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Today in the Neoliberal University



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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  • Murc

    With declining state resources for public universities,

    Careful, Loomis, you’ll get into a fight with Campos!

  • ajay

    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?

    Absent a conflict of interest: why shouldn’t they? Corporations need boards of directors. Some of those directors have to come from outside the corporation, for very good reasons to do with outside oversight. Is there a good reason why corporations should not be asking college presidents, specifically, to serve on their boards?

    • AMK

      Shipping, search engines, and (at least in theory) banking are all legitimate industries that hire graduates of public colleges and so have stakes in the educational system, whether people like it or not.

      For-profit universities are parasitic scams that use poor kids and veterans as host bodies to suck billions of dollars from taxpayers to line the pockets of the for-profit executives and private equity shareholders. No educational institution that wants to even pretend to care about education or students should have its President in the same room, let alone sit on the fucking board.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Agreed. The main issue here is the glaring conflict of interest, and if your university president is too myopic to see that then they’re wholly unqualified for the job and should be fired. Promptly.

    • J. Otto Pohl

      Yes, because the purpose of higher education is not identical with maximizing profits.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Just because you focus on maximizing profits at ACME Corp doesn’t mean you can’t focus on “optimizing student learning” at State U. Two different organizations, two different goals, two different hats. Not difficult.

    • Patrick

      Because if you’re getting $400k+ from a public institution it should be getting 100% of your non-recreational focus? “Retired University President” seems like a great choice for your board. A sitting President should be just as restricted from moonlighting as the assistant manager of your local Jimmy Johns.

      • Crusty

        While contemporary salaries certainly suggest that University President is a job that deserves 100% of your attention, I get the sense that historically, university presidenting was something that allowed you to do other things too. For one thing, you might teach- granted, this usually benefits the institution that is paying you. If you were a scholar before being a president, you might still work on a book. You might do public intellectual type crap, serve on a presidential blue ribbon committee, etc. I realize here that many people hate anything with the word corporate in it, but in theory at least, some input from the academy would be useful to the oversight of a corporation.

        • ThrottleJockey

          Serving on a Board of Directors doesn’t take a *great deal* of time. You have quarterly board meetings but outside of a couple of weeks leading up to that its not time consuming at all.

      • ChrisTS

        Most times, Presidents do this to further their contacts to fund raise for their uni/college. What makes the DeVry thing so bizarre is that it is a very precise conflict of interest, not only financially but also theoretically.

    • sonamib

      In my university*, the president of the administration board is required to be some outsider. So the board has to hunt for the director of some corporation to be their president. This kind of thing comes from a desire to “run the university like a business”, and I really don’t think that’s a good idea.

      *For those who don’t know, I’m a physics grad student.

      • N__B

        For those who don’t know, I’m a physics grad student.

        So, you’re one lab accident away from superpowers!

  • shah8

    Neoliberalism is a perfect valid philosophy of social and economic organization. Playing around as if neoliberalism is a problem instead of increasing your vocabulary muscles and taking the effort to describe the actual power dynamics/problem that is occuring–that is a problem, in a way.

    Of course, language changes, and we use neoliberal in a different way, now, but that doesn’t absolve us from seeing things true.

    • So what you’re saying is that Erik is being a total fascist about this.

      • shah8

        These are corrupt arraignments. They should be described primarily in those terms, and where the language of neoliberalism is used to defend corrupt arraignments, we should talk about the cover for said arraignments in terms of verbal obfuscation rather than particularly believe in the ideological rigidities of the people engaged in these activities. They’re grifters, and they’re grifting using the predominate ideology of our day. Challenging both ideology and corruption together and loosely so just makes a mess.

        • DAS

          But neo-liberalism (by which I mean a internationalist, globalization-positive, socially liberal and economically splitting the difference between laissez-faire and a moderate regulation/social-welfare regime) as an ideology, while officially opposed to corruption, in practice supports arrangements that facilitate corruption and hence gains much of its support from those who benefit from such corruption.

          • shah8

            I disagree with that. Mostly because liberalism and neoliberalism has definitely proven to be a positive force (as well as a horribly negative force) in the world, as much as any other ‘ism can be.

