Public Universities in Peril

Against the Current, No. 135, July/August 2008

Cole Wehrle

IT’S HARD TO imagine that only a year ago the privatization of a public university would emerge as a major political issue in Bloomington, Indiana. That is not to say the topic took the community by surprise. As early as 1994, the Indiana University’s Board of Trustees formed various tasks forces to evaluate the university’s potential for privatization.

In the following years the list of departments ballooned from the modest goal of privatizing printing services (since abandoned) to compromising 12 other services, most of which remain unnamed. This news is particularly frightening to the 5,400(1) workers around Indiana who stand to lose not just their jobs, but a benefit package that included health care and significant reductions on tuition rates at the university.

In response, workers at the university — including members of the CWA Local 4730 and AFSME Local 832 — Jobs with Justice members, and student activists organized protests with zest and circulated petitions opposing this initiative. Media were receptive too. The local radio stations, WFHB and WFIU, along with both the Indiana Daily Student and the Bloomington Herald Times tracked developments and offered sympathetic coverage of the workers. The opposition to Indiana University’s attempts to outsource the IU Motor Pool and Bookstore was well coordinated, and to those involved in the campaign, including myself, victory seemed within reach.

However, to the bewilderment of its participants and in spite of a well-run campaign, activists made little impression on the Board of Trustees or then President Adam Herbert. Lacking opposition from either party, the issue would be approved without a vote, only requiring the president’s final authorization.

The decision to outsource the bookstore was announced at a meeting of the Board of Trustees on May 5, 2007. Care was taken to provide activists and community members with ample time to talk, but the decision seemed to be already made and the board members read their announcement without pausing to deliberate on the comments of outsourcing opponents.

The outsourcing of IU’s bookstore was not the harbinger of the university’s fall into the corporate world but a result of it. The campaign to stop outsourcing had failed to identify the origins of outsourcing at the university and its agents.

The travesty was not the eventual privatization of the bookstore, but the slow dismantling of the public university that left IU’s students, staff and faculty as well as the citizens of Bloomington without a voice in university affairs. Instead of directing the campaign to the renewal of the public academic institution, we shouted at an institution that had long ago grown deaf to democracy.

Heirs of Herman B. Wells

On January 27, 2007, over 200 protestors, including union members, students and community supporters, stood confined on a grassy median in the parking lot of Assembly Hall. The more eager demonstrators canvassed the parking lot, soliciting the many sports fans eager to enter the warm stadium. Among the demonstrators, an elderly woman, bundled up in woolen winter wear, held a sign that read “What would Herman Do?”

Her sign refers to the beloved, late president of Indiana University, Herman B. Wells, who has the distinction of being the longest acting president of the institution, guiding it intermittently from 1939 to 1968. During his administration, Wells quadrupled the size of the campus, desegregated the university, and established the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction among other achievements.

In his honor, various statues and busts pepper the grounds. While Wells passed away in 2000, he functions as the symbol of a wise patriarch — a hybrid of Dumbledore and FDR — who operated in the best interests of the university.

For faculty, staff, and Bloomington residents, Wells has become a powerful figure to invoke as a moral authority. Protesters rallied behind his half-century-old speeches, instead of focusing on the current realities of the advisory committees that brought forth the privatization proposal, or the lack of state and federal funding that forces universities to rely on “marketplace solutions.”

Understanding Wells’ iconic value, the local chapter of the Communications Workers of America, tapped into the legacy of Wells to legitimize their cause. The CWA’s executive board begins their official statement regarding outsourcing with a recollection of Wells’ first inaugural address in which he stated, “’Never was the university’s responsibilities for the development of character of greater significance than at the present hour.”

In fact, Wells’ advice could be about anything, but the CWA’s call to arms and invocation of Wells subsequently circulated among staff and faculty on campus. In an editorial in the Herald Times, highly respected Professor James Capshew began his October 2006 editorial on outsourcing by quoting Wells:

“The effectiveness of Indiana University depends upon its people; particularly those who make the university’s work a career. Such persons render a public service of the highest order. It is appropriate, therefore, that special recognition be given to members of the staff as they give increasing proportions of their lifework to the noble and inspiring purposes of Indiana University.”

