The business breakdown of the University utopia

Chris Gelardi

The University is a utopia.

Think about it. If we are to look at the University in its ideal form, we would find that it is a place defined and demarcated by space, demographics, lifestyle and ideology that encourages communal living and sets as its goal grand human development and flourishing.

It is a place where the muck and worries of the outside world are halted, sifted and filtered to be examined, explored and experimented with.

It provides itself all the necessities of well-rounded living: fresh food, clean housing, open communal space, intellectual dialogue, academic resources, an abundance of social opportunities, organized recreation and athletics, outlets for ambition, outlets to express community spirit, etc.

It is the closest thing to Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s ideal city feasible in the postmodern world.

Yet, as university life in the past half-century has expanded to meet the needs of the new generation of bachelor’s degrees, the integrity of the utopian- ness of the American university has declined. Now more than ever, it has been infected by the “real world” business model. In other words, the purity of university life is being tainted by the infiltration of the pragmatisms of corporate America.

This is happening in a variety of ways, the two most concretely visible of which being the decrease in the ratio of tenure track to adjunct professors, and the increase in the ratio of administrators to teaching professors.

Reducing the amount of tenure-track professors and replacing them with adjunct positions is as typically corporate as you can get. Instead of owing professors benefits and empowering them with job security, hiring adjuncts on a contractual basis saves money and puts administration in a position of power over the professors, the core of university life.

In a series of remarks on “The Death of the American University,” Noam Chomsky says that “it’s a part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility,” because reduced labor costs and increased labor servility are good for the bottom line.

What else is good for the bottom line? Managerial control of the workforce. And in the realm of the university, that comes in the form of professional administrators having say over the academic affairs of teaching professors. Traditionally most academic administrative positions were held by professors who rotated administrative responsibilities in order to ensure that administrative decisions were made by academics who placed the needs of the academic department over the needs of the financial department. But over the past 50 years, the number of professors at American universities has stayed relatively the same when compared to population increase, whereas the number of non-teaching professional administrative positions like deans, assistant deans and secretaries has gone way up, adding to the corporate-style bureaucratization of the university.

And who pays for these new administrators? The students, of course. In order to leave the bottom line unaffected, tuition prices bear the brunt of the costs, contributing to what is going to turn into the next great American economic bubble.

And it is not only the price of education and academic integrity that are at stake in the new university business ethic—it is the very culture of the university itself. Although the on-campus living- style university experience has become embraced as worthwhile in popular American culture, the most beneficial aspects of that culture have been stifled by the rhetoric of practicality and the job market. Increasingly it seems as though the culture of the university has been shifted from that of exploration and learning for its own sake to that of business. Instead of being a formative human experience, college is viewed as merely another stepping stone in a career path.

In pointing out these trends, I by no means am meaning to create a hostile dichotomy between business education and liberal arts. I’m sure that my friends in VSB would agree that there is something about the spirit and purity of intellectual exploration in a university setting that transcends the practical needs of the job market. No, this is about preserving the integrity of the university and its mission of educating young people in a non-corrupt setting.

Things happen at universities—changes are made. Ground-breaking research is conducted, inventions are made, ideas are formed and spread and movements are started. The “real world” is not as real as it is made out to be, and to consistently impose the drudgery of “real world organization,” “real world applications,” and “real world experience” onto the idealism of university life is to do a grand disservice not only to the students embarking on a university education, but also to society as a whole. For if the university is made to be congruent with the outside world, then nothing new happens, and changes are not made.

So the next time you hear someone start an argument with, “Well, Villanova is first and foremost a business,” stop, think, and analyze whether or not that statement is actually true. This beautiful haven of learning and flourishing is going to go through a large transformation in the next decade and a half, and it is up to the backbone of university life—the students and professors—to dictate whether or not those changes will be healthy.