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This Week: Higher Education Privatization


I talk a lot in these pages about the serious problem of the de-funding of journalism that has come about in the wake of the Internet.  A related problem is the de-funding of higher education.  A recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that “states have slashed higher education funding” and, as this has happened, private money has increasingly come into the picture.  This privatization of higher education (some call it the “corporatization” of higher ed) has systemic implications for our America’s intellectual infrastructure, just as the de-funding of journalism is affecting our information infrastructure.

I never went to college, for a variety of reasons.  I mention this because this issue of the Notes amounts to a strong defense of a liberal arts education, and I want it to be clear that my interest in the subject is motivated by a sense of solidarity, not self-interest.  What’s the difference?, one may ask.

What I’m saying in this issue is that I think that all of us would be better off if we—as a society—placed more emphasis on things that don’t have an obvious monetary value.  Like a liberal arts education, which tends to produce not only engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and IT experts, but also poets, historians, feminist theorists, philosophers, linguists, geographers, and my favorites, sociologists.

The effects of this de-funding of higher education is in the news all the time, although it usually appears in disguise.  That is, the headlines don’t say, “Capitalist Thinking Is Coming to Rule the Academy.”  No, in the quest to understand why and how our education system is changing, the stories to look for, as always, are the stories about who is paying the bills.  This week in the Notes I highlight a few “feel-good” stories of generous gifts to our colleges and universities by wealthy individuals and the corporations from whence comes their wealth.  And I ponder the meaning of educational philanthropy, and how in this case the road to hell really is, as the saying goes, paved with good intentions.

Your uneducated friend,


“Quote” of the Week: “How Pictures and Sounds Alter How We Think”

The New York Times on February 12th had a special section called “Welcome to the Post-Text Future,” in which technology columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote this sentence:

“An online culture ruled by pictures and sounds rather than text is going to alter much about how we understand the world around us.”

Later on he wrote this:

“Then there’s the more basic question of how pictures and sounds alter how we think. An information system dominated by pictures and sounds prizes emotion over rationality. It’s a world where slogans and memes have more sticking power than arguments. (Remind you of anyone?) And will someone please think of the children: Do you know how much power YouTube has over your kids? Are you afraid to find out?”

Higher Education Philanthropy

The headline in the Business Section of my local newspaper on December 6th read, “3M Adds $8 million to U’s STEM Programs.”  That’s a lot of money, and I work part-time at the University of Minnesota (that’s the “U” in the headline), so this grabbed my attention.

3M is Minnesota’s 5th-largest corporation and, like most multinational corporations, it makes its money by selling many different things.  Post-It brand notes, for instance, and Scotch Tape, and Thinsulate, and many others.  The U of MN is in the midst of a fundraising drive (called “Driven”) which it hopes will bring in $4 billion for reasons to which I shall return in a moment.

Here’s how the article starts out:

“3M Co. boosted its contribution to the University of Minnesota’s STEM and business education programs by another $8 million, company officials announced Tuesday.  The new commitment, which will support scholarship and outreach programs, brings 3M’s total investment to the U’s 10-year Driven campaign to $26 million.  3M officials said their goal was to help build a solid pipeline of diverse and global talent and to prepare university students well for careers in STEM fields [that is, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math].

Toward the end of the article we read “Kim Price, president of the 3M Foundation, said the new gift to the school ‘reflects our ongoing commitment to the University of Minnesota, STEM and business education.’”

In conclusion, the article notes that “3M has supported education and the sciences for decades,” and adds that “Most of 3M’s support has been directed toward the College of Science and Engineering and the Carlson School of Management [that’s the Business School], Price said.”

So, 3M has supported education for decades, we’re told.  But note that it’s not just “education,” but a particular kind of education, one that emphasizes science and business.  One that, not surprisingly, prepares people to work at 3M.

Another $50 Million

Just three weeks earlier, on November 17th, the St.  Paul daily newspaper The Pioneer Press ran this headline: “$50 Million Gift Kicks off Scholarship Campaign at University of St. Thomas.”  It was  similar to the 3M story above, noting that “A $50 million donation for promising business majors is the lead gift in a University of St. Thomas fundraising campaign that aims to raise $200 million for student scholarships.  President Julie Sullivan said the gift from the estate of commercial real estate developer Gerald Rauenhorst fits her top fundraising priority of pushing down the cost of attendance.”  After noting that “Students who take out federal loans leave the school owing an average of $26,000,” the paper quotes Sullivan saying, “I think scholarships are going to make the difference.”

But, as with the 3M donation, the difference will be made only for certain kinds of students, as the article tells us: “Applicants must have a high school grade-point average of 3.7 or higher and an ACT score of 28 and enter the university’s undergraduate business program.”

