Privatizing America’s Public Universities as “Shock Doctrine” (or Not)

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

You mean charters aren’t the whole story of privatizing education? What fresh hell is this? I’ve got to say my jaw dropped when I read this in Bloomberg; I hadn’t thought that privatization rot had gone so far:

From Pennsylvania to Oregon, the number of top public universities bidding to shake off government control keeps growing.

How exactly does “public university” “shake off government control”? By letting the administrators cut their own checks?

The universities want more control over tuition and academic programs as they become less dependent on public subsidies. Some state systems have resisted because, without their flagships, they lose premier faculty and students as well as clout in legislatures that set funding.

Pennsylvania’s West Chester University, the fastest-growing of 14 state-owned campuses and the one with the highest SAT scores, could break away under legislation filed this year. Its departure would deepen a divide between independent ‘haves’ and tightly controlled ‘have nots’ plagued by dwindling funding and enrollment. Pennsylvania State University and three other public institutions already operate autonomously.

“Plagued by”? Note the lack of agency. Who’s doing the “plaguing,” and why? And what does “autonomously” mean?

After gaining greater independence, many public universities have increased tuition, raising fears that West Chester would follow suit.

“For any university that leaves the state system, tuition and fees will likely go up — creating an added burden for students and their families,” Frank Brogan, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, said in a statement opposing the bill when it was introduced.

The independence drive is analogous to the rise in K-12 education of charter schools… Like charters, breakaway universities want less red tape and more freedom to experiment with academic programs.

Whatever “less red tape” and “more freedom” means, other than open season for executive looting.

Like charters, they fuel fears about the future of public systems and whether some institutions will be left behind to wither as competition intensifies.

And so they should fear. (We might also remember, although Bloomberg oddly, or not, does not mention it, the stench of corruption that hangs round the charter movement.)

The Academe Blog, unlike Bloomberg, doesn’t go all mealy-mouthed about the stakes:

If the fall 2013 semester saw the term “retrenchment” – the elimination of faculty, programs, and jobs – become part of daily conversations on campuses of Pennsylvania’s state-owned universities (PASSHE), during the next several months we may witness the birth of the next phase in the slow destruction of public higher education in the Commonwealth. This past fall, PA Senator Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson (R – 6th District) and Senator Andy Dinniman (D – 19th District) began working in earnest on legislation that would allow individual PASSHE universities to secede from the state system and become a state-related university – or even completely privatize. On Thursday, PASSHE’s new Chancellor, Frank Brogan, seemed to be laying similar groundwork during his testimony before the PA House Appropriations Committee.

Yikes. To be sure, we (well, I) generally think of privatization as an all or nothing thing; an institution is private, or its not. In fact, privatization is more like a “disposition matrix” for public purpose, as this handy chart from D. Bruce Johnstone makes clear. (Johnstone once served as Chancellor of the State University of New York.)

Dimensions High “Publicness” High “Privateness”
Continua of Privatization [Greater Privatization –>]
1. Mission or Purpose Serves a clear “public” mission as determined by the faculty or the state. Mission is avowedly both public and private, but as defined by faculty. Mission is mainly to respond to student’s private interests, mainly vocational. Mission serves private interests of students, clients, and owners.
2. Ownership Publicly owned: can be altered or even closed by state. Public corporation or constitutional entity. Private non-profit: clear public accountability Private for-profit
3. Source of Revenue All taxpayer, or public, revenue. Mainly public, but some tuition, or “cost sharing.” Mainly private, but public assistance to needy students. All private revenue: mainly tuition-dependent.
4. Control by Government High state control, as in agency or ministry. Subject to controls, but less than other state agencies. High degree of autonomy; control limited to oversight. Controls limited to those over any other businesses.
5. Norms of Management Academic norms; shared governance, antiauthoritarianism. Academic norms, but acceptance of need for effective management. Limited homage to academic norms; high management control. Operated like a business; norms from management.

The Bloomberg story makes it look like the “top” Pennsylvania schools are heading toward High “Privateness” in every respect; let’s take a quick (not exhaustive) survey of current trends.

5. Norms of Management: Operated like a business; norms from management

Speaking to the question of norms, I can testify anecdotally that business norms are increasingly becoming the rule in the Maine public universities; students are considered to be customers (much as in ObamaCare, patients are considered consumers (because markets). As a result, at the flagship school, we have a new gym (partly financed with naming rights), and a well-architected union — for some students, seeing a Starbucks is a big deal — but we also have consistent complaints about the labs and the lack of materials. A few squillionaires have financed some buildings for programs that interest them, but the library languishes. There are still dorms, but new campus housing is privatized (some owned by private equity), and so there’s no institutional supervision whatever. Of course, if the customers want to party, that’s a selling point. Finally, the entire system runs on adjuncts, who are paid Walmart wages for part-time work, while administrators pay themselves handsomely. Operated like a business indeed!

3. Source of Revenue: Mainly private, but public assistance to needy students.

Here I fear Johnstone wasn’t nearly cynical enough. From the Houston Press:

[A]s states have cut (and cut) funding for their public universities, public higher education inches toward the private university model: higher tuition costs, and more financial aid for those students the universities want to attract.

