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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2009

Going Soft on Corporate Invasion

By Emery J. Hyslop-Margison

The University in a Corporate Culture

Eric Gould. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003; 272 pp; ISBN: 978-0300-087062, cloth $50 us.
The view that universities are increasingly influenced by corporate dominated culture, politics and economics is hardly an original observation. The most notable books on the subject tend to advance a polarized perspective, perhaps justifiably so, on the issue. Renowned academics such as Stanley Aronowitz (2001), in The Last Good Job in America, and Henry Giroux (2003), in The Abandoned Gen­er­ation: Democracy Beyond the Culture of Fear, portray the corporate domination of higher education as a direct threat to institutional autonomy, academic freedom and the democratic role of universities as public spaces for critical discourse.

In The University in a Corporate Culture, Eric Gould employs a Hegelian type synthesis of corporate and liberal academic objectives as a potential solution to relieve the tension between the democratic responsibilities and human capital aims of higher education. Unfortunately, there is an air of structural resignation in the text suggesting this corporate domination of universities reflects an ahistorical and irreversible trend.

Gould’s perspective is especially troubling in light of the current collapse of neo-liberal market practices and the corresponding reasons about why linking higher education to transient market needs ought to be viewed with considerable suspicion. Ultimately his attempt to fuse democratic ideals with neo-liberal economic demands offers the incoherent vision of a democratic education that denies the possibility of structural change by tying itself to a specific socioeconomic framework.

He views the current shift toward credentializing over the more reflective, liberal and critical academic tradition in universities in a somewhat pragmatic fashion: “Academe does not consistently preserve the valuable mystique of liberal learning, and students who are bored in high school and are not self-starters will expect little improvement of their lot in college. If the cost of education has become too much to bear, students must find some way to shortcut the process and shrink tuition costs while trying to keep the integrity of the purchased product itself intact. So if a diploma is simply a credential that can be bought in three years instead of four, and universities encourage credentialism by thinning down liberal arts curricula at the undergraduate level, why pay the tens of thousands of dollars extra some universities charge?” (p. 50)

Gould discusses the shift in focus toward university experience as a human capital credentializing process and, although mildly distressed by the changes he describes, the book fails to grapple seriously with the ideological implications of this swing. The corporate invasion of the university is the inevitable source of credentializing and one of its major implications is the serious undermining of disciplines in which critical and democratic discourse is primary.

From a democratic perspective, the upshot of widespread elimination of traditional liberal arts curricula, with the reduction of courses in disciplines such as history, philosophy and the classics, is that public space to entertain alternative social visions is substantially reduced. While corporate culture pushes its neo-liberal credentializing agenda on governments and universities, it simultaneously destroys the opportunity for future citizens to consider a historical and constructed social reality.

Rather than simply preparing students for a preordained corporate culture in which citizens and workers are passive players, a traditional liberal arts curriculum seeks to create critically-minded individuals who understand democratic social transformation as a legitimate possibility. Hence, any proposed marriage between the credentializing objectives of corporate culture and liberal education is apt to be an extremely rocky one.

Gould’s sympathy with neo-liberal market economy precepts and their intrusion into the university arena becomes more obvious later in the text when he observes: “Corporate values for knowledge — that it be above all useful and thus valuable — have subtly but strongly contended in the university with the more abstract, ethical and esthetic values of a liberal education. And they (corporate values) have enormous appeal. The corporate university has claimed often enough by word and deed that it wants to play a major role in allowing knowledge to flow as it will and to be personally empowering, and that, after all, is a celebration of freedom itself. Markets beget democracy and democracy capitalism. If liberal education cannot keep up with this … it is in deep trouble.” (pp. 106­–07)

So instead of understanding corporate involvement as part of a wider neo-liberal ideological assault on critical thinking precepts, Gould places the onus on liberal education to rationalize itself as part of corporate culture. The corporate discourse advocating human capital development and non-edu­cative credentializing is far less a problem, in his view, than a liberal education that refuses to adjust its programs to embrace the neo-liberal utilitarian vision of higher learning.

Gould believes traditional disciplines are largely a historic artifact that inappropriately refuses to embrace what he describes as “pluralistic market thinking.” (p. 109) This type of thinking supposedly de-compartmentalizes knowledge for more general and, of course, instrumental application within a neo-liberal economic structure. He accuses liberal academics who resist this trend as simply falling into an unnecessary state of “anxiety” and “partisan politics” (p. 141) rather than sanguinely embracing the “inevitable” change they confront.

In truth, however, there is very little about the market eco­nomy discourse on education that qualifies as pluralistic, and much more that reflects a monolithic perspective of education and society more generally. Gould clearly misses the mark on this point by failing to distinguish between the democratic responsibility of universities to educate for progressive social change and merely serving as a forum to meet the human capital needs of contemporary corporate culture.

The final chapter affords the author some redemption for his previous questionable perspectives and observations. For example, his attempt to reconcile democracy with contemporary corporate culture thankfully recognizes the attending risks of completing this synthesis: “A university education is a democratic education because it mediates liberal democracy and the cultural contradictions of capitalism. That definition, I think, is the middle ground between the spokesman for modest reform, those who focus on the language of common decency and those who focus on education as mainly about social struggle and change. Higher education, if it is really the place where we reproduce society, which even re­latively conservative scholars agree is the case, must be the place where democratic education is vigorously debated. (In the absence of this debate) the university is not going to be able to explain how it gets from engaging students in the business of education to the creation of democratic values themselves.” (p. 226)

Although I admire Gould’s recognition that democratic dialogue and debate are primary objectives of university life, I am considerably less optimistic that these objectives can be achieved in concert with the instrumental aims of corporate culture. Indeed, in the face of the current global economic crisis, it is not the traditional structure and focus of liberal learning that require in-depth evaluation, but the tenability of adopting the human capital principles of a failing corporate paradigm as the preferred model to reform university education.

In fairness to Gould, it is possible to ensure that vocationally related studies are presented in ways that critically and democratically engage learners (Hyslop-Margison, 2005). However, such pedagogies do not merely consider how democratic learning can be merged with market economy requirements. Rather, a critical and democratic vocational education also evaluates the practical, social and moral appropriateness of the prevailing economic and corporate structure.

With the imminent crumbling of corporate culture and the probable end of neo-liberal platitudes clearly in sight, the idea of universities adopting Gould’s program is more problematic than ever. Indeed, such a collapse is precisely the reason why the liberal arts tradition, and the critical
education it affords, ought not to be subject to the transient whims of the market as Gould proposes. This is a point that liberal academics understand very well, and their re­sistance to permitting market pressures to determine university objectives is far less about “partisan politics” than it is about protecting our institutions of higher education as public spaces for democratic learning.

Emery J. Hyslop-Margison is an associate professor in the faculty of education at the University of New Brunswick.

Aronowitz, S. (2001). The Last Good Job in America. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Giroux, H. (2003). The Abandoned Generation: Democracy Beyond the Culture of Fear. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Hyslop-Margison, E.J. (2005). Liberalizing Vocational Study: Democratic Approaches to Career Education. Lanham, MD: The University Press of America.