Political Economy and “P.C.”

Against the Current, No. 37, March/April 1992

Christopher Phelps

A NATIONAL DEBATE over higher education has raged in the past year over the charge that tenured leftists are dominating the campuses, pushing a “politically correct” agenda down the throats of their unsuspecting students and moderate colleagues. This caricature, an open and vicious attack on multiculturalism and the scholarly left, is still being widely disseminated, but it is increasingly overshadowed on campus by the material crisis of the university.

Three trends have converged upon the university, each threatening to impress upon it a more elitist political and class character the p.c. debate, an attempt by the organized political right to roll back multiculturalism and the academic left; retrenchment, the cutbacks brought about by state and federal fiscal austerity and restructuring, the reorganization of the university around private financing, meaning greater subservience in research to corporate priorities.

These three trends portend diminished quality and restricted access to higher education, especially for working-class students. They also represent a serious threat to academic freedom, especially for radical scholars in the humanities and researchers in the basic sciences. Even considered separately, the attack on p.c., retrenchment and restructuring are ominous. Together, they play upon one another, maximizing their worst potential consequences.

Retrenchment, for instance, reinforces the tendency of university administrators to seek corporate funding. The attack on p.c., itself subsidized by conservative capital, aims to reshape the humanities along conservative lines by influencing patterns of budget cuts and foundation grants.

All three trends, moreover, relate to correlations of forces in the larger society. With labor in worse shape than at any time since World War U and with the retreat of the l960s movements, the university is especially vulnerable to corporate hegemony.

Most assessments of the right’s assault on p.c. have viewed it in exclusively cultural and political terms, as a debate between left and right over the meaning of the Western heritage. Although this line of inquiry is important, it must be broadened to include a social analysis of the university.

A political economy of political correctness should not imply or promise an attribution of the p.c. debate to economic causes, nor paint scholarly and curricular debates as a mere sideshow to the material crisis of the university. Rather, political economy is a method for undertaking to integrate cultural interpretations of the attack on p.c. within an analysis of all of the major social tendencies which are influencing the shape of the university, toward an understanding of their relations and likely consequences.

None of the three main processes acting upon the contemporary university is caused exclusively by the others. The attack on p.c. is fueled by a reactionary political movement with its own dynamics. Retrenchment is mostly due to the general crisis of the state. Corporate financing has an independent appeal for fundraisers. Nonetheless, each of these influences interacts with the others in dynamic and sometimes direct ways. Understanding their relationship is crucial to accurately gauging the prospects of the university.

Fiscal Retrenchment

Universities, whether private or public, are entangled in the general fiscal crisis of the state. The statistics are sobering. In the 1990-91 school year alone, at the mid-year point when many states adjust their allocations, thirty states cut their higher-education budgets unexpectedly. The worst was a 10% cut in Virginia.

A 10% annual cut is severe, but the national situation is even worse. Since 1990, Massachusetts has cut its support for higher education by 30%. In other states, the gutting is nearly as bad: New Jersey, 27.2%; Rhode Island, 15.4%; Connecticut, 13%; Maryland, 10%; California, 95%.The same austerity that has devastated social services is beginning to hit the university hard.

The crisis has reached general dimensions. Educational affordability is declining, not only for working-class students but even for students whose parents are commonly called middle-class–the highest wage workers professionals and small-business people.

Many schools have imposed double-digit tuition increases. Undergraduate tuition at public four-year schools increased by an average of 12% for the 1991-92 year. At the State University of New York, in-state tuition increased by 30%. At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, annual student fees covering student government, health services, athletics, the arts and curricular support for the 1990-91 year increased 47.5% to $2,810. University of California students face a 40% increase in fees this year.

Combined increases in tuition and fees have resulted in decreased enrollment Access has been further restricted by cuts in federal student aid, especially minority student aid.

As students pay more, they get less. Schools have reduced library hours and acquisitions, cut temporary and part-time staff and faculty, failed to replace retiring faculty, increased class size, increased teaching loads and deferred equipment purchases, all to the detriment of undergraduate education. Some schools have eliminated whole programs, especially rural extension services and other community-based programs. Administrators predict that as the crisis deepens, services such as psychological counseling and health provision will be sharply cut or eliminated.

Many students who no longer can attend four-year institutions because of skyrocketing costs will be forced to switch to two-year community colleges, which already are burdened with half of all entering first year students. Community colleges—which have traditionally had an open-admissions policy, admitting any high school graduate—may become selective. Already they are increasing their tuition rates faster than four-year schools.