Though Wells certainly wasn’t speaking directly to the issue of outsourcing in this passage, his support for university workers in general was helpful in couching the anti- outsourcing argument within IU’s traditional values.

Unfortunately, understanding outsourcing through a narrative that reduces the issue to larger than life heroic figures such as the late Wells, versus agents with malevolent intentions such as Governor Mitch Daniels, effaces the gradual processes by which the university has been transformed from a public institution to a quasi-private corporation. The final decision to privatize, in the context of an academic environment where 45.7%(2) of universities have outsourced their bookstore, becomes less of a workers’ rights issue than one of a university system that has been brought to its knees.

Troublesome Precedent

The use of Wells’ image by the current administration demonstrates that he can be equally appropriated by other forces. Wells had a reputation among students of Bloomington of being an extraordinary personable president, who always maintained public office hours without appointment.(3) Modeling himself after Wells, newly appointed President Michael McRobbie cultivated an image of compassion and communication in the months before his inauguration.

His rhetoric seems to suggest that McRobbie is committed to continuing Wells’ style of administration. Yet what appears as a return to Wells’ open leadership is little more than a reaction to the negative responses to IU’s previous president Adam Herbert, who was infamous for his invisibility on campus (or for being off campus), and his push to spend more on athletics.

In the fall of 2005, Herbert angered faculty by canceling the current search for a new IU Bloomington chancellor. After a mass meeting, Bloomington faculty called for the Trustees’ review of the president’s performance. But before the review could take place, Herbert announced his resignation as soon as a successor was identified.(4)

Though Herbert’s relations with students and faculty were poor, McRobbie’s administration shows troubling signs of being inaccessible to these groups as well. Before his appointment, McRobbie stated in a press release that “students will be able to meet one-on-one with President Michael McRobbie during regularly scheduled ‘Open Office Hours’ at the university’s Bloomington and Indianapolis campuses.”(5)

Since trumpeting his availability, McRobbie has held office hours infrequently and sporadically. He held them for the first three weeks of the school year, sometimes announcing their times less than a day in advance, and has ceased since then.

CWA President Peter Kaczmarczyk has run into similar troubles while trying to schedule a meeting between the local chapter of Jobs with Justice and McRobbie. Kaczmarczyk sent several requests for a meeting to McRobbie in September, but each time the university deferred him to Associate Vice President Dan Rives, who handles union affairs.

President McRobbie’s invocation of Wells appears to be a cynical attempt to associate himself with a popular leader without formulating the humane and enlightened policies advocated by Wells. When a hero like Wells can be symbolically commandeered by the current administration, one wonders whether the campaign against outsourcing should also rely on this iconic figure to give moral weight to their concerns.

Part of the difficulty of the campaign against outsourcing has been to determine both the source of the university’s drive to outsource departments and the decision-making chain. According to Kaczmarczyk, former President Herbert shrugged his shoulders and deferred blame for the initiative to outsource to the board of trustees; they, in turn, claim that the impetus originated with Herbert and Indiana governor Mitch Daniels.

Though there is no consensus on where the orders are coming from, the program to outsource the IU Motor Pool and Bookstore moved forward. Public outcry at the final board meeting did little to sway the board from its decision to proceed with outsourcing, a decision that seems to have been predetermined.

Reagan’s Legacy

At this same blustery January 2007 protest, local demonstrators also carried signs reading “Ditch Mitch! [Referring to Governor Mitch Daniels].” Daniels, after resigning from the Bush administration as director of the Office of Management and Budget, successfully ran for governor in Indiana. Local media and activists have placed the blame for outsourcing squarely on his shoulders.

Since his election, Governor Daniels has stacked the university’s Board of Trustees with businessmen such as Thomas Reilly who seem bent on repeating Reagan’s economic mantra that “government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector.”

