Among the side effects of all the asinine hand-wringing over the phony problem of “scientism” is that it distracts attention from the real threat facing the humanities. I am referring to the corporate mindset that has come to dominate many aspects of higher education.
That threat is on full display in the current fracas at the University of Virginia, where the Board ousted the popular President, basically because she wasn’t moving fast enough to gut the humanities. HuffPo has a useful run-down:
Members of the board, steeped in a culture of corporate jargon and buzzy management theories, wanted the school to institute austerity measures and re-engineer its academic offerings around inexpensive, online education, the emails reveal. Led by Rector Helen Dragas, a real estate developer appointed six years ago, the board shared a guiding vision that the university could, and indeed should, be run like a Fortune 500 company.
The controversy, which threatens to seriously damage one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious public universities, has implications beyond its own idyllic, academic refuge. For some, it is emblematic of how the cult of corporate expertise and private-sector savvy has corralled the upper reaches of university life, at the expense of academic freedom and “unprofitable” areas of study.
“Unprofitable areas of study” is a euphemism for the humanities. (Classics and German are mentioned specifically elsewhere in the article.)
The rationale for the leadership change is as strange as the secrecy. [Board leaders] Dragas and Kington appear to have built their case against Sullivan from just a few media articles that offer vague praise for the use of Internet technology in higher education, according to the emails.
Dragas displayed particular esteem for a David Brooks column in an email to Kington, in which the New York Times columnist touts the sort of online education initiatives undertaken by the for-profit University of Phoenix. “What happened to the newspaper and magazine business is about to happen to higher education: a rescrambling around the Web,” Brooks wrote.
“Don’t dismiss the for-profit colleges and universities, either,” proclaimed John Chubb and Terry Moe in a Wall Street Journal editorial. “Institutions such as the University of Phoenix — and it is hardly alone — have embraced technology aggressively.”
Dragas, who sent this article to Kington, included a reminder in one of the emails obtained by the Cavalier that this was, apparently, “Why we can’t afford to wait.”
This emphasis on the for-profit education sector has been particularly dismaying to UVA faculty, especially within the context of the budget cuts Dragas reportedly sought in programs including the Classics and German departments. For-profit schools are not well-regarded in the academic community, and have been embroiled in scandals in the past few years for exploitive practices that include recruiting students eligible for federal loans and grants, but graduating fewer than half the enrollees.
And one more excerpt:
The board is not simply more attuned to corporate interests and ideas than those of higher education professionals — the board quite literally is a cadre of corporate elites.
The 16-member UVA Board of Visitors is appointed by the governor. Former Gov. Tim Kaine (D) named half the current members, and Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) brought on the other half. In addition to Dragas, board members include a coal company magnate, a Wall Street professional, a top lawyer for General Electric, a nursing home executive, a beer distribution entrepreneur, the son of conservative televangelist Pat Robertson and other business elites.
Many are UVA alumni, but only a few have any professional experience in higher education. The UVA board differs sharply in that respect from some other top-notch schools, private and public. Harvard, for instance, features 10 academics.
What Dragas and her supporters do have is money. After accumulating fortunes in the private sector, Dragas and her 15 colleagues showered politicians with cash.
The current slate of board members have given over $2.1 million to Republican and Democratic political endeavors in recent years, according to a HuffPost analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics and the Virginia Public Access Project.
To anyone who takes higher education seriously this is all pretty horrifying. If you have to defend the Classics, or any other academic discipline, on the grounds of profitability or immediate practical usefulness then the battle has already been lost. Profit and practicality are not what college is about. Exactly the opposite, in fact.
Classics professors do not teach about Homer and Virgil because they are confused about the job skills required in corporate America. You don’t study great art or great literature because you think it will get you a job someday. You study these things because your life is richer for having done so. You study them in college precisely because you won’t learn about them anywhere else. You have the rest of your life to worry about money and practicalities. But there’s more to life than being practical, or at least there ought to be.
But the fact remains that universities are desperate for money. In most states, government contributions to public university budgets has been scaled back dramatically. The difference has to be made up from somewhere, even if that means getting involved in scams like “online education.” Increasingly the attitude is that students are customers, and that the university exists not to educate them, but to cater to their whims.
Applying corporate attitudes in college governance is not about making college run smarter or more efficiently. Not at all. It is about killing higher education, and replacing it with something else.