The result is increasing stratification of the already hierarchical national education system. Expensive four-year schools are becoming the exclusive domain of the rich, with some subsidized slots for the most talented of the poor. The average cost of tuition alone at private four-year colleges is already more than $10,000 a year, leaving little doubt about which class they mean to groom. Public four-year institutions will largely serve the children of professionals, managers and businesspeople. Working-class students, unless demonstrating exceptional attainment, will be lucky to attend community colleges.

Despite the pretensions of many university professionals, who like to imagine themselves in a world apart from capitalism, the response of the university to economic crisis has not been substantially different from the response of GM, Ford and Chrysler. In a crisis, universities respond like corporations, cutting costs such as wages and speeding up production through increased class size.

Higher education is also experiencing a wave of mergers similar to the corporate consolidations of the past decade. To avoid bankruptcy and reduce administrative casts, small colleges are being absorbed by larger institutions—ten a year for the past three years.

Yet the university is not an auto plant It cannot relocate to Mexico, South Korea or Brazil, and it has other constraints that manufacturers do not—such as tenure, a formidable form of job security, even if it does not prevent salary or hiring freezes and does not extend below the rank of associate professor.

The university is also different from other profit-making enterprises in that its special role is to transmit and reproduce culture, generate new knowledge and understandings through research and inquiry, and produce educated students rather than, for the most part, tangible commodities. it is also, for the most part, a government-administered institution. These unique attributes have made restructuring the main response of higher education to retrenchment.

Corporate Restructuring

Over the past fifteen years, the university has developed a strategy for coping with cutbacks: privatization. Corporations traditionally have given universities grants through non-profit foundations or donated philanthropic contributions without strings. Now direct business deals are increasingly common. The university has placed its resources on the auction block.

Higher education does not just welcome corporate business, but actively seeks it Many state governments, for example, even while slashing basic services and education budgets, have established new bodies to facilitate university-industry connections. Such programs spend $550 million annually in forty-eight states to attract corporate interest in state universities.

Corporations—especially ones seeking technology with military application, until now the greatest focus of all research and development in the United States—are naturally interested in harnessing the research facilities and intellectual talent of universities. Corporations now seek deals that amount essentially to purchases of university services, giving corporations direct rather than indirect access to university innovations and allowing them to benefit from the tax advantages granted to universities as educational enterprises.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), for example, a special Industrial Liaison Program gives 250 companies “facilitated access” to M.I.T. faculty members and research Among other goodies, member companies get copies of research published by M.I.T. professors, and “preprints”—copies of papers not yet published.

Such efforts are commonly justified by reference to the need to beat foreign competition and enhance productivity. Half the companies in M.I.T.’s liaison program, however, are foreign- owned. This does not betray M.I.T.’s disloyalty to some fictitious national community, but it does reveal that higher education is being shaped by the imperatives of global capital in the same way that other industries are.

More importantly, the M.I.T. case demonstrates how the university, which has always served indirectly as a think-tank for capitalist production, is being privatized—carrying out research on a contractual basis for specific companies at specific prices.

The commodification of university life takes other forms. Individual faculty members, for instance, especially those with scientific or medical expertise, now frequently serve as consultants, board members or part-time employees for major corporations. In other cases, faculty members with assistance from their universities have become entrepreneurs themselves, marketing products developed in the course of their research.

In areas more extraneous to scholarly life, the university now acts almost entirely as a corporation. Sales and services are the second largest source of income, after tuition, for both public and private institutions. This category of income includes not only mugs and T-shirts but auxiliary enterprises, such as hospitals, and joint commercial efforts like shopping malls, retail outlets, travel agencies, summer camps and research testing labs.

Many universities collaborate with corporations in high-tech research parks. Others have even begun to serve directly as arenas of production: Stanford built a facility to produce semiconductors.

All of this indicates that a massive integrative shift between the university and corporate capital has been underway for fifteen years. In 1978, corporate contributions to education were $587 million a year. By 1981, they had doubled, rising to $1.014 billion annually. By 1990, they had again doubled, totalling $14 billion for the year.

P.C.: Restructuring’s Leading Edge

Coincident with retrenchment and restructuring has been the emergence of allegations of left-wing tyranny and a culture of “political correctness” on campus. In key respects, this right-wing attack on multicultural education and the academic left is a deliberate intervention in university restructuring that assists in forging a privatized university safe for corporate use.

In his best-seller A Time for Truth, William Simon, president of the conservative and influential Olin Foundation, articulated a philosophy of corporate philanthropy: ‘Business must cease the mindless subsidizing of colleges and universities whose departments of economics, government, politics and history are hostile to capitalism ‘ He expressed fear that ‘capitalism is no longer the dominant orthodoxy’ in universities.