Dallas Murphy worked as a custodian at the university for 27 years and currently heads the local American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees. When I spoke to him last year at the height of the campaign, a frustrated Murphy told me that these problems are a result of a change at the state level. Murphy said, “There has been a change of attitude, and the reason there has been a change is because it’s coming from the top, it’s coming from Mitch Daniels, his election has resulted in a complete change of attitude.”

The perception that the election of Mitch Daniels triggered a dramatic change in the University’s attitude toward outsourcing departments is unfortunately ill founded. During an Indiana University Board of Trustees’ meeting in June of 1994 (nine years before Daniels would be elected Governor), Vice President Emeritus Ed Williams reported the findings of a “Competitiveness Task Force.”

Williams and his task force had developed a system for evaluating the university and increasing efficiency. The board voted unanimously to continue research in the possibilities of outsourcing services and staff.

Williams explained the motives of the task force this way: “The thrust behind this task force is to determine if the University is rendering quality service at the best price possible; therefore, [the committee has] designed a methodology to examine that issue. If areas exist which are not doing this, then the solution might be that someone else could provide the same or better service for a better price. In that case, there might be need to reassign or reduce staff.”

The task force examined IU as a business with no particular attention given to its status as public institution with responsibilities to its workers or the Bloomington community. Vice President Terry Clapacs emphasizes that IU will have to adjust to a changing marketplace, adding that the external environment “compels management to consider alternate means of doing business, including mergers, consolidations, and outsourcing.” Clapacs’ “alternative means of doing business” is an explicit example of the corporate thinking that many universities have donned in the wake of funding cuts at the state level.

Hunting for a Solution

The university’s drive to privatize is further complicated by the peculiar status of the corporation. The corporation has the legal status of personhood in the United States, and therefore the managers of the corporation act for the incorporeal force. The Canadian lawyer and writer Joel Bakan describes the formation of the corporation this way: “through a bizarre legal alchemy, courts had fully transformed the corporation into a ‘person,’ with its own identity, separate from the flesh-and blood people who were its owners and managers.”

Bakan concludes that “Corporations now govern society, perhaps more than governments themselves do; yet ironically, it is their very power, much of which they have gained through economic globalization, that makes them vulnerable. As true of any ruling institution, the corporation now attracts mistrust, fear, and demands for accountability from an increasingly anxious public.”(6)

Since the corporation assumes the most easily assailed form, that of a single “person,” the discourse of heroes and villains is compelling for anti-outsourcing campaigns. During the IU campaign, every speech or forum organized around drumming up anti-outsourcing support focused on the dangers of the corporation (in this case, Barnes and Noble and Enterprise Rent-A-Car). The fervor of these attacks, in tandem with the magnitude of popular protest, made possible the sizeable demands that Barnes and Noble had to comply with in order to gain access to the university.

However, activists generally spared IU from being portrayed in the same light as these corporations, constructing their beloved institution as a virgin structure besieged by private interests. This understanding prevented a sober evaluation of the university itself as a corporate entity, instead displacing the blame for the outsourcing initiative on to a few IU trustees and eventually Governor Daniels.

Despite the problems with a campaign that focuses on curing the symptoms and not the disease, it’s clear, from the concessions made by the university, that the attempt to stop outsourcing at IU was not in vain. What the campaign to stop outsourcing at IU lacked was a way to critique the institution that was moving to privatize the various departments of the university in terms other than a narrative of good vs. evil and us vs. them.

Ideally a progressive moment would work to break down these oppositions to expose the greater structures that lie beneath. The limitations of social activism today owe in part to an oversimplification of the structures that create the robber barons of the world, and, by extension, an inability to calculate their movements.

That being said, there is still some merit in engaging in the binary narrative, as long as it is understood as being strategically simplistic. By acting as a counterforce and using symbolic icons such as Herman B. Wells, one can work to make very measurable success. But in order to effect a longstanding social change, we need to confront the underlying corporate structure of the university and its efforts to privatize and abdicate its public role.


  1. Data from 2003, Indiana University Factbook.
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  2. Study by American School and University,
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  3. Clark, Thomas. Indiana University: Midwestern Pioneer.
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  6. Bakan, Joel. The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.
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ATC 135, July-August 2008