Niels Burger: Corporate Logic and the Authoritarian University

Niels Burger: Corporate Logic and the Authoritarian University

"Insofar as a society is dominated by the attitudes of competitive business enterprise, freedom in its proper American meaning can not be known, and hence, can not be taught. That is the basic reason why the schools and colleges, which are, presumably, commissioned to study and promote the ways of freedom are so weak, so confused, so ineffectual." Alexander Meiklejohn, former Amherst College President

Colleges and universities were created to serve the public interest. Public schools were formed explicitly as a state service, with taxes which we the people paid to the government. The group that governed state schools, the Regents, was responsible to the elected governor the state - and ultimately to the people. Even private colleges and universities were founded when the elected state legislatures granted a group of people a corporate charter to form a school. This arrangement was a trust between this private group, the trustees, and the larger society. They were granted the legal privilege to govern all aspects of the school and were given limited personal liability for their actions; in exchange, they served the educational needs of the larger society.

In addition to being chartered by the elected officials of the state, our colleges and universities were granted non-profit status by the federal government. This meant that the school, as a public service, paid no taxes and those who gave contributions would receive tax write-offs.

Local communities receive no tax revenue from schools even though colleges and universities benefit from basic town services such as fire, police, and road maintenance. Our schools, both public and private, also receive large amounts of government money through grants for research and scholarship.

To this day the trustees of a college or university are the corporation of the school. (For the sake of simplicity I will write trustees when referring to both trustees and regents.) They have the legal authority to make all the school's major decisions. They hire the president, the vice-president, and the treasurer. They set the basic guidelines for the curriculum. They decide how to invest the school's endowment and whether to raise tuition. the decide whether to build a new building or close a department.

The Board of Trustees is supposed to be made up of alumni, faculty, and important members of the community. In fact, according to professor Ben Bagdikian of the University of California, "Corporate executive are the largest single group of represented on the governing boards of colleges and universities." Because the school's endowment is usually considered over other factors, the self-selecting trustees tend to choose the wealthy and corporate executives over people who would bring other, non-corporate, perspectives to the governance of the school. The school president is also selected (again by the trustees themselves) more often on the basis of fund-raising connections than any other criterion. As a result, many board members, while often individually decent people, will tend to govern from a corporate perspective. Without mechanisms for democratic participation there is no way to ensure that schools respond to the needs of students and larger community.

In his book, "In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations", Jerry Mander describes eleven inherent rule of corporate behavior. Our colleges and universities may call them selves non-profit corporations, but still exhibit many of these for-profit corporate behaviors. Consider which of the following applies to you school.

1. The Profit Imperative: Profit is the ultimate measure of success in corporate decisions.
2. The Growth Imperative: Corporations live or die based on whether they can sustain growth.
3. Competition and Aggression: The promotion of competition between administrators, students, departments and schools.
4. Amorality: Not being human, corporations have no altruistic goals.
5. Hierarchy: Corporations are structured like pyramids with decisions made at the top.
6. Quantification: Corporations require that subjective information be put in objective form.
7. Dehumanization: Corporations treat people like workers and consumers.
8. Exploitation: People's resources and natural resources are seen as products to be used.
9. Corporations exist beyond time and space.
10. Opposition to Nature: Corporations need to dominate nature to make money.
11. Homogenization: Corporations desire to make everyone conform as consumers.

To the extent that these principles apply to our schools, they contradict the very purpose for colleges and universities in our society. We can learn to think critically about our society and its structures when our schools are pervaded by this corporate thinking and structure. The corporate and undemocratic structure of our schools could be common theme to many of our individual, local campaigns.

For example, we could research our school's Board of Trustees, and question their position as the governors of our college. We could find the original charters of our colleges to exhume their original intent (check your state government). We could study where the college's money comes from and where it goes. We could research our schools' relationships to the local communities.

Essential to this work is imagining an alternative. What would we do differently if we, along with other members of our schools and communities, ran our schools? Imagine how different our schools would be if they were based on democracy and education rather than profit; sustainability rather than growth; cooperation rather than competition; and equality rather than hierarchy.

Student Activist Resources for Challenging Corporate Control of Universities