John Hoben & Elizabeth Yeoman: Corporate Ethos Reshaping University Culture

John Hoben & Elizabeth Yeoman: Corporate Ethos Reshaping University Culture
John Hoben is a Canada Graduate Scholarship recipient and PhD candidate in the faculty of education at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Elizabeth Yeoman is professor of education at Memorial
CAUT Newsletter
, 55.2, Feb 08

In contrast to a corporatized bureaucracy, John Hoben and Elizabeth Yeoman propose a return to the notion of the university as a self-regulating, democratic learning community

In an era of democratic crisis, universities are abandoning their conventional role as independent sources of critical thought and moving towards becoming centralized sites of corporate-funded knowledge production.

The renaming of the prestigious Canada Graduate Scholarship as the J. Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship is just one recent indicator of the contemporary consolidation of a corporate/state alliance which oversees the funding of scholarly work.

More disturbing, the corporatization of university culture is increasingly being accepted as an inevitable aspect of the new academic “reality,” one which poses some very real dilemmas for various social and intellectual minorities whose interests and work are situated outside of the dominant corporate paradigm. This is of particular concern in relation to graduate students: first, because they are most vulnerable and second, because they may come to see this new mercantilist standard as an unalterable institutional norm.

This shift is occurring in some seemingly innocuous ways which nevertheless may augur profound cultural changes. For example, students are socialized into the process of proposal writing, given courses on how to prepare successful grant applications, and, more important, forcefully reminded that funding is an integral part of academic success.

In a sense, we are seeing the rise of an informal culture of “teaching to the test” with students being taught not so much how to ask good questions, but how to shape their proposals to attract funding. At the same time, the principal and most prestigious source of funding in the social sciences and humanities in Canada is currently using language like “an entrepreneurial advantage that translates knowledge into practical applications (1) and “the key role research plays in a competitive, global, knowledge-based society and economy. (2)

Together such trends seem to obscure the fact that one of the most important pedagogical functions of the university is to create a context in which original thinkers can share and develop ideas and dissenting views can find a place to work their way into an atrophying public sphere.

Perhaps, then, we need to consider the possibility that research funding has come to constitute a powerful hidden curriculum. In this respect, we seem to have forgotten John Stuart Mill’s admonition that the public interest often requires the protection of forms of expression whose value or utility are not immediately evident. Instead, we have come to rely on a very narrow notion of merit as a kind of intellectual Calvinism that threatens to hide the profound ethical and epistemological losses which are an inevitable corollary of such a Manichean scheme.

Some have argued that corporate influence in the “hard” sciences has led to an academic climate in which scientists are reluctant to share ideas, at the expense of intellectual innovation and public safety.

However, if it is really true that critical education is essential to the viability of a functioning democracy, shouldn’t we be even more concerned about the proliferation of rigid, corporate-driven funding criteria within the social sciences and traditional humanities? What implications do close corporate alliances and narrowly-focused research agendas have for scholarly work within fields such as education which are closely related to citizenship training and democratic values?

This overdetermination of intellectual discourse reflects a profound failure to consider that informal, uncompetitive, democratic and exploratory forums can lead to more creative thinking, to integrating various kinds of knowledge, and to making intellectual leaps in ways that more focused agendas cannot. This does not mean that funding bodies do not make possible much valuable, interesting and important work. Nor does it mean that by speaking about such issues we betray a lack of gratitude or pragmatic discernment.

In many respects, university faculty and students must come to terms with the reorganization of universities along corporate lines, not simply in relation to the corporatization of funding regimes, but also the proliferation of consumer-based approaches to course offerings, the intensive attention given to faculty funding, the erosion of tenure, and the standardization of academic curricula as well as indicia for teaching success.

However, the complexities of such changes should not be underestimated. Undoubtedly students need funding — they must publish in peer reviewed journals and they must meet the criteria specified by standardized course assessments if they want to have a university career which constitutes anything other than the most tenuous or marginal of academic existences.

Yet, despite such emergent realities, given our collective responsibility as members of democratic learning communities, we must help young intellectuals make informed ethical decisions as they assess their own values in an attempt to take up more nuanced positions which go beyond a simpleminded acquiescence to ever more intrusive changes to contemporary academic culture. More important, such efforts must be reinforced by those of tenured professors in voicing the complex politics of market reform as these issues become central to the socialization of the next generation of academics.

In contrast to a corporatized bureaucracy, or a “knowledge factory,” we propose a return to the notion of the university as a self-regulating, democratic learning community, which has a key role to play in the dissemination of not only technical knowledge, but also critical knowledge and democratic values. Quite simply, a central component of any academic ethic must be a willingness to safeguard the university against threats to its autonomy. Seen within the broader context of an increasingly authoritarian culture, the importance of pursuing the kinds of questions we are asking here cannot be overstated, even in light of potential personal and professional costs.

We suggest this is a task that requires us to redefine merit in terms of its relation to a conception of professional integrity that precludes, or at the very least resists, encroachments on the university’s autonomy in the interests of free inquiry and the broader public good.

Contrary to popular conceptions, the rewarding of merit is not a zero sum game, but is a procedural aim closely linked to a notion of distributive justice and our ability to create learning communities which are a model of the type of state and the type of future we would envision for both our children and ourselves. Such a future should not be lightly bartered away, but should be subjected to a moral accounting.

In contrast to the existing culture of complicity, a dialogue about these issues would represent an important strategy of resistance in the struggle against the destruction of collaborative learning communities through the insidious commodification of democratic critique.

1. Framing our Direction, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, p. 2,
2. Ibid, p. 3.