Mean Mr. Market.

12 11 2012

Why does everyone seem to think I’m anti-capitalist these days? Robert Bromber made that assumption last week. So did Jeremy on Friday. Believe it or not, I am not a socialist (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And for the 600th time, I’m not a Luddite either.* I simply think there are some places where market forces should not reign supreme and one of those places is higher education.

The problem with unregulated capitalism is that the people who benefit from it simply don’t know when enough is enough. Here’s Nicolaus Mills in Dissent:

Running a corporatized college or university is not easy. The professor who takes time out from teaching and research to devote him- or herself to administration for a few years increasingly is an anachronism. A new, permanent administrative class now dominates higher education. At the top are the college and university presidents who earn a million dollars or more a year and serve on numerous corporate boards (Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, earned a reported $1.38 million in a single year from her multiple directorships). Thirty-six private college and university presidents, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, fall into the million-dollars-a-year category, and many more are close behind.

Seriously, what makes Gordon Gee worth $2.14 million dollars/year? I know Ohio State is a big place. I’ll buy $500,000 or maybe even a million, but $2.14 million? Think of the faculty half that sum could pay for! Think of the tech they could buy!

Students aren’t the only ones paying for salaries like that or the less-bloated salaries of lower profile unnecessary administrators. Faculty are too. Here’s Mills again:

[W]hen colleges and universities think of economizing, their target is all too often those who are already their most vulnerable employees—part-time faculty and service workers. The administrators who run our leading colleges and universities are unwilling, the record shows, to downsize themselves. In the 1970s, 67 percent of faculty were tenured or on a tenure track. Today that figure is down to 30 percent, and for those who run higher education such a low number is ideal. Whether they are adjuncts or teaching assistants (TAs), those without the claim to permanent jobs cost less and are easy to get rid of in a period of contraction.

This isn’t news to people who pay attention to higher education labor issues. However, I don’t think most people understand that outsourcing a campus’ technological endeavors to private companies has the same effect. As my friend Jonathan Poritz has suggested, why do we need Facebook Blackboard when there’s plenty of free LMSs out there that campuses can run with minimal costs for continuing support?

Similarly, why does the University of Michigan have to hire Coursera to run its MOOCs when there are plenty of people on that campus who could set up systems designed to benefit the faculty there? Instead, they agreed to a contract where the company’s sources of revenue hasn’t even been identified yet! In the meantime, the governor there cut enough money from the budget in 2011 to spark protests and I doubt the Coursera revenue will make up for that loss anytime soon.

I’m not asking for a lot on behalf of faculty – A living wage, some job stability, at least some control over higher education’s technological future. As a trade unionist, I believe that labor and management can sit down together and work out their differences in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding. However, once you invite Mean Mr. Market to your party and give him the freedom to trash the place, it’s going to be really hard to ever get him to leave.

* Pretty soon I’ll be blogging about the new internet-based, professor-centered pedagogical venture that I’ll be editing, as soon as my publisher is ready to go public.

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