Universities are evolving over time to reflect closely maladies of modern society. Profit for a few, precariousness for the rest of us.

Once upon a time, the university was the site of confrontational attitudes and a more free flowing exchange of perspectives. It represented a space to learn critique and develop novel ideas that would foster a student’s talent for argument and nurture a tenacious willingness to dissent.

It’s not necessarily that these features have vanished, wholesale, in the status quo. You still can overhear people talking radically in public spaces around campus, but this fervor has disappeared in the overall atmosphere of upper level education thanks to an insidious culprit — the corporatization of the university.

By that, I mean that the civic and public goods character of the nation’s many universities is gradually, but methodically being supplanted by a business model in mode of operation, and a business oriented set of concerns driving student behavior.

One can see several symptoms of this shift over time. There are more job-insecure adjunct professors than ever, avoiding controversial topics in the classroom because they represent an academic risk. More faculty and administrative positions popping up, reminiscent of Taylorism, or the scientific management of the workplace, intended to help an institution run “efficiently,” when a democratically organized faculty could accomplish the same work. Education is hugely financed by acquiring debt, meaning profitability, and career lucrativeness becoming smothering considerations when choosing a field of study. Universities have “investment portfolios,” engendering special interests, playing nice with business partners, which can act as implicit censor on courses and material too blatantly critical of the connections.

Older incarnations of the university had a different, more flexible mandate.

These institutions were, to some extent, independent actors in politics enabling students and teachers more leeway to collaborate and organize together, exactly because their environment was better insulated from financial interests. Of course, the university has never been completely sealed off from influence, because state schools are publicly funded, meaning watched over by elected politicians. Those politicians are subject to the influence of a swath of wealthy donors. Post-Citizens United — the problem has flown off the handle.

As a result the university is beginning to resemble a plutocratic clearinghouse, with students focused on either entering the upper echelon of society or worrying about how much a liberal arts degree will help in paying off loans. In addition, professors are far less empowered to rebel against these unfolding neoliberal trends. In such conditions, the university loses some vitality; its character as an exploratory experience, and the price of getting politicized, while studying, becomes too expensive for most to commit to principles. Moral questions and ethical considerations are significantly undercut by the mental burden of opportunity costs.

Evidence weighs in favor of the university joining the growing family of microcosm examples, another symbol of a financially motivated enterprise in a precarious economy.

This is not without contrast.

Recall from history examples of student based struggle born on University campuses like Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee founded by black students in 1960 struggling for civil rights, or that thanks to student pressure the University of California system recently declared a total divestment from fossil fuel and coal burning companies. It’s a tiny, meaningful stride in the piecemeal effort to take the looming threats of long term climate change seriously, but also broadly represents a challenge to the idea that the university is merely a site to pursue a career and professionalize as it’s generally become.

While these profit symptoms do change the university culture, encouragements still exist. These examples of student push back, if heeded, can turn the tide of even the most entrenched problems.

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