            The practice, specifically, of confusing corruption with neoliberalism aids corrupt people. Most specifically in allowing a sense that their behavior follows some sort of norms, and the deviance caused by bad behavior can be corrected via mild means. What this has meant, in practice, is that insiders gain more protection for being corrupt than outsiders. By norming a certain sort of corruption as neoliberalism, we make other kinds of corruption more intolerable–and political outsiders who relies on those sorts of corruption to grease wheels are much more easy to oust–creating a climate where some people get to be corrupt, most others don’t, and the political system is entrenched in favor of a certain set of insiders without viable opposition.

            • DAS

              Has the particular neo-liberal project of large scale privatization ever been done in a non-corrupt manner? Is this one of those situations where neo-liberalism cannot fail, it can only be failed?

              • shah8

                Broadly speaking, virtually all large scale privatizations are corrupt, and a lot of them, say the Suez Company’s attempt at water privatization in Bolivia is merely imperialism by another name.

                If pressed, I guess I could cite post-Cold War Poland and Estonia? (on o’ them Baltics) as an example that wasn’t totally horrible.

                • shah8

                  I suppose it needs to be said.

                  I’m not a neoliberal, and I’m not particularly fond of its arguments.

                  I simply want people to put more daylight between what’s frankly corruption and inside dealing and neoliberalism–for effective advocacy against both.

                • Colin Day

                  say the Suez Company’s attempt at water privatization in Bolivia is merely imperialism by another name.

                  And it would have worked, too, if that meddling 007 hadn’t gotten in the way. Oh, wait . . .

              • Brett

                The Shinkansen privatization turned out alright. That’s rare – full-scale privatization often has problems simply because you lose a lot of the ability to accurately monitor and supervise the companies running the privatized programs.

                There’s one big caveat when it happens in poor countries: they’re often privatizing stuff that’s already fucked up seven ways from sunday in the developing world, but where any change was going to face major opposition.

    • Brett

      What’s the distinction between Neoliberalism and Libertarianism? The definitions I’ve seen for both are basically synonymous – they’re both built around the idea that nearly or all economic activity within a country should be mediated through the private sector.

      • Linnaeus

        There’s a lot of overlap, but I would also say that a neoliberal is more willing to accept a wider scope of government activity than the libertarian is and seeks, at least in principle, social outcomes that we typically identify with modern liberalism, whereas the libertarian need not do so.

        A neoliberal, for example, might think a public library is a good thing, but also thinks that direct operation and funding of the library by government is less optimal than having some market role. What the neoliberal will typically propose is some reconfiguration of the roles of government and the market in the provision of a public library (and other public goods), whereas the libertarian might reject the notion of a public library altogether as outside the proper scope of government.

        • xq

          Who would you say are important non-libertarian neoliberal thinkers?

          • shah8

            Milton Friedman for the neoliberals. Hayek, I guess, for the libertarians.

            • xq

              But both Friedman and Hayek are generally considered libertarian economists. Is the use of the term really just to distinguish among groups typically considered libertarian?

              • shah8

                After googling, I see you’re pretty right there. At best I can only say, with very limited truthiness, early stage Milton is a neoliberal.

                Basically, I view neoliberalism as a response to Keynesianism, in light of how Keynes overturned the classical liberal framework. Libertarianism is a more comprehensive social and economic philosophy less interested in making material claims about best means to best ends, and more interested in making moral claims.

                Well, that’s how a non-professional might put it, anyways.

                • Linnaeus

                  I could see this – there’s an instrumentalist ethos in neoliberalism that I think is less pronounced in libertarianism.

              • Brett

                Having read Free to Choose, I think he was a libertarian who advocated neoliberal policies mostly for expediency – he’d go full libertarian but recognized that wouldn’t be palatable for everyone, and still wanted the central bank to steer monetary policy.

                On education, for example, he said in the book that he supported vouchers – but was increasingly skeptical that even that was necessary.

          • Linnaeus

            Good question. I’d have to think about that, to be honest.