And who are those students? The ones that will boost a school’s rankings and prestige. This of course means that more and more students from lower-income families will (are) being priced out of higher education. ProPublica has shown that, in a gross inversion, wealthier kids are sucking up the aid from colleges and universities, leaving the most financially needy in a bind.

So, for “public assistance to needy students” read “public assistance to target customers” and everything’s jake!

1. Mission or Purpose: Mission is mainly to respond to student’s private interests, mainly vocational.

Because the market for critical thinking is like the market for humanities majors! (Never mind that the University of Maine’s largest donor for many years was Stephen King, from the much-maligned and on-the-chopping block English Department.) Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer of Workers Action write:

Nothing short of genuine education itself is at stake. What particularly vitiates the learning process is the introduction of a corporate culture or “market” forces that insist on measuring “student learning outcomes” by “objective” standards such as standardized tests; that place an emphasis on competition so that there are inevitably “winners” and “losers;” that regard democratic structures that include teachers with disdain; that narrow the curriculum so that job skills alone are valued; and that think in terms of education as valuable only as a means to material rewards.

Students will not become genuine learners unless they are imbued with a love of learning, meaning they regard learning as an end in itself, an asset not easily measured. Every teacher is fully aware that in competitive environments students will concentrate their efforts on achieving a high grade, not on truly understanding the material. They will memorize for tests and then forget everything. They will take great pains to hide their ignorance, not raise critical questions, let alone questions about material they do not understand. We know that in moments of desperation the vast majority of high school students at one time or another will cheat, which is hardly one of the skills we want them to acquire.

Here again, I’m not sure the authors are cynical enough. In today’s financialized America, cheating is exactly the skill we want students (that is, “consumers”) to acquire. That said, when you think about it, it’s not surprising that the businessmen who populate the (handsomely paid) governing boards of public universities favor a jawbs as a mission. It’s a two-fer: Not only do they get entry-level recruits for their companies, they stunt the creativity and invention of future competitors!

1. Mission or Purpose: Mission serves private interests of students, clients, and owners.

Especially owners! Get a load of this from the University of California!

UC Regents recently approved a new corporate entity that will likely give a group of well-connected businesspeople control over how academic research is used.

Despite the sweeping changes the program portends for UC, the regents’ vote received virtually no press coverage. UC plans to first implement Newco at UCLA and its medical centers, but some regents, along with influential business leaders across the state, want similar entities installed at Berkeley, Davis, Santa Cruz, and other campuses. UC Regents Chairwoman Sherry Lansing called Newco at UCLA a “pilot program” for the entire UC system.

Records show that wealthy investors and influential businessmen with close ties to UCLA and one of the UC Regents — Alan C. Mendelson — are financially invested in companies that currently license university-owned patents under exclusive financial arrangements. Mendelson, who also is a trustee for the UC Berkeley Foundation and has investments of his own in businesses that profit from university-produced research, was one of the main backers of the Newco proposal and cast a vote in favor of it.

Open cronyism and corruption (which, we might add, is taking place in blue California, bastion of progressivism.)

Of course, this is a complete perversion of the idea of a “public university”:

What’s better for the public and the broader economy, said [Gerald Barnett, who ran tech transfer operations at the University of Washington and at UC Santa Cruz], is a system in which most university inventions and knowledge quickly flows into the public domain, or is swiftly made available through non-commercial means. A relatively small number of university inventions that benefit from patent positions might be licensed out, Barnett said. But he’s skeptical of the obsession with exclusive patent agreements with corporations.

* * *

Privatizing: Just Another Neo-liberal Infestation

The go-to guy for quotes on university privatization seems to be one Richard Vedder:

Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, teaches at Ohio University, and is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

(Parenthetically, there’s one thing I will never forgive the conservative nomenklatura for, and that’s their perversion of the word “scholar.” These guys aren’t scholars. They’re propagandists and yes, I am pre-postmodernist enough to think there’s a difference.) Here’s Vedder in action:

Yet, in the midst of all of this, there is a stealth privatization of one important American public sector institution underway—the state university. Data recently released by Illinois State University’s Center for the Study of Educational Policy and the State Higher Educative Executive Officers (SHEEO) show that the absolute amount of state appropriations (including stimulus monies) for higher education declined by 7.6 percent over the past five years, or about 17.4 percent after adjusting for inflation—but before adjusting for enrollment growth. Adjusting for enrollment growth as well, the decline probably approaches 25 percent.

But that is not all. A half dozen states had inflation-adjusted increases in appropriations, but some very important states had cuts of well over 20 percent (inflation but not enrollment adjusted), including California, Florida, Michigan, Washington, Arizona and Pennsylvania (these states alone contain over one-third the American population). More and more so-called state universities receive 15 percent or less of their basic operating funds from the state. Thus tuition increases have soared at these schools, even more so than at private universities.

For years, I have identified several schools that I have thought prime cases for privatization. The top three flagship university examples: the University of Michigan [here and here], the University of Virginia [here and here], and the University of Colorado [here]. Michigan and Virginia are prestigious schools with pretty impressive private endowments, large out of state enrollments, and state appropriations now dipping into the single digits as a percent of state funding. They probably would like to be free of state government strictures relating to admissions [ka-ching!], governance issues [ka-ching!], and the like [ka-ching!].  The University of Colorado is hugely popular to out of state students who pay very high tuition fees. At all three schools, privatization has been discussed and, to a limited degree, even achieved at the University of Virginia.