“Business money,” Simon proposed, “must flow enerously to those colleges and universities which do offer their students an opportunity to become well-educated not only in collectivist theory but in conservative and libertarian principles as well.”

Simon’s remarks exaggerate the extent of hostility to capitalism in the university, but they are reflective of a reality the existence of an academic left descended from the ’60s movements. Although limited in impact upon overall university operations, the academic left does provide alternative models for students and opens up areas of scholarly inquiry critical of business ideology.

Mainstream liberalism, furthermore, retains a level of respect in universities that it enjoys in few other institutions. The right’s exaggeration of the left’s influence as a tyranny over the undergraduate mind is a distorted image of its actual fear of corrosive skepticism about capitalism and business culture.

In some cases the right is proceeding openly along the path outlined by Simon, making lavish donations to universities which unabashedly promote capitalist ideology. A retired UPS executive, for example, recently donated $36 million to several institutions. The bulk went to Palm Beach Atlantic College because it requires that all students take a course in free enterprise. For the most part, however, the right’s attack has been concentrated upon multicultural education, feminism and efforts to combat campus racism.

While the political right ultimately aims, as Simon makes clear, to eradicate anti-capitalist ideas on campus, it sees multiculturalism and feminism as an integral part of left-wing influence within the university. Just as attacks on affirmative action have been the easiest way for bourgeois politicians, from Bush to Duke, to mobilize popular sentiment against their enemies in a period of economic crisis, so the right in the instance of higher education is primarily targeting multiculturalism.

In times of constraint, code words or even openly racist and reactionary ideas often gain sway. So it is with inflated estimations of a tyrannical “political correctness’ on campuses threatened by retrenchment Economic struggle is avoided by the detour of race and gender resentment.

Of course, the right could not have foreseen some of the benefits it has accrued from its campaign against multiculturalism in the context of retrenchment Attacks on a fictitious p.c. tyranny have distracted the public and university attention from the university’s real crisis, and also divided students ideologically when they might otherwise unify against tuition increases and cutbacks.

Finally, the attack has fed the anxieties of white students and demoralized students of color, even within progressive milieus. These disorienting and divisive consequences of the attack on p.c., even if probably unintended by the right, help to explain why corporate restructuring has gone so far without opposition and why anti-p.c. ideology has had an influence beyond self-conscious reactionaries.

Austerity Rewarded

Sometimes the relationship between university restructuring and the right’s anti-p.c. campaign is quite direct At Yale University the school’s administration is justifying layoffs and concessions for service, maintenance and clerical workers and refusing to recognize a new graduate teaching assistants’ union. It cites declining rates of increase in endowment contributions and crying need for infra-structural overhaul.

The unions respond by pointing to the institution’s $16-billion endowment and by proposing that cuts be focused on extravagant parties and custom-built conference tables, not workers.

The administration’s point man in demanding retrenchment has been none other than Yale College Dean Donald Kagan, a prominent national spokesman in charging the left with a ‘New McCarthyism” on campus. “Look,” Kagan says of Yale, ‘when it’s all over, we will have reduced our budget by a good chunk That’s all there is to it There’s no way out of it.”

Ironically, however, Kagan’s attacks on political correctness have brought the school lavish rewards. Last year, one corporate leader gave Yale $20 million to endow seven senior and four junior faculty positions to teach traditional perspectives in core areas of Western civilization. Kagan is simultaneously direct ing retrenchment against labor, spreading fear of tenured totalitarians and encouraging corporate fundin earmarked for conservative curricular aims.

There is thus a sometimes direct connection between the attack on p.c., the retrenchment of the university and growing corporate influence over the university. The same officials, for instance, who led the gutting of federal research support to higher education—including National Endowment for the Humanities Chair Lynne Cheney, former Secretary of Education William Bennett and President George Bush—have delivered major addresses alleging a ‘tyranny of the left’ on campus.

Of course, the ruling class is not of one mind on this question. Many, perhaps most, corporations are content to pay homage to equal opportunity and affirmative action and to subsidize innovations in multicultural education. Corporations are not oblivious to the need to strategize for a multicultural workforce and multicultural market Many corporate foundations and donors, such as the Ford Foundation, have responded to multicultural developments in the humanities with limited aid and assistance.

In contrast to the right, such donors see no essential link between leftist politics and multiculturalism, or any necessary conflict between capitalism and multiculturalism. They are right, for multicultural education has two souls, one radically democratic in its vision of culture, the other a liberal version of tolerance and acquiescence. As multiculturalism has gained in university policy, it has more and more assumed an inoffensive and liberal tone of “toleration.”

