Inside the Corporate University

Against the Current, No. 165, July/August 2013

Purnima Bose

DESPITE A LONG and noble history of faculty involvement in social justice issues, there is surprisingly little evidence lately of organized faculty activism directed at specific causes.(1) This quiescence is often attributed to neoliberalism, the corporatization of the university, and the cultural hostility toward a professoriat perceived to be aligned with the left.

While many bemoan what they believe to be the recent corporate transformation of the university, the profit-driven research orientation and the direction of instruction to the requirements of the private sector, the struggle over the nature of university education — whether it should be geared toward the needs of business or humanity — actually dates back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.(2)

In Ivy and Industry, Christopher Newfield charts the imbrication of the research university and the business corporation, noting that the research university has both facilitated the development of “corporate capitalism and two of its major pillars, commercial technology and organizational management,” and asserted the value of the pursuit of knowledge outside the instrumentality of the market. (Newfield, 3)

Marshall Sahlins, David Shumway, and Henry Steck too have analyzed the ways in which corporations and their leaders even in this earlier period sought to influence universities. Knowledge itself was organized into disciplines out of the necessity, as Shumway writes, for “trained functionaries to fill out the ranks of the [professional-managerial class].” Central to these dynamics was also the desire to ideologically suture the middle class to the ruling class by inculcating habits of taste and cultural distinctions through the university curriculum.(3)

Arguably, the corporatization of the university was realized in its earlier bureaucratization, modeled on commercial industry, and its introduction of departments, faculty ranks, and the implementation of an “accounting system” of degree requirements, credit hours, and grades.(4) The university’s current mission to reproduce the professional-managerial class and to mirror the institutional arrangements of corporations, in other words, is not new.

We must acknowledge, however, the greater entanglement of corporations and academia today, with its profound consequences for the production of knowledge, the working conditions of the professoriat, and the material transformation of campuses into commercial spaces with the increasingly visible presence of corporations.

Food for Thought — Or Profit?

At my university, corporations are a fixture of the landscape. Where in the early ’90s the university ran its own bookstore, food services and car rental agency, these operations in the last decade have been outsourced to Barnes and Noble, Burger King, Chick-Fil-A, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Google now administers the university email system.

A private corporation, the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, has scored a contract to mentor assistant and associate professor — largely by sending weekly cheery, professorial self-help emails, “The Monday Motivator,” inexplicably delivered to our inboxes on Sunday mornings.

Sporting titles such as “Responding to Rejection,” “Pick Your Battles” and “It’s Crunch Time,” these messages trumpet the neoliberal value of personal responsibility and offer advice about time management, even as they seem oblivious to the ways in which the structure of the corporate research university has intensified the workload for most faculty. Nor do they acknowledge the differential nature of labor in the academy, where women often bear a larger service burden than their male faculty colleagues.(5)

Steck most systematically catalogues the less visible saturation of corporate culture on almost every aspect of the university, including the imposition of corporate managerial and fiscal practices on university operations, “the appropriation of intellectual labor for [private] profit,” and the loss of research autonomy at the cost of compromising scholarly integrity.

Faculty and students experience these forms of corporatization through “the conceptualization of departments or other units as ‘revenue centers’ and the adoption of responsibility-centered management,” the impetus to generate “mission statements” and formulate “strategic planning” documents, the creation of managerial bureaucracies and the ballooning of professional administrators, a “customer service orientation” toward students, the national scramble to devise “assessment” mechanisms, and the branding of individual institutions in often vacuous or commercial terms.(6)

For example, my university spent over $200,000 in one year alone to promote a new marketing slogan — “IU is Red Hot” — designed, one suspects, for its appeal to teenage hormones.(7)

Working Conditions Deteriorate

Additionally, the corporatization of university life today has radically altered the conditions of work for the professoriat, in some cases eliminating programs in their academic specializations.

According to Howard Bunsis and Gwendolyn Bradley, representatives of the American Association of University Professors, a number of universities have announced their intentions “to eliminate, reduce, or suspend programs, including SUNY Albany (French, Italian, Russian, classics, theater), the University of Maine (public administration, German, Latin, theatre, women’s studies), Louisiana State University (Portuguese, Russian, Swahili, Japanese, German, Latin), the University of Nevada at Reno (German studies, Italian), Winona State University (French, German), Albion College (computer science, physical education, dance), Wells College (French, religion, music), University of Southern Mississippi (health, art, engineering technology, geology, German, Latin, religion, marine science), and more.”(8)

The majority of the programs targeted for reduction or elimination are language instruction (notably spared, however, are Mandarin and Cantonese, presumably because of China’s status as a vast emerging market) and subjects in the humanities, areas in which inquiry does not obviously and directly translate into market value.

Conditions of labor for the professoriat have also been affected by ratcheting up standards of productivity, and increasing the general workload in response to the downsizing of academic personnel.

Expectations for increased research productivity for assistant professors make the probationary period prior to tenure even more stressful: some institutions such as Ohio State University and Indiana University have mandated outside reviews of tenure candidates in the fourth and third year respectively, quietly advising candidates with negative reviews to seek employment elsewhere. Others such as Columbia University are moving toward a two-book standard for earning tenure in the humanities.(9)

Many institutions are also contemplating instituting post-tenure reviews. In Texas, Governor Rick Perry’s appointees to the Texas A & M Board of Regents railroaded the imposition of “a business-like metrics for faculty productivity, reporting how much they ‘made’ or ‘lost’ for the university” largely calculated on the basis of enrollments per class.(10) As expected, those faculty who had larger enrollments in their classes were deemed more valuable than those that did not regardless of their overall research productivity.