But the continued appropriations decline opens the door up to privatizing whole state systems. The prime candidate is New Hampshire. The new survey data suggests that New Hampshire schools in this academic year are receiving barely $63 per capita in state aid (over 30 percent less than five years ago), dramatically below the national average of over $232. At the flagship University of New Hampshire, in-state tuition and fees exceed $15,000 a year—many times the amount received in state appropriations (which averages well under $3,000 a student for the system as a whole).

The National Educational Policy Center, speaking of higher education, describes Vedder’s play, but more concisely:

Like so much else in education and beyond, we are seeing the familiar pattern of defunding, claiming crisis, and then calling for privatization…

It’s almost like there’s a neo-liberal playbook, isn’t there? No underpants gnomes, they! Defund, claim crisis, call for privatization… Profit! [ka-ching]. Congress underfunds the VA, then overloads it with Section 8 patients, a crisis occurs, and Obama’s first response is send patients to the private system. Congress imposes huge unheard-of, pension requirements on the Post Office, such that it operates at a loss, and it’s gradually cannibalized by private entities, whether for services or property. And charters are justified by a similar process. This process or pattern is very reminiscent of Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine:

At the most chaotic juncture in Iraq’s civil war, a new law is unveiled that would allow Shell and BP to claim the country’s vast oil reserves…. Immediately following September 11, the Bush Administration quietly out-sources the running of the “War on Terror” to Halliburton and Blackwater…. After a tsunami wipes out the coasts of Southeast Asia, the pristine beaches are auctioned off to tourist resorts…. New Orleans’s residents, scattered from Hurricane Katrina, discover that their public housing, hospitals and schools will never be reopened…. These events are examples of “the shock doctrine”: using the public’s disorientation following massive collective shocks – wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters — to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy. Sometimes, when the first two shocks don’t succeed in wiping out resistance, a third shock is employed: the electrode in the prison cell or the Taser gun on the streets.

However, I’m not sure the process or pattern outlined above is identical to the Shock Doctrine. For one thing, none of the crises are on the scale of 9/11, or a tsunami, or Katrina. In fact, these crises are manufactured for media consumption. For another, none of the crises are “natural”; they are all set up by neo-liberals playing the long con. Finally, the public isn’t so much disoriented following collective shock as baffled and bamboozled, with our famously free press playing a key role.

Basically, the Shock Doctrine seems acute; but privatization in the universities, the Post Office, and the Veterans administration seems chronic, with the occasional opportunistic neo-liberal infection. It’s the difference between having your house destroyed by a hurricane vs. being slowly eaten by termites. They are similar plays in the neo-liberal playbook, but not the same. Different plays should have different names, but all the names I can come up with are dumb: “Hock Doctrine,” because these guys want us to put our public asset “in hock”; or possibly “Chopping Block Doctrine,” because they want us to put our public assets on their “chopping block.” Like I said, dumb! And me an English major, long ago.

NOTES The obvious alternative to this privatization bullshit is free or nearly-free K-16 public education. After all, the carré rouge protesters in Canada were marching against a tuition increase from a baseline of $2168 a year; and are we so poor we can’t do as well by our kids Canada does?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. washunate

    It’s been really fascinating reading the discussion about higher ed over the past year or two. These are trends we’ve been talking about for decades, and it’s like intellectuals who have benefited from cushy jobs in higher ed are just now waking up to the fact that almost no one else makes the six figure compensation packages that professors in econ, law, medicine, etc. bring home.

    The fundamental question isn’t whether college should be free or not to the student. Rather, it is why does college cost so much in the first place? If college was valuable, then employers would be paying students to go there!

    Exploring that question leads to the inconvenient truth that most of our higher ed system is not a public good. It’s just private consumption. That’s true whether one is attending a ‘state school’ or a ‘private school’.

    I also think it’s worth pointing out that ‘operating autonomously’ and being ‘privatized’ are two very different things. The largest employers in many areas are ‘nonprofit’ hospitals, universities, and so forth.

    1. McMike

      These private nonprofit hospitals operate as a kind of stealth privatization. They act like private entities, just without the private ownership.

      They certainly behave like private companies: aggressive expansion, monopoly consolidation, and labor cost cutting and the menu of usual Wal-Mart inspired market behavior.

      They also serve as conduits for over-sized executive pay, ego-boosting capital expansions, they siphon funds out through partnerships with private equity operated companies/joint ventures and fees for consultants, they invest endowments in PE scams, etc.

      In the end, they are merely one more wealth transfer mechanism, this one with a tax break.

    2. bmeisen

      and why did we need astronomers and engineers at nasa! just point that rocket at the moon and tell that doggoned pilot to keep it in view!

  2. weinerdog43

    “The fundamental question isn’t whether college should be free or not to the student. Rather, it is why does college cost so much in the first place?”

    This has been answered many times before, and the answer is not professor wage inflation. In fact, most universities and colleges increasingly use adjunct faculty who are barely a blip on the cost structure. No, the biggest cost driver are the outsize administrator expenses that keep growing like Topsy.