The political right desires not only to make the university safe for the corporations, but to make both corporations and the university responsive to its social agenda. Its attack on multiculturalism is part of its ongoing attempt to exert leadership within the ruling class.

By reserving its harshest criticism for the most prestigious schools, the right is taking aim at those that get the most corporate support Half of former Reagan staffer Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education, the main manifesto against p.c., takes aim at three schools that ranked among the top ten in corporate support last year: Stanford, which took $48.5 million incorporate donations; Duke, which garnered $34.5 million; and U.C. Berkeley, which received $32.3 million.

These three schools were also among the top ten in annual foundation support In this way, the right is indirectly pressuring the more liberally inclined foundations to retreat from even the limited version of multiculturalism that they are willing to underwrite.

The corporate right has established its own foundations, which have a crucial role in the anti-p.c. campaign. Bennett now lectures on p.c. while serving as a fellow in cultural policy studies at the Coors-initiated Heritage Foundation. Ii-liberal Education was made possible by D’Souza’s staff position with the American Enterprise Institute and multiple grants from right-wing foundations, including Simon’s Olin Foundation.

Right-wing foundations have funded a network of right-wing campus newspapers, starting with the Dartmouth Review. Simultaneously, the largesse of these foundations is directed toward the encouragement of conservative scholars and scholarship—for example by underwriting costs of book publishing or publishing books under the foundation’s own imprint, thus aiding right-wing scholars in a career advancement.

Retrenchment and restructuring, of course, are mostly the product of a general and inadvertent crisis of capitalist profitability. The right, however, is seeking through its attack on p.c. and multiculturalism to deepen corporate influence and to shape the outcome of retrenchment by rolling back the culture of academic liberalism and encouraging scholars and institutions to revive a traditional curriculum.

Toward a Democratic University

The challenge facing the left is to articulate an alternative program for a democratic university and organize effectively on its behalf. While continuing to vigorously rebut the attacks on P.C., the left must begin to organize around the retrenchment crisis and corporate restructuring, or the university will undergo a shift for the worse.

In addition to the obvious damage retrenchment is causing to students’ pocketbooks and educational experience, restructuring is producing a university more subservient than ever to corporate priorities and to the imperatives of profit, with depressing prospects for scholarship and academic freedom.

Corporate influence will encourage applied research and product development over basic research, and the existing emphasis on research over teaching. It will encourage secrecy and individual ownership of ideas rather than the widest possible distribution of scientific results. Through self-censorship and overt pressure, it will curtail the freedom of faculty and students to follow the conclusions of their own research (especially when it clashes with the particular interests which subsidize the institution), and encourage the distortion of findings in order to please research sponsors.

These dangers, of course, most immediately affect scientific and medical scholars, whose research is most likely to lead to marketable products and techniques. Humanists and social scientists, however, are also open to influence. Corporations, for example, have recently funded studies of “Japanese management”—including the recent M.I.T. study, The Machine That Changed the World (1991)—designed to portray unions as outmoded and unproductive, and justi fying more flexibility and authority in management control under the guise of worker “participation.”

Corporate influence also damages the university’s ability to respond to retrenchment University presidents will not risk offending corporate donors in order to launch campaigns on behalf of progressive tax reform or deep cuts in the military budget—despite the fact that these are the most reasonable strategies for the replacement of lost state revenues.

Not that there is no lamentation from liberal quarters of the pernicious effects of corporate restructuring. On the verge of retiring from the presidency of Harvard, for example, Derek Bok—whose 1982 book Beyond the Ivory Tower advocated more extensive and direct corporate funding of research—bemoaned the effect of the profit motive, noting that universities “appear less and less as a charitable institution seeking truth and serving students and more and more as a huge commercial operation that differs from corporations only because there are no shareholders and no dividends.”

Liberals are thus distinct from market ideologues who see nothing but liberty in the commodification of university life. But they seek to counter profit’s corrosive effects upon scholarly integrity and academic freedom without challenging corporate rule itsel1, for fear of losing its alleged benefits.

Some, for example, float contractual solutions designed to prevent corporate sponsors of research from directly interfering in the scholarly process that they are underwriting. Bok’s own solution is revealing: “…It will take very strong leadership to keep the profit motive from gradually eroding the values on which the welfare and reputation of universities ultimately depend.”

Contractual language and virtuous administrators will not suffice in the face of a pervasive corporate hegemony. The problem is capitalism, not simply its effects. Since administrators, even the most liberal, are incapable of defending higher education from corporate rule, the burden falls upon campus progressives to formulate and promote a program of alternative demands.