The article notes that Rauenhorst graduated from St.  Thomas, and that the commercial real estate company he founded, The Opus Group, “later designed or built 22 [St.  Thomas] university buildings, including its entire Minneapolis campus.”

An Old Pattern

I started writing about the pernicious influence of private money on academic priorities back in the year 1999 (NN#39) in a piece entitled “Curt Carlson and The Meaning of Generosity.”  The headline that caught my eye back then was this: “Curt Carlson family to announce $10 million gift to U.” Carlson was, at the time, the richest Minnesotan, with a net worth of about $1.7 billion.  The local paper reported that Carlson’s “major love was the School of Management, which was renamed in his honor in 1986 after he gave it $18 million.” Over the years he also gave money to the Humphrey Institute, the medical and law schools, and men’s athletics.

A few weeks later (NN #45) I re-visited the issue in a piece called “This College Degree Brought to You By Cargill.”  Yes, it’s the giant agribusiness company, which had given the University of Minnesota $10 million to fund the new Microbial and Plant Genomics Institute on the St. Paul campus.  The company is, naturally, quite interested in the Institute, as the research produced there will no doubt be quickly utilized by agribusiness.

A year later, in the year 2000, I discussed an article in the local paper that read “Best Buy founder donates $50 million to St. Thomas; Donation meant to foster the entrepreneurial spirit.”  This was Richard Schulze, who had displaced Curt Carlson as the richest man in Minnesota and, like Carlson, had donated to the Business School, hoping to “pour new resources into programs tailored to small-business owners,” according to the news report at the time.  (Yes, I still have the clipping.)

The 2017 Pioneer Press article I mentioned above concluded with these words:

“Still, the announcement was met with grumbling from some students who tire of their university’s emphasis on its business programs.  Sophomore Chioma Uwagwu spoke with Sullivan after the event about what she described as the school’s neglect of fine arts facilities.  ‘If we’re not paying attention to the arts, are we a liberal arts school?’ she said.”

That’s a good question, Ms.  Uwagwu.  One wonders: What IS a liberal arts school?  And why does it matter?

“Edu-Business” vs The Liberal Arts

Corporations and the people made wealthy by them, often make large gifts to support certain activities that they deem worthy of support.  Mostly, as the examples in the previous essay indicate, those activities have to do with business education and the so-called STEM fields, or Science, Techology, Engineering, and Math.  But when Ms. Uwagwu, the St.  Thomas sophomore, asks why business gets all the money, and not the Liberal Arts, what is she—and what are the other “grumbling students”—talking about?

According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, a “liberal education… emphasizes broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g., science, culture, and society)” and “helps students develop a sense of social responsibility; strong intellectual and practical skills that span all major fields of study, such as communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills; and the demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.”

Students pursuing a liberal arts education will typically be exposed to education in the Humanities (art, literature, linguistics, philosophy, religion, ethics, modern foreign languages, music, theater, speech, classical languages etc.); the Social Sciences (like history, psychology, law, sociology, politics, gender studies, anthropology, economics, geography, etc); the Natural Sciences (such as astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, botany, archaeology, zoology, geology, earth Sciences, etc), and; the Formal Sciences (mathematics, logic, statistics, etc).

Of course the real world doesn’t lay out as neatly as the above lists make it seem.  But the idea of a well-rounded education that prepares students to be useful community members is a noble one, as it implies that education is a social good, not simply a job-training exercise.

I’ve just mentioned a total of $146 million dollars donated to two universities in Minnesota, broken down as follows: $8M for STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – education at the U of MN; $50M for the University of St. Thomas undergraduate business program; $28M to the U of MN School of Management; $10M to the U of MN’s new Microbial and Plant Genomics Institute, and; $50 million to the St. Thomas Business School.

(For an exception that proves the rule, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported last month that a billionaire investor is giving a $75 million donation to the Johns Hopkins University’s philosophy department.  Which led the President of Johns Hopkins to comment that the donation—as the Chronicle paraphrased—“would make an impact in a field that receives less in donations  compared with the billions that are routed to schools of health and STEM-related programs.”  Said the President, “This gift is so wonderfully contrarian.”)

I mentioned the University of Minnesota’s current fundraising drive, which they call “Driven.”  Listed among it’s “priorities” is one they call “Drive a Minnesota plan for innovation,” which they describe like this:

For students, faculty, and business partners, the University of Minnesota is a center of invention that creates a clear and widespread economic value. Your gifts support a deeper engagement between industry and the U of M, innovation hubs that encourage collaboration, and transformative student experiences that produce business thinkers and leaders.

They also talk about targeted programs in law, public affairs, and political science, as well as theater, dance, art, and music.  But the big donations, from the wealthy and the corporations from which their wealth is derived, tend to flow toward the programs and priorities that serve their interests or, at minimum, do not threaten their interests.