      • shah8

        To me, a very brief way to say it is that neoliberalism is “finance is good, bet on yourself!” Libertarianism isn’t a real ideology (in my book) but in practice, it’s “Personal control is good, what you can hold, you can keep.”

  • I went to a lecture given by the dean of UC Davis’ law school last week. Interesting guy, with some interesting things to say, but his main thrust seemed to be that his law school doesn’t have the budget to do a lot of the things that people think law schools should do. UC Davis is $47,339 a year (in-state).

    Also, he cancelled the keg for the new students’ reception.

    • LosGatosCA

      And it was probably Bud Light, too.

  • Gregor Sansa

    Perhaps “genocide” is overused by some, but it’s very real. My in-laws lived … not exactly through, but very close next to one, and lost numerous close friends.

    You might as well suggest we should stop saying “rape” because some people misuse it metaphorically.

    • J. Otto Pohl

      I don’t think it is really over used but there are differences on its definition. First, there is Raphael Lemkin’s definition which is the destruction of ethnic or national entities as coherent collective entities. Then there is the UN definiton of 1948 which limits how these groups can be destroyed in whole or part but does not require any actual killing. It also is interpreted by some to require that the destruction not just be intentional but the sole motive and goal of the acts being described as such. Finally, there is a folk definition of genocide which has some academic followers and no basis in international law that limits the term to just the Holocaust and a few other similar cases like Rwanda.


      • DAS

        I think the complaint is that there are people who would use the term genocide when, in fact, there is no “destruction [or attempted destruction — there are still Jews left, but Hitler’s lack of success doesn’t make the Shoah not a genocide] of ethnic or national entities as coherent collective entities” but rather to describe forced migrations of large numbers of people, which may be destructive and result in deaths, does not lead to (nor are the actions precipitating the mass migrations intended necessarily to lead to) destruction of ethnic or national entities, but rather just the displacement of those entities.

        While most of my family left the affected areas of Europe long before the Shoah, I do know a number of survivors, FWIW. And many people in my community would argue that over-using the term “genocide” to describe events which are not genocides is as problematic as ignoring actual genocides. Indeed, many an evil has been justified as “we are fighting genocide” when in reality no genocide is happening. And even when a genocide might happen, sometimes the best move is to get the effected group out of harm’s way rather than focusing on punitive military actions. Of course, this presumes that there is a place for the effected group to resettle.

        • J. Otto Pohl

          This is rather opaque are you claiming that Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars and Chechens was not genocide? It certainly was under Lemkin’s original definition.

          • DAS

            No. If the intent was to destroy the nation/ethnic group, then it is certainly genocide under that definition. IOW, I am not disputing that those deportations were genocides. OTOH, would you say the displacements of Sudeten Germans or Karelian Finns post-WWII were genocides?

            • J. Otto Pohl

              I am less familiar with the Finnish case. But, I haven’t seen much literature referring to the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans as genocide. This is for a couple of reasons. One, as Robert Hayden notes is the political context of the “good guys” who won WWII endorsing this particular act of ethnic cleansing. His argument is that ethnic cleansings that great powers approve of are population transfers. Those they oppose are genocide. It has a lot of merit to it. The word was initially coined by Lemkin as a way to describe patterns of national and ethnic destruction imposed upon a variety of groups by the Nazis. It now doesn’t have any single useful scholarly definition and has to be defined and argued about every time it is used.

              Another is the comparatively low death rates. The distance from the Sudetenland to Bavaria and Austria is rather short so the percentage of fatalities was limited compared to other cases. The Czechs claim fewer than 30,000 deaths or less than 1%. But, even the high estimates of 200,000 (8%) are far below the 25%-30% for groups like the Chechens and Crimean Tatars. Third, the Sudeten Germans managed to maintain their culture and identity in exile to a much better degree than many dispersed groups. So along the spectrum of destruction the Sudeten Germans are much more towards the lower end than the upper end of things. It thus looks very different from the Holocaust, Armenia, and Rwanda. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t fit Lemkin’s definition of genocide. People claim the US had a revolution in 1776 even though it looks very different than the one in Russia in 1917. But, making the argument is generally considered a waste of resources better spent since it all hinges on definitions and semantics. It is much easier to make the argument for cases that more closely resemble the archetypes of the Holocaust and Armenian genocide in terms of their physical and cultural destruction.