    1. bmeisen

      the question IS if education (k – 16) should be free or not. and the answer is a YES! especially for 21 C democracies. without an educated citizenry the oligarchy rules, the next technological revolution flops, the dark ages return. education is primarily a public good. the private benefits like so-called ROI accrue only when society allows them to accrue by providing a safe sustainable environments in which graduates can work and thrive long enough to realize the return on their now 100+k investment.

      hope the taxpayers get re-imbursed for all that infrastructure and good will that their funding over many years made possible at places like uva. jefferson’s intellectual property? should be in the 3-digit billions by now.

      this is further evidence that american high ed has entered a degenerative orbit. it was never really a private / public hybrid. it was an elite system that fought incursions of public-mindedness, a system that in the last 30 years has conclusively routed the public spirit and public institutions. working for a clientel for whom price is irrelevant, elite institutions used pricing power and the farce of student services to cultivate a mass delusion around the “college experience”. benefactors are the wealthy, for whom education has always been a threat, and administrators including sports functionaries and travel agents specializing in spring break packages.

      functioning models of public education exist, as in other interesting areas (health insurance, transport, labor rights) vast numbers of Americans are ignorant of them, maybe because their educational system as well as their democracy has failed them.

      there is an opportunity here for a revolutionary break – all that’s needed is for one state system to declare full commitment to education as a public good. cancel all sports programs and student services and reduce tuition at public institutions to null while offering health insurance and free public transit. of course other states would refuse to recognize the degrees awarded by the rebel, but then the rebel wouldn’t have to worry about losing its well-trained, talented young workers. maine would be the place to start.

      education is

      1. weinerdog43

        Well said. I couldn’t agree more. The only thing I would add is to get rid of the standardized testing mania. The entire ‘no child left behind’ legacy is a gigantic waste of money.

        1. Alejandro

          ‘no child left behind’…currently being recycled as “common core”…”Common”. “Core”. Ponder that a little bit. Seems to me like a perverse twisting of the very concept of ‘equality’. Sowing the seeds of mediocrity for another generation, i.e., easily expoitable. Decorating a x-mas tree with peaches doesn’t make it a peachtree.

      2. ChrisPacific

        Well put. The idea of education as a public good seems to have been simply abandoned by the American public without contest, probably due to neoliberal indoctrination which holds that the market is the answer to every question. This is unfortunate since they themselves would be the biggest beneficiaries.

        Ultimately a national failure to invest in education will hurt everyone, as the soil in which American creativity and innovation once flourished becomes increasingly barren. In the short term the corporations and business interests that run the country will suffer less, since past investments in education will carry over for a while, and they can always bring in better-educated workers from abroad if they become scarce at home. As we’ve seen before, they will happily sacrifice long-term competitiveness for short-term profit if there is enough in it for them.

        The big losers in the short term will be American workers. Effectively it will be yet another transfer of wealth upwards, as Americans continue to be expected to pay for more and more things that were once funded by government. Voters will be encouraged to become active participants in their own impoverishment, as they are sold the idea that public education is wasteful and ineffective (despite the fact that America’s world-leading graduate education system, for example, was built largely on government funding) and that privatization makes everything better.

      3. washunate

        What you’re discussing isn’t how long education should last. Rather, it is what public education ought to teach. I completely agree that’s where the discussion about public education ought to take place.

        Length is irrelevant. We have to fundamentally reclaim the idea of public education – an idea that has been under assault by ‘liberals’ and ‘Democrats’ for a long time.

    2. washunate

      Of course administration is a huge cost driver. It’s one of the reasons why universal college is a controversial idea. Who exactly is going to be managing that?

      And the reason that most leftist intellectuals have been so quiet about administrative bloat is precisely because their own career depends upon enabling the system. That soft corruption of careerism is what has been rotting our institutions across the board, from academia to medicine to law to journalism to banking to government itself.

      You seem to be trying to deny that professors in econ, law, medicine, etc. make outsized pay packages without actually denying the evidence. Sure there are also a lot of graduate assistants and adjuncts. That just shows how much inequality public policy creates. Which feeds my point – it has only been as academics themselves have come under increasing pressure of their own compensation that they’ve seemed to notice how unequal wages are across our society.

      Even today, there are many commentators who trot out perspectives like inflation isn’t a problem or giving someone a job – even if it pays minimum wage – would drastically reduce poverty. It’s typically someone who is pretty well off that seems to think prices aren’t way too high in our society.

  3. Thorstein

    When I was a child growing up outside of Cato, Wisconsin, I used to vote dozens of times for every public school bond issue. My parents cast votes for me, my grandparents cast votes for me, all my aunts and uncles cast votes for me. Now, as Joel Salatin has said, only the D students are left to work the farms.

    I myself have left children behind in DC and Spain. Now, living in Florida, I can’t cast local votes for *my* grandchildren or for my grand nieces and nephews.

    Like capital, honor has also become “globalized” and inequitably distributed, with the 1% of universities taking back the honor they lost in the post-war years.

