But Katehi’s activities point to a disturbing trend in higher education, especially among public institutions such as UC: Universities are getting cozier with businesses and industrialists, and less discerning about the pitfalls of these relationships, which include accepting donations with strings attached. What’s worse is that universities are adopting the corporate model of profit and loss as though they’re businesses themselves.
Students already are losing out. They’re not only saddled with an increasing share of the direct costs of their education, but are offered a narrower curriculum as universities cut back on supposedly unprofitable humanities and social science courses in favor of science, engineering and technology programs expected to attract profitable grants and offer the prospects of great riches from patentable inventions.
In one of the most extreme examples, the State University of New York at Albany moved in 2010 to ax its French, Italian, Russian and classics programs. That left the institution looking like a glorified vocational school for engineers and research scientists.
But the issues swirling around Katehi, a Greek-born engineer, have exposed the same rift within UC Davis, where members of the science and engineering faculties defend her as an effective supporter of diversity in science and technical education, and members of the humanities faculty tend to see her as an avatar of the “privatization of the public university,” as three dozen humanities faculty members put it in a letter to the Davis Enterprise newspaper.
These developments, however, are based on fundamental misconceptions of the purpose and the economics of higher education.
For most of the post-World War II period, it was well understood that universities, whether public or private, operated under a model distinct from business. That began to shift in the 1980s and 1990s as American culture became fixated on the virtues of private enterprise, says Christopher Newfield, a literature professor at UC Santa Barbara and a leading critic of the corporatization of academia.
“Until then, the private sector wasn’t the model for the public sector,” Newfield told me. “But the prestige of the private sector now requires imitation by the public sector. It’s almost as if we’re intimidated.”
The corporatization of higher education is destroying it, high paid administrator by high paid administrator, exploited adjunct by exploited adjunct. For years, people have said that universities should be run like a business, as if that would be a good thing. And now they are run like businesses. Therefore, resources are concentrated at the top, dissent from mere employees like professors is not tolerated, students pay more and more to be taught by overwhelmed and tenuously employed professors, and dictates from the top tell universities to train students for precisely the jobs state corporate leaders want to hire in right this minute as opposed to training them to be flexible members of the workforce and society for the next half-century. It’s a disaster and it gets worse every year.