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Today in the Neoliberal University

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Normally, I avoid using the word “neoliberalism” whenever possible since people use it almost as irresponsibly as they use the term “genocide” to describe something they don’t like. But of course neoliberalism has a meaning, which includes the privatization of public resources. That is part, although not all, of the problem with academia today. With declining state resources for public universities, ballooning administrator salaries, increased competition to attract students through amenities, etc., there is a lot of room for private companies to profit. Add to this the fact that college and university governance boards, public or private, are increasingly made up of businesspeople instead of academics, and cutting programs, privatizing services, and slashing budgets is the way college administrators can rise. Thus it’s hardly surprising to read that the president of the University of Arizona and chancellor of the University of California-Davis took jobs as members of the DeVry Education Group board of directors.

As the president of the University of Arizona, Hart makes $665,000. As the chancellor of the University of California at Davis, Katehi makes $424,360. Like most leaders of public colleges, they are some of the highest-paid public officials in their states.

In February, they both accepted second jobs: as board members of DeVry Education Group, a for-profit education company, for which they would earn an extra $70,000 a year — plus $100,000 in stock.

Within days, California critics were calling for Katehi to give up her board seat, while others called for her to resign from her position at UC Davis.

DeVry, a for-profit university, is facing allegations from the Federal Trade Commission, which claims that the company made false claims about its job placement rates and its graduates’ earnings. By serving on DeVry’s board, critics say, public university presidents legitimize its practices.

“No public university representative should be sitting the board of a company that is still mired in scandal,” said Carmen Balber, executive director of Consumer Watchdog, a group that co-wrote an open letter asking Katehi to step down.

But Katehi’s story goes beyond DeVry: she had also served on the board of the textbook publisher John Wiley & Sons, which critics believe constitutes a conflict of interest.

When the second board membership came to light, California Assembly Member Kevin McCarty called for legislative hearings.

“It is unseemly,” he said in a statement, “for the chancellor to be moonlighting side deals to fatten her bank account, especially when it runs contrary to the interests of our students.”

Nearly one-third of public college presidents serve on corporate boards. Most of those companies exist in far-flung industries, and the issues at play are different: Why should college presidents involve themselves with shipping, with search engines, with banking?

That’s a good question. College presidents will come up with answers to that question, but will avoid the real answer, which is that they are cashing in at the expense of their students. When the differences between (at least theoretically) not-for-profit education and overtly predatory private higher education scams disappear, it’s because public education is turning into the latter.

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