    Honor has also become maldistributed *within* public university faculties. For example, the physiologists with the largest and most expensive laboratories are honored at the expense of schools of nursing and public health, and all faculties are honored at the expense of the Humanities faculty.

    This is mostly, I now believe, a story of fossil-fuel driven delocalization, starting first, in my immediate experience, with the U.S. interstate highway system, and now reaching its dizzy, oil-drunk heights.

  4. trish

    It doesn’t take a big crisis now. So much has been eroded (ie unions/opposition), the public is worn down and distracted…I feel like this is all run-off from the banking crisis, sort of like get ’em while their down.
    And the public’s been conned. We’ve been primed for this via the private = more efficient/cost effective idea (slogan?), never mind the facts.
    The media’s failure to act as watch dog on this is HUGE. When it comes to the neoliberal play book steps of starve of public funds, wring hands over financial shortfalls, and privatize, the media’s generally silent on the first, big on the second, with the third being suggested as the best solution because private = more efficient.
    What a grand con.
    So privatization can spread -and is spreading- rapidly and insidiously without much of any opposition. And now to universities. Frightening. A sick virus, a sick country.
    Great post, as always.
    (re the perversion of the word “scholar.” So agree. “think tank” too- more accurately corporate propaganda mill/production tank.)

    1. James Levy

      The media simply will not explain anything. They could easily show the pie charts, where the money goes, the average salaries and expenditures, but no. They do the “he said, she said” bullshit with two talking heads so that no one can claim they are engaging in “bias”. Unless you are prepared to demonstrate what the facts are, you are worthless to a community (no less a representative democracy). There is no ambiguity in what has been happening over the past four decades in higher education. It is not perplexing. But as Banger likes to point out, they are a wholly owned subsidiary of the Power Elite, so all must remain ambiguous in order to create the space in which looting can continue.

  5. DakotabornKansan

    Lambert writes, “Different plays should have different names, but all the names I can come up with are dumb: “Hock Doctrine,” because these guys want us to put our public asset “in hock”; or possibly “Chopping Block Doctrine,” because they want us to put our public assets on their “chopping block.”

    According to Thomas Frank,

    “One term they used for it in the early days, according to a landmark 1988 magazine article by Barry Werth, was the ‘Chivas Regal argument’—the idea that college was a luxury good and should be treated as such. Forget all the bushwah about diversity and lazy professors driving up tuition; price increases in those days became virtually an end in themselves, something colleges did simply to burnish their prestigious brand image. Werth quoted an administrator from Lehigh University who put the new philosophy succinctly: ‘If it’s going to be a world of haves and have-nots, we sure intend to be among the haves.’

    “That is the offer our ever-more expensive colleges extend to their students as well: in a world of rich and poor, the only choice before you is whether or not you intend to purchase a place among the haves. And these days even the once-sanctimonious New York Times runs stories openly treating the most expensive colleges as brands, as class signifiers.”

    James Warren wrote that Barry Werth dissected one elite institution, Mt. Holyoke College.

    “Mt. Holyoke became not so much educating as ‘positioning’ oneself in a competitive marketplace. For Holyoke, competing against Smith or Yale wasn`t much different than Seagram`s going after Bartles & Jaymes, except that their price wars go up, not down.”

    “The prime way to pay was jack up tuitions, which [Holyoke President Elizabeth Kennan] didn`t mind because she bought the argument that ‘charging more would make Mt. Holyoke look aggressive, confident, on the move.’ ‘A colleague calls it the ‘Chivas Regal argument’ – if your tuition is less than rivals, consumers won`t think you`re as good…

    “And when a study of why some applicants who were accepted but went elsewhere showed that the aging town of South Hadley itself was a turnoff because it didn`t provide enough shopping, the college bought a four-acre parcel of the business district. It hired a big-time architect and began building a $5 million cluster of hopefully fancy shops.

    “Colleges are ‘preposterously expensive,’ Werth concluded, but pull it off by playing to Americans` craving for status.”

  6. David Lentini

    Very interesting story, Lambert. And I personally would not hesitate to use the phrase “shock doctrine” to describe what’s going on. The fact that certain disasters were “uncontrolled”—and it’s not clear just how many of your examples fit that definition—doesn’t detract from the fact that a crisis is used to make radical policy changes regarding public property without public debate.

    Sadly, this, along with the destruction of public primary and secondary education through charters and the Common Core, is the endgame of a long running trend in American culture that really began with transplantation of the “research university” ideal from Germany with the founding of the University of Chicago in 1892 and the death of the humanities as an academic subject. Chicago was founded with huge grants from the Rockefeller Foundation after William Rainey Haper sold him on the idea of creating a university that would focus solely on research, following the German model that had begun to capture the attention of U.S. industrialists. Rockefeller himself was an uneducated man, and clearly had no interest in the sort of classical education that was the norm in the lower European schools.

    Of course, given that the American primary and secondary schools did not provide the sort of rigorous education in the humanities found in Europe, especially Germany, Harper knew he would have to provide an American solution to the criticism that Chicago graduates would be too narrowly focused. Regrettably, he died before his plan could be enacted. The following presidents at Chicago also failed to bring Harper’s plan forward for a variety of reasons, including an untimely death.

