absurdity of tuition costs will incite outrage. Without commencement, that shining, ego-gratifying light at the end of this scam, students will reflect more intently on what, exactly, they just paid for, and the answers will be unhappy ones.

It will also become more and more clear how, at every stage of this mess, competitive corporate principles at this institution and others informed the coronavirus response more than student, staff and faculty safety. Action was only taken in a haphazard, last-minute fashion in response to institutional peer pressures and liability prospects that felt more real than the environmental ones.

If nothing else, students will exit this crisis unable to shake the realization that this fantasy can end as quickly as it began, that nothing is guaranteed and that they are the ones getting screwed, while the universities place their financial self-interest first. Economic pressures will expose higher education’s economic priorities, priorities incompatible with those of the students these universities are supposed to provide for.

So, given this setup, it’s entirely reasonable for students (consumers) to be outraged and demanding refunds of the university (service), having been deprived of the IRL product they were promised, merely exercising their consumer rights. Take this in the context of the hundreds of millions the university constantly brags about having fundraised, the millions spent each year on things (academic conferences, dinners, sports, etc.) that are of no benefit to students and the inflated administrative salaries and the university is so pathetically bereft of even a partial defense.

Of course, these commodifying conditions stand in complete opposition to a virtuous system of higher education. Public universities should be accountable to the communities they serve, and this can only be achieved when they are genuinely public. As we enter this new (and hopefully better) age of Big Government, we should completely abolish the corporate system of higher education we’ve come to accept. The era of astronomical tuition, six-to-seven figure administrative salaries and weekly Vita Nova dinners must meet its long-overdue end.

This can only happen by replacing private funding streams with public ones and restoring democracy — from the students up — to our campuses, which might again become places where students can be treated with respect.

Caleb Owens is the current Development Officer and former editor-in-chief of The Review. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Review’s editorial staff. Caleb can be reached at calowens@udel.edu.

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