              I think it is perhaps best to take Timothy Snyder’s position that in terms of Lemkin’s definition or even the UN definition there are lots of cases of genocide that don’t resemble the Holocaust. But, stating something is genocide does not get one very far and really is a starting rather than a finishing point. Patterns of deliberate acts taken to destroy specific ethnic or national groups in whole or in part vary enormously. Saying for instance that the Holocaust and Armenia are both cases of genocide, like saying the 1776 and 1917 are both revolutions should not be the sum total of analysis.

    • nixnutz

      I think he’s saying specifically that we should stop saying “George Lucas raped my childhood”, or using “genocide” to describe things that aren’t genocide.

      Neoliberalism is a little weird to me just because I understand exactly what it means in terms of UK politics but since there was no time in the US when liberalism was out of fashion it’s a little murkier. It seems to only make sense if it’s specifically linked to 90s third-way politics, otherwise it’s just normal American capitalism.

      • Anna in PDX

        I think you’ve hit on something there, it is, I think, usually supposed to refer to “third way” policies. When I was in college (a long time ago) we called the general laissez-faire approach “18th century liberalism” and yes, it’s normal American capitalism. Incidentally I am reading “The Folklore of Capitalism” which was written in 1937 and it is very good for thinking about not so much what the concepts are but how the terms are used as propaganda.

      • Linnaeus

        It seems to only make sense if it’s specifically linked to 90s third-way politics, otherwise it’s just normal American capitalism.

        Sort of. 1990s third way style politics in the US context certainly had a lot to do with the emergence of neoliberalism as term in the US, but I don’t know if I’d say that US neoliberalism is only a more recent manifestation of earlier formulations of US capitalism.

        I’d argue that one of the key principles of neoliberalism is that markets are the optimal mechanism for providing positive social outcomes (in the sense of something resembling social and economic equality). The Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society were all crucial for establishing a more explicit notion of social justice as a component of political policy and recognizing how American capitalism could undermine that, which is something that was much weaker prior to 1900 or so. Neoliberalism has to deal with that, so it weds market solutions to social problems to solve those problems in their own right and not just out of a general commitment to capitalism.

        It was in the 1990s where this trend in US politics became much stronger for many reasons, but that’s just part of the story.

    • Thom

      The Holocaust Museum provides a useful overview of the term and its meanings: https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007043

  • DAS

    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.

    Presumably at some of the board meetings, meals were served? I know that I, as a professor at a state institution, cannot accept a meal from a textbook publisher. I do know that different states have different rules and the rules for research universities are a bit different than those for those of us in more teaching-oriented institutions, but I cannot imagine that you can just accept a meal from a textbook publisher when you may have influence over textbook choices.

    This is a clear conflict of interest. I wonder what would happen to a faculty member at UC Davis that had such a conflict of interest, tenure or not? Why isn’t the president held to the same standards?

    • Anna in PDX

      I was bugged by the “critics claim this is a conflict of interest” line. I also am a public employee. I have to declare any possible conflicts of interest with any of the organizations my employer works with, and recuse myself from any funding decisions about those organizations if I am in that position. My partner worked for a nonprofit that we funded. I made sure to find someone else to monitor that organization though usually I am the one that does that. This is part of my job, to let my employer know about these things. And we all have these forms that we fill out as part of general compliance. Particularly since we are partially funded from Federal sources, which all state universities definitely are.

      Why is this framed as controversial and why is “conflict of interest” treated like it is an impossible concept to understand? This framing is disingenuous, at best, and also cowardly on the part of the news reporters. It’s like “views differ on shape of earth”-level cowardly.

      • snarkout

        There are in fact conflict of interest policies in place; Katehi simply ignored them, and her failure to obtain permission from the president of the UC system to engage in this comically stupid behavior has simply been waved off, because she’s a member of the YOLO class.