    In 1930, Robert Maynard Hutchins took the office with the intention of curing the problem of providing the missing elements of undergraduate education. Sadly, his plan, which called for a two-year study of a “common core” of texts from the Western cannon akin to the Honors Program developed by John Erskine at Columbia in the 1920s (that ultimately would include an additional two years starting in the junior year of high school), fell victim to heavy faculty resistance and inept handling by Hutchins and those he brought to help start his program, especially Mortimer J. Adler. Hutchins did get a few years of “Hutchins’s University” as it was called, which produced quite a few later luminaries and was well-remembered. However, the onset of the Second World War and the change of campus focus to war research and training doomed the program. With the end of the war and onset of the Cold War, the research university would thrive and the humanities would continue their long decline into irrelevance.

    As William J. McNeill described in his autobiographical account of his post-graduate and academic life at Chicago in the ’30s, the humanities were already in decline in the early part of the 20th century, and the problem Harper confronted was happening elsewhere as well. With the huge push for college and university funding that came in the ’50s and ’60s through the Cold War and GI Bill, the university became more and more amoeba-like to the point that Clark Kerr, the Chancellor of U.C. Berkeley, claimed the birth of the “multiversity”. With that, the idea of an education that was based, or at least recognized, the value of studying a shared cultural heritage died, to be replaced by a thoroughly utilitarian model of career training and credentialing.

    I would also point to the decline in the humanities as an intellectual discipline, as described by Alan Bloom (The Closing the American Mind) and Anthony Kronmann (Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life). While I don’t agree with everything they write, I do think they make a point that the humanities have committed self-immolation by becoming more focused on increasingly esoteric subject and almost hermeutic modes of expression. The loss of a sense of the humanities as a means for understanding or at least reflecting on the meaning of life and the human condition (or even accepting the idea of a human condition) has left students with a largely utilitarian and technocratic view of the world.

    And so the stage is set for privatization, since there is no longer a shared social basis for higher education. Higher education has become simply the further study of largely technical matter following preparation in secondary school. Since students were to choose their fields and courses in an academic “marketplace”, as Harvard president Charles Elliot famously inaugurated in the 1890s with the intention of breaking the classics as an academic tradition, is it any wonder that we are seeing the death of the great public schools and the rise of privatized institutions? Should we really be surprised that we are witnessing the rise of a model of higher education that is driven merely by the same desires for pleasure and profit that drive our economy?

    This movement is also synchronous with the rise of charter schools and the common core, all of which are designed to use the same shock doctrine techniques to drive public education into a sort of neo-classical technocratic model in which private corporations provide services under the aegis of government agencies that collect data and establish laws and standards at the direction of the corporations. “Education” is thus re-defined as really just schooling to produce a labor market that is optimized for exploitation by the rentier class.

    We are entering a brave new world of corporatist schooling.

    1. McMike

      Exactly. Although it lacks the singular focusing event of extreme shock doctrine examples, it is certainly of the spectrum from the privatization playbook: which entails creating a crisis of some sort (or perception of one), and then exploiting it.

      This is shock doctrine in slow motion. They have been calling an education crisis for (literally) decades – for years doing so when there was in fact no crisis. After decades of monkeying with the system, it is finally coming true.

      It is what they are doing with Social Security. Planting the lie of insolvency in the mind of an entire generation, so that when they finally make it come true, the victims will have already processed the demise and accept it without much resistance.

    2. mark worden

      n the ‘60’s Marya Mannes once wrote a wise little poem about this problem:

      There’s always a job for an engineer,
      A bonanza for any technician:
      We scour the country far and near
      For the boys who are good at addition.
      Money’s no object, we rush to bestow it
      On science and people equipped to know it—
      There’s always a job for an engineer
      (But nobody wants a poet).

    3. Banger

      Beautiful comment and I agree with you. For me the humanities are essential but we appear to have given up on them for a variety of reasons. My own education was influenced by classical literature from the West which influenced me to also explore the classics of “the East”; while there are aspects of what is called post-modernism that make sense most of it, as it is expressed in academia has turned out to be a dead end and has little to offer.

      All this has had major political implications which has, in part, influenced the left to die intellectually as it cut itself off from its deepest roots.

    4. James Levy

      In a rarity for me, I’m going to blame the victims, or, more specifically, the victims’ parents. For decades we’ve had parents who wanted little Johnny and Jane to get good grades in high school, play sports or be Cheerleaders, and make a few bucks on the side. The idea that high school must be hard, grades are earned (and “C” means average) and if you want your kid to go to college then academics should be their job got lost in the shuffle. High schools cravenly responded to the demands of parents. Kids then went to college without the skills they needed, so the colleges began to dumb things down and turn Freshman year into an exercise in getting students up to snuff. And as tuitions climbed, colleges became loath to enforce standards that would force out kids who could not hack it. Conservatives got half the issue correct: standards sagged. What they always left out was that they didn’t give a shit about standards if you came from privilege (can anyone say George W.). So conservative arguments were undermined by their obvious hypocrisy, and liberals simply refused to crack the whip. In this cultural matrix, higher education became a racket. People stopped paying to be educated and started paying to be credentialed, to buy a brand instead of doing the hard work of learning where we come from and what smart people used to think. The results are a ruling class with no memory or insight, and a mass of poorly educated technicians.