Admittedly, progressive social movements are small and wracked by internal incoherence, if not open conflict, and they are considerably demoralized. Precisely because the left is not in the best position to conduct any struggle, the attack on p.c. has gained ground, even within the university. Nonetheless, it is out of existing movements that resistance will originate, if it does.

There are signs of an incipient fight against retrenchment. At some schools, protests and even building occupations against tuition increases have taken place, some of it quite creative. At Northern Illinois University, students recently protested program cuts by dressing in black and carrying coffins loaded with books and draped with banners marked “Integrity’ and Academic Excellence.” But such efforts are still sporadic and disconnected, without national focus or coordination, and have rarely mobilized more than a core of militants.

For resistance to be effective, it must be connected to existing campus movements, which in turn must broaden their demands and scope. The demands that activists have made upon the university in recent years—for multicultural curricula, diverse faculty and student bodies, enforced prohibitions of sexual harassment, and so forth—are important, as are the efforts at international solidarity with revolutionary movements in Central America and South Africa that students have helped to build.

These projects alone, however, are no longer sufficient. The left must begin to speak to the collective interests of students and faculty for academic freedom and an accessible, quality education. This does not mean some issues should be left aside for others, but in some cases progressive demands and opposition to cutbacks can be combined.

For example, protests against CIA and military recruiters on campus provide an opportunity to call for a massive redistribution in national priorities, from the military to educational and social spending. At solidarity raffles, university arms research can be exposed. Calls for affirmative action in admissions can be strengthened by adding demands for reduced tuition, making clear that the aim is democratic access, not “special favors.”

Nor need the demand for academic freedom, quality education and affordability be couched in nostalgic terms. Though the university has afforded greater scholarly freedom and wider student access in some periods than in others, at no time has it been a democracy. Transformation, not restoration, is the aim. Academic freedom, for example, should include the right to teach free from state or corporate interference, but it also maybe imbued with a fuller sense, one suggesting self-government by academic communities.

A transformative project will require more than activated campuses, however. In the long run, challenge to corporate hegemony will require the displacement of corporate rule, a social revolution, and to that project the working class is central. Cooperation between rank-and-file labor and student movements can most readily be forged on campus, where clerical and service workers and graduate teaching assistants, even faculty, are sometimes unionized. It also may develop between campus activists and community unions through mutual support in social struggles.

Trust between campus and community is difficult to establish, since workers often see students and professors as privileged elitists, and since students and professors often are, but the endeavor is crucial. Student struggles against restructuring are class struggles on behalf of working-class education.

Students, for their part, need labor. Although students sometimes spark revolutions, as in France in 1%8, ultimately workers are the most important determining factor in the outcome.

Demands for a democratic university—one allied with working people and the oppressed rather than the military and the ruling class, one organized democratically rather than bureaucratically, one dedicated to the education of all rather than ranking and training—may seem utopian in an era of retrenchment and restructuring. But the idea of universities serving communities need not be abstract.
Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Secretary-Treasurer Tony Mazzochi has called for a “superfund” for displaced workers, financed by taxes on corporations, to assist workers who chose to return to school Campaigns for Mazzochi’s proposal, which stands to benefit labor and universities alike, could help build effective campus-community and student-worker alliances. So could proposals defending inner-city branches, returning adult education and expanded student assistance.

A broad program for democratic transformation of the university is the only realistic course of action. Defense of multiculturalism solely on moral grounds is unlikely to succeed.

Social justice must appeal to the self-interest of most students, faculty and working people. At present, white students often believe that anti-racist struggles are not in their interest, and working people often suspect that the taxes they pay toward universities help fund charlatans.

The right’s campaign against p.c. is meant to reinforce such beliefs. The campus left, given too often to moralism, is unfortunately vulnerable to the trumped up charge of political correctness. It can defeat the charge by entering into principled and flexible dialogue with the widest possible audience.

By arguing in fresh and persuasive ways for the extension of democracy to all areas of social life, the left may demonstrate the falsehood of the right’s cry of leftist tyranny” on campus. By calling for a democratic university, in contrast to a university and society organized for the benefit of a few, it may succeed in revealing that the attack on p.c. obscures a more ominous tyranny: the corporate restructuring of university life.

Author’s Note

I am indebted to Howard Brick for his astute criticism of several drafts of this piece, and to Daniel Pope and the ATC board for further and comments. Copies of this article with full footnotes are available postpaid for $1 each from ATC. Almost all of the statistical information came from the Chronicle of Higher Education. This piece is an outgrowth of an earlier critique of the right’s arguments about leftist domination on campus. See Christopher Phelps, “The Second Time as Farce: The Right’ ‘New McCarthyism,’ Monthly Review (Oct 1991).

March-April 1992, ATC 37