The president of the University of Minnesota when Curt Carlson made his $10 million dollar gift to the business school was a man named Mark Yudof.  Yudof left Minnesota to go to the University of California, and he was quoted in an article from last April in the publication “Inside Higher Ed.”  The headline was “University Research and the Great Mistake; Universities Are Caught in a Privatization Trap That They Built Themselves and That Will Be Difficult to Take Apart.”  The author was scholar Christopher Newfield. Here’s the relevant quotation:

“Mark Yudof, a former president of the University of California, said during the financial crisis that while they struggled to pay salaries in English and sociology, the ‘medical business’ was doing just fine. Such statements told the world that the public-good educational core lost money while edu-business meant profits. This undermined the voters’ understanding of the special role that public funding plays in public-good activities like teaching and research, in which few of the benefits can be captured as profits by the institution.”

Every individual donation by every individual billionaire is probably a good thing, and is much appreciated by the recipients, no doubt.  But what do we see when we look at billionaires as a group, and the power they have over education as an institution, and the logic behind it all?

Education Beyond the Logic of Capitalism

Anti-government dogma tells us that higher education, like virtually everything else, would best be run “like a business.”  Such market-based thinking tells us that we must cut public funding to educational institutions and let the wisdom of The Market work its magic.

The scholar Christopher Newfield speaks of a “public-good educational core” that is being de-funded while marketable, profit-generating sectors of academia (“edu-business”) position themselves to collect the money that once was distributed through a public, nominally-democratic, process.  And the higher-education establishment ends up straining to show that they accept, indeed embrace, the logic of The Market.  Newfield summarizes this institutional response like this:

“Universities have asked people to marvel at their entrepreneurial prowess: they have raised tuition beyond inflation for decades, sought private donations, formed research partnerships, subsidized tech start-ups, outsourced room and board, built new buildings with promises of future lease revenue from private firms, and so on.”

This is what I’m talking about in this issue of the Notes. And the result is a shifting in the Academy, with major financial gifts going, as we’ve seen, to the business schools and the applied sciences—that is, science that  is valued for its helpfulness in bringing things to market.  Meanwhile, basic science, or pure science, which helps us to explain phenomena in the natural world, is dismissed because its value does not register in The Market.

And the re-shaping goes beyond science.  Looked at as a social institution, universities produce all sorts of graduates.  In the increasingly-privatized higher education world, we are setting up a dynamic where the emphasis is on management skills and technology, and students in these realms are being sought, subsidized, and rewarded.

We need managers.  We need scientists and engineers.  But we also need poets, philosophers, sociologists, and geographers.  We need historians, feminists, American Studies majors.  We need linguists, English teachers, translators.

These large donors no doubt think they are doing good with their philanthropy.  And maybe they are.  But the point I am making here is a structural one.

By creating a system based on the logic of The Market, we are creating a system that will produce things that benefit The Market.  But it goes beyond The Market.  Donald Trump, in his speech to the UN General Assembly last September 19th said: “As President of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first.”

We all should try to win.  This is the logic of The Market.  Which is to say, this is the logic of Capitalism, a system that is built on the ideology of Individualism and Competition.  It’s a dog-eat-dog world, an everyone-for-themselves world, a winner-take-all world, an America-First world.

The privatization of higher education is perhaps more dangerous than the privatization of other institutions, because it has greater potential to affect the broader intellectual culture.  Thought leaders produced in a market-oriented academy will likely see market logic as “logic.”  They’ll think edu-business is “education.”  They’ll think that it makes sense to have a society with winners and losers, and that they are winners because they deserve to be.  They’ll mistake wealth for freedom, and knowledge for wisdom.  And they’ll be the leaders of tomorrow.

Wealthy people can shape institutions by consciously directing their wealth toward activities that they support.  But the power to bestow such large gifts is distributed unequally in our society.  What is the great equalizer?  Public funding.  Utilizing a democratic process, taxpayers can agree to fund any kind of education we want.  If we choose, we can produce more poets, more historians, more cultural critics, more people with talents and skills that are not valued by The Market.  Because we can say, speaking the language of democracy, that we choose to pool our resources together and spend them for the common good.

On the campaign trail, in Sioux Center Iowa in January of 2016, candidate Trump spoke about paying his taxes, telling the crowd, “I pay as little as possible. It’s an expense, right? That’s the American way. I mean, do you want stupid people?”

That’s the dog-eat-dog world, the everyone-for-themselves world, the winner-take-all world, the America-First world speaking.  That’s the logic of The Market, and the essence of Trumpism.

Another world is possible.  It’s an everyone-wins world, a we’re-in-this-together world, a one-for-all-and-all-for-one world.  It’s a world built on Solidarity and Cooperation, and it will be built in spite of the millionaires and billionaires and their philanthropy.  It’s off in the distance.  But it’s coming.