      1. Banger

        Preach it James!

        Studies I’ve seen show that young people learn very little in college–something I knew just from realizing the stunning amount of illiteracy rampant in recent generations. There can be and will not be anything resembling democracy in our future if the population is only semi-literate and does not possess critical thinking skills or at least know that such things exists.

  7. Denis Drew

    In Ha-Joon Chang’s “23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism” he explains that so many more people going to college isn’t really that big a plus for economic output — that they have to go only because everybody else goes; meaning without it they wont be competitive — on a relative basis.

    He gives the example of Switzerland having had only 15% college educated up to 1990 — with about the highest worker productivity in the world — up to 40% by now; same reason.

    What occurs to me is that if a college education is not that much of an INHERENT plus economically — then — the gigantically jumping costs of recent years are not justified even the slightest little bit. If everybody understood that — or had understood that all along — then, whatever has was added to college costs that has ballooned them so high and put everybody into such a deep pit (now there’s the mixed metaphor of the week) APPARENTLY FOR NO REASON could have been cut to the bone without hesitation.

    1. bmeisen

      the suggested negative correlation between extent of formal education and worker productivity in switzerland is problmatic as workers in switzerland choose between a greater variety of formal career qualifications than do their american counterparts, for whom the bachelors degree has become virtually the only formal career qualification available.

  8. bluntobj


    I have much to agree with you here in regard to the scam that is called higher education. Rising educational costs are linked directly to profit motives, administrative looting, and good old fashioned price increases caused by massive credit inflation through student loans and subsidy. Privatization of public universities should be stopped, as well as the massive tuition hikes and staff salary/benefit cost increases.

    I am amused at some of the quotes though. The quote regarding education of love of learning sake is hard to swallow when it comes with a $50,000 to $100,000 price tag. The whole liberal arts curriculum comes into question when it saddles a student with a lifetime of debt. Is it any wonder then that students do an NPV calculation of their major to determine its ability to support themselves and pay off their debts? There is a world to cover under this umbrella, and the topics are not pleasant; there are too many going to school, with too much education, too much credit paying that education, in subjects that are being replaced by automation and the general dumbing down of culture and thought.

    You are correct on the cronyism and corruption, especially in California, through progressivism. Kudos for admitting this. You will need to extend your thought further to realize that such corruption is deeply embedded in all public systems, especially those dominated by unions. You don’t see their costs going down, or the quality of output going up. There is no qualitative difference between the two poles.

    Last, please note that while you object to “conservative nomenklatura” in regard to scholars, preferring to define them as propagandists, you are neglecting the progressive nomenklatura and apparachicks that regard propaganda as scholarship, and see no difference or moral wrong in combining the two.

  9. Bendover

    This Holyoke trick of peeling off upscale markets with status symbols is well established at the secondary level. The obsessive signaling surrounding Saint Grottlesex v. the Academies v. Gunnery, Choate or Hotchkiss, Kent, Hill, Woodberry Forest, Lac Frottage &c. &c., is almost as engrossing for people as curating their ipad apps. (Tragically, even for 35K a year the poor little rich kids wind up with Tom Friedman on their reading list. This is laugh-out-loud funny, if you’re cruel.) The privatization blitz just looks like the same segmentation progressing down-market.

    The nice thing about the Hutchins-Adler list is that it did much better outside institutions. Brittanica picked it up as the Great Books and it spawned all these DIY study groups. Academia and intelligentsia derided it as ‘middlebrow culture’ but in effect, it was subversive by today’s standards, all this confronting the work. Participants realized you don’t need a teacher, all you need is people to talk it over with. With nothing but the reading list and some buds you’re off to the races, and who knows what you’ll come up with. More recently Britannica has thrown the 20th-century kitchen sink in there and started abridging things. No longer the ‘Great Books of the Western World’ but it still includes the revoked US constitution and leaves out the UN Charter and UDHR.

  10. nony mouse

    “They will take great pains to hide their ignorance, not raise critical questions, let alone questions about material they do not understand.”

    this impetus to not ask questions does not necessarily come from the students.

    in my time at university (but not necessarily at community college. instruction was more personal there) the profs have a way of discouraging questions merely in the way that they do answer the few that they take when they ask, at the small gap between Powerpoint slides “any questions?”

    odd, isn’t it? this is the opportunity for these professors to really show what they know. but they tend to give curt answers, and their tone of voice is one of subtle disapproval, and their attitude shows that they are mildly annoyed. you’ve broken their rhythm and wasted valuable class time. they have to get to the next slide. they have too much material to cover in too little time. they can’t be making these side-routes.

    so, as helpful as they claim they want to be, many of them tend to discourage questions. the ones who do not have usually been rather young instructors (nearly new), philosophy instructors (because you can’t teach that in any other way), and those who pointedly threw away the corporate-provided textbook (i’ve had 3 instructors outside of philosophy who were really sharing the benefit of their years of experience, usually with a set of personally curated sources to ground their instruction in, or very rarely with aid of a textbook). textbooks sap creative teaching, as they provide the ground to be covered and how it will be covered. not to mention, they are written very badly. after 18 years of reading those, you are probably going to be spoiled as a reader and as a writer. the rest of these folks take the path of least resistance. after all, they have no time for anything else.
    suffice to say, if I had my life to live over again, I would have become a Philosophy major. at least there, you are making a connection, mind to mind, with another human being or set of human beings. the rest of the classes have been memorization and regurgitation, almost without exception.