A greater reliance on adjunct faculty members has meant that the security and protection of tenure have evaporated for the majority of academics. According to data culled from the 2009 U.S. Department of Education’s Fall Staff Survey, 75.5% of the instructional workforce in degree-granting two-and four-year institutions of higher learning consists of non-tenure track faculty members and graduate student teaching assistants.(11)

Moreover, the graying of the professoriat has brought larger ideological shifts (contra conservative hysteria about tenured radicals) and a political identification away from the concerns of social justice that characterized academics in the ’60s and ’70s.(12)

Impact on Faculty Activism

These factors should be understood in the context of the larger social crisis and fragmentation of the public sphere described by Jeff Maskovsky in his article “Beyond Neoliberalism: Academia and Activism in a Nonhegemonic Moment;” together they present major obstacles to faculty activism.(13) The exhausting workload, the frantic pace of the academic calendar, the fear of institutional reprisals, and the unrelenting stress of meeting the quotidian requirements of professional responsibilities leave many faculty with little energy or desire to engage in activism.

These trends are apparent at my institution. While my university has a progressive faculty group, which in the course of its 12-year history has organized marches, demonstrations, and over fifty teach-ins on topics ranging from No Child Left Behind, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Academic Freedom, and health care reform, the group’s identity as an activist collective has waned over the years.(14)

Partly as a result of the retirements of the most active members and the reluctance of younger faculty to become more involved — though many were energized during the 2008 presidential election — the group’s remaining active members have largely given up on its potential to organize in a sustained fashion, and instead are channeling their individual energies into working on labor, healthcare and de-incarceration campaigns off campus, and collaborating with student activists in the Occupy movement and its remnants on campus.

One hopes that some of the energy associated with the Occupy movement will electrify academics to agitate in support of the “free university” itself as well, even if the anarchic quality of that movement and its disavowal of hierarchy and structure militate against individual faculty participants forging a collective identity of themselves as a class qua faculty.

The unique class structure of the university — comprised of tenured faculty, untenured tenure-track faculty, adjunct faculty, non-teaching staff, graduate students, and undergraduates — discourages faculty from finding common cause with other constituencies. To the extent that faculty can participate in campaigns on tuition hikes, student debt, policies concerning undocumented students, and staff salaries and benefits, we can counteract the divisions that characterize the neoliberal university and help create a genuine university community.


  1. A shorter version of this article appeared in American Quarterly, “Faculty Activism and the Corporatizaton of the University,” Vol. 64, No. 4 (December 2012): 815-818.
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  2. The literature on the corporatization of the university is voluminous and rich. See, for example, Stanley Aronowitz’s The Knowledge Factory (Boston, Beacon, 2000), Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1996), Sheila Slaughter and Larry L. Leslie’s Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University (Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1997), Geoffrey White’s edited collection, Campus, Inc. (Amherst, NY, Prometheus Books, 2000). Particularly valuable overviews of changes in higher education during the 20th century and in their clarity about the specific mechanisms of corporatization include Christopher Newfield’s Ivy and Industry: Business and the Making of the American University 1880-1980 (Durham & London: Duke UP, 2003) and Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2008), Marshall Sahlin’s “The Conflicts of the Faculty” (Critical Inquiry, Vol. 35, No. 4 [Summer 2009]: 997-1017), David Shumway’s “Disciplinarity, Corporatization, and the Crisis: A Dystopian Narrative” (The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 32, No. 2/3 [Winter-Spring 1999]: 2-18), and Henry Steck’s “Corporatization of the University: Seeking Conceptual Clarity” (Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 585 [January 2003]: 66-83).
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  3. Shumway, 6-7
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  4. .

  5. Sahlins, 1001.
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  6. Joya Misra, Jennifer Hicks Lundquist, Elissa Holmes, and Stephanie Agiomavritis, “The Ivory Ceiling of Service Work.” Academe. Vol. 97, No. 1 (January-February 2011).
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  7. This list derives from Steck, 75-77.
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  8. Adam Aasen, “University Utilizes ‘Red Hot’ Marketing.” Indiana Daily Student, February 2, 2006. http://www.
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  9. Howard Bunsis and Gwendolyn Bradley, “Myths on Program Elimination.” Inside Higher Ed. March 31, 2011. They observe that the reduction and elimination of these programs is occurring although universities have had record profits since 2009-2010, presumably from increasing tuition and tapping other revenue sources.
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  10. For ratcheted tenure standards, see Robin Wilson, “A Higher Bar for Earning Tenure.”
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  11. Justin Pope, “University of Texas, Rick Perry Clash Over Future of Public Education.” Huff Post College. February 3, 2013.
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  12. The Coalition on the Academic Workforce, “A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members.” June 2012. See also Jordan Weissman’s “The Ever-Shrinking Role of Tenured College Professors,” The Atlantic. April 10, 2013.
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  13. For more on this ideological shift, see Neil Gross and Solon Simmons, “The Social and Political Views of American Professors,” Working Paper, September 24, 2007, available at The working paper is embedded in Neil Gross, “The Indoctrination Myth,” New York Times, March 3, 2012 at the same website.
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  14. American Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 4, (December 2012): 819-822.
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  15. Our group also organized a series of panels on academics and activism linking scholars across the Americas for the 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre and participated in several sessions on this topic at the 2010 US Social Forum in Detroit. For our activities at the World Social Forum, see Patrick Brantlinger’s “Utopian Universities and International Activism” (Academe, Vol. 91, No. 5 [Sept.-Oct. 2005]: 28-29).
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July/August 2013, ATC 165