        (I believe the only other UC chancellor who sits on a corporate board is the president of UCSB, Henry Yang, who is a mechanical engineer by training and is on the board of an auto parts maker; Yang got permission, because he doesn’t understand yet that rules are for little people.)

        • DAS

          Yolo? Pun intended?

          • snarkout

            I confess.

        • DAS

          And, without knowing the specifics of how UC Davis works, as you point out there were, no doubt, specific rules, put in place to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest, that Katehi no doubt violated. There may in fact have been no conflict of interest, but if Katehi accepted money, food or anything of more than trivial value for her work for an entity doing business with her university, she violated rules (there are certain exceptions for, e.g., residuals you make for writing a book and that sort of thing, but that’s not what’s happening here), whether or not there was an actual conflict of interest.

          FWIW, BTW, there is a big exception to conflict of interest rules: if you are running for office, then since part of running for office involves your campaign paying for you to travel and eat at fundraising dinners and the like, people can give money to your campaign and then the campaign can pay for stuff for you. Of course, this rule was meant to cover you traveling to rubber chicken dinners and eating rubber chicken, but who’s to stop you from traveling to wherever and eating something a lot better than rubber chicken? After all, you have a free speech right to run for office! Unless you are covered by the Hatch act or something like that. IOW, an NJ state employee can’t accept a free meal from an entity doing business with the state but executives at that entity can donate to Gov. Christie’s campaign (when he had one) and the campaign can pay for a meal as a campaign expense.

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  • LosGatosCA

    My working definition of a ‘neoliberal’ is a natural Republican capitalist who is not a social/religious bigot and therefore is sympathetic to Democratic positions that don’t interfere with their ability to make money.

    And/or Libertarians with a semi-conscience.

    Robert Rubin / John Corzine types.


  • Sebastian_h

    The real scandal isn’t that a UC chancellor sits on the board of directors at DeVry. The real scandal is that a board of directors position gets paid so much. I’ve worked for board of directors meetings for two major companies, and while a good board does a lot of work in that ten days or so a year that they are preparing or in session, it is still ten days of work and maybe a few other hours in the year for consultation. A huge percentage of the directors have no special insight into the companies they are “in charge of” (see Clinton on the Walmart board for example).

    I’m not at all saying that directors are worthless. I’m saying that there is no sane reason to pay them $50,000+ in cash and $100,000 plus per year in stock to do that kind of work. They need mid to high level manager levels of insight and have to do medium levels of work for about 7-15 days per year.

    This is another one of those cases where people argue that you need to pay for “the best” (see also CEOs and AIG employees who want bonuses after blowing up the world). Even presuming you could differentiate between the good directors and the ‘best directors’ **, you typically don’t need the best directors. You need perfectly servicable people with business experience who pay attention to things. There are 3-5 million people in the US who could easily do it, and another 5 or so million people who could do it with very little training. Sure that isn’t EVERYONE, but it is a lot of people. But instead we have a few thousand people sucking up a huge amount of board of directors money, spreading themselves thin if they are doing their job and offering little oversight if they aren’t.

    This is a just an extra perk of being in the upper crust.

    **I’ll conceed that Warren Buffett and maybe 10-20 other people might be so amazing at being a board member that it would be worth shoveling enormous amounts of cash at them to do it. But most boards don’t get one of those people.

    • DAS

      Agreed. While I’d be the last person to say anything nice about my Co-Op board, the fact is that they volunteer for their positions and while they get perqs and who knows what maybe under the table, they still don’t get compensated (even taking the perqs and who knows what into account) at a rate of 50K/year. And any of them would be qualified to do the same thing while on a for-profit board of directors (as that is what they are doing, albeit for a co-op apartment building corporation). And you could say the same thing about anyone on an home owners’ association board. My dad was on such a board. And both my parents have been on “blue ribbon panels”. They are essentially qualified to be on corporate boards. So I reckon (given my parents’ upper middle class position and experiences) the number who could do the job with very little training is probably closer to at least 1/10th of the adult population of the US.

    • Anna in PDX

      Why do “the best” have no concept of public duty and need to be bribed to do things that most people would do as volunteers?

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