Fredrik deBoer, the socialist lecturer at Purdue University who is quickly becoming one of the most interesting commentators on American higher education, has a provocative piece in the New York Times Magazine that attempts to offer a unified theory of what is ailing campus political culture. It’s not, as the right typically argues, left-wing ideological intolerance (though he concedes that this is a problem), nor is it, as the campus left would have it, widespread racism and sexism (though there is progress to be made on this front, too). Rather, deBoer suggests that the real source of the campus insanity that has been circulating in the popular press for the last few years—the trigger warnings, the speech codes, the “Yes Means Yes” rules, the coddling and political correctness—is what he calls corporatization, or “the way universities operate, every day, more and more like corporations.” He continues:
As Benjamin Ginsberg details in his 2011 book, ‘‘The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters,’’ a constantly expanding layer of university administrative jobs now exists at an increasing remove from the actual academic enterprise. It’s not unheard-of for colleges now to employ more senior administrators than professors. There are, of course, essential functions that many university administrators perform, but such an imbalance is absurd — try imagining a high school with more vice principals than teachers. This legion of bureaucrats enables a world of pitiless surveillance; no segment of campus life, no matter how small, does not have some administrator who worries about it. Piece by piece, every corner of the average campus is being slowly made congruent with a single, totalizing vision. The rise of endless brushed-metal-and-glass buildings at Purdue represents the aesthetic dimension of this ideology. Bent into place by a small army of apparatchiks, the contemporary American college is slowly becoming as meticulously art-directed and branded as a J. Crew catalog. Like Niketown or Disneyworld, your average college campus now leaves the distinct impression of a one-party state.
DeBoer is clearly onto something here. Campus bureaucrats, like all bureaucrats, are often more concerned with protecting their institution and advancing their own interests than creating the best outcomes for the people that they serve. Some of what the right sees as left-wing ideological militancy on the part of college administrators—for example, the recent adoption of guilty-until-proven-innocent sexual assault policies at some schools—is actually driven more by a corporate desire to protect the college from bad press than by any particular political commitment. (The reverse is also true: some of what campus activists see as right-wing oppression by campus administrators—such as letting athletes off the hook for well-substantiated sexual assaults—has just as much to do with the university’s self-interest as it has to do with the patriarchy). Moreover, the proliferation of administrators who advertise the campus, manage publicity, and cater to their students’ every need is related the decades-long transformation of higher education from a type of public service designed to invigorate American democracy into a private service to be sold in at exorbitant prices.
At the same time, deBoer’s framing of the problem as one of “corporatization” misses an important part of the story. The problems he describes—the explosion of campus administrative positions and the crackdown on campus political freedom—might have something to do with market-oriented changes in higher education, but they have just as much, if not more, to do with very different trends: the intrusion of the federal government into higher education, and the resistance to competition among university employees. Federal spending and regulation has played a large role in driving up the tuition rates that pay for the growing army of campus administrators. Overzealous federal bureaucrats at the Office of Civil Rights have been instrumental in forcing campuses to pass speech codes and sex codes over the last few years. More broadly, the make-work administrative positions that deBoer condemns are of a piece with what we call blue-model employment—secure but inefficient jobs that are rarely available elsewhere outside of the public sector. Moreover, the American Association of University Professors’ resistance to any alterations to the tenure-for-life system drives up costs (by limiting universities’ flexibility to shift professors and resources around) and forces campuses to either hunt for corporate sponsors, hire low-paid adjuncts, jack up tuition still higher, or go hat-in-hand to the federal government.
It might be said, then, that campus political culture has gotten so out of whack because the university is at once too corporate and not corporate enough. DeBoer is right that it is too corporate insofar as colleges and universities cave to P.C. activists out of concern for their “brand.” But it is not corporate enough in the sense that so much campus policy is managed and controlled by federal authorities, rather than the schools themselves. The most efficient corporations do not have a business model that relies perpetually on vast federal subsidies, human resources policies subject to the approval of federal officials, large swathes of their budgets devoted to a self-perpetuating class of bureaucrats that contribute very little to their overall mission, and a class of employees (faculty) who can work for life. If universities became “more corporate” in the sense that they were actually able to manage their own harassment policies, rein in inefficient administrators, and compete with one another in a truly competitive market, campus political culture might get healthier in some ways.
DeBoer’s argument is a serious one, and worth reading in full. Perhaps his “corporatization” framing will encourage others on the Left to acknowledge the destructive effects of administrative bloat.