    1. nony mouse

      wanted to add this:

      the ‘dumbing down’ of higher ed will not affect those of higher SES. they will simply do what they already do to k-12. their ‘cultural capital’ will allow them to get a better education even with the same instructional methods. they will be able to take on the role of being their own instructor, for those subjects that they choose to invest in. the rest of the harried students, working 30 hrs per week to survive while taking a full class load, will not ask the additional questions of themselves or seek the answers that they need to become fully educated, and will not know the difference between what the class is giving them and a True Education.

      so, my forecast is that you will have the same kind of experience I had in high school: the higher SES students will all go on to bigger and better, and the lower ones to barely making it. and all having gone to the same school and nearly all of the same classes (yes, I know AP/Honors sucks out the higher SES students into a little pool).

  11. run75441


    You have to live in Michigan to understand what is going on in Michigan. Michigan is second to Texas in terms of the number of radicals in the government. With that in mind consider they could raise taxes by 1% and fund higher education at U of M and still be within the constricts of the state constitution. They choose to starve the beast and pay homage to the Koch Bros.

    It is fun to piss them off and counter their silliness with factual evidence.

  12. John Mc

    Lambert. I would really like to read more about this, so I want to encourage you to keep posting on this very important topic. The connections you are making are really important (especially around humanities, critical thinking, and administrative class’ spectrum of encroachment. In 10 years, they will be much further down the road, young people will be more in debt and we will see university mergers….

    In terms of a neoliberal playbook, I prefer the amended Chomsky version:
    1) Open Up –> sell market competition, solicit large unsuspecting consumers on inevitability of a product
    2) Assess Profitability -> mine data, find profit centers, recruit acolytes, present story (E Goffman, 1958)
    3) De-Regulate –> New rules are shaped (politically, socially, culturally, financially) to monopolize profits
    4) Privatization —> Transforming power dynamic through ownership (create administrative winners)
    5) Cut Social Supports —> Oppositional face final stages of resource starvation, divide and conquer
    6) Protect Profits -> Foster dependence, revenue streams with opposition (making change impossible)

    Our job should be to help people say no more often. Also, we need to know how profitable we are to each system and know how to cause financial pain through our collective decision-making (i,e. fossil fuel divestment, boycott Walmart etc.). In addition, we need to promote a culture where rules are followed and rules are wisely constructed to prevent the greatest risk to families. We might consider the idea of sharing, reducing our consumption (weakening the financial culture in multiple ways) patterns and find real and daily ways to ridicule power quickly when it acts. Our response should include finding new supportive resource networks, stable and well versed in the neoliberal playbook (making fracture less likely).

    The risk of protecting a monopoly the creation of fear or the loss of what has been secured. This is where we have the most to gain…. amplifying the corporate elites’ fear of losing the gains they have spent so much time securing while reminding our communities that we will not fear the risk of a crappy job, robbed pension, and overly expensive healthcare/education system designed to extract resources (not make people better or more enlightened)…

  13. masterslave

    Trish : “” The media’s failure to act as watch dog on this is HUGE “”

    The failure is , of course , deliberate . Six interlocked global media megacorps control 95% of all worldwide info .
    Those six megacorps include TV , radio , www and print publishing subsidiary companies ; they constitute a de facto and indispensible branch of government that could be called the Massmind Control Agency . The interlock is necessary not only to enhance wealth accumulation but also to coordinate their NWO ( New World Order ) programs for attaining a One World Government where global financial corps are at the top of the political power structure [ aka JWO ( jewish world order ) and ZWO ( zionist world order ) ] .

  14. masterslave

    DakotabornKansan : “” ‘If it’s going to be a world of haves and have-nots,…””

    It has always been and will always be that . If you have one less dollar than your neighbor then you are a have-not by one dollar and vice versa . It is way past time to move beyond that overly simplistic have // have-not distinction . We have enormously powerful computers that can very easily model a world income distribution according to the Bell Curve ( aka the Universal Law of the Standard Normal Distribution ) in order to compare it to the actual distribution to see if the differences can be justified or to what extent they can be . Has anyone ever seen this done ? We of course do know that the wealth beneficiaries , such as administrators among many others , of collosal public ignorance would not be interested in such a project .

  15. masterslave

    bluntobj : “” you are neglecting the progressive nomenklatura and apparachicks that regard propaganda as scholarship “”

    Amen .

  16. Roland

    Note that the public guarantees of student debt enable the tuition to keep rising in defiance of wages.

    Without the loose money policy and public guarantees, the tuition wouldn’t be able to keep rising, and universities wouldn’t be as attractive to privatizers.

    But with unlimited credit available, universities become wonderful things to loot. Get control, crank up the tuition, the students borrow more, then all the execs give themselves raises. It’s a sweet business model.

  17. Geoff Hagopian

    “Executive looting” is a good phrase for it. I’ve also heard “top feeders.”

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