Agnes Larson is a long-time university insider. This article is Part I of a three-part series. Read Part II, Part III
As early as 1918 Thorstein Veblen bemoaned the fact that the American university had been taken over by businessmen. No longer was a college a place of higher learning, but a specialized jobs-training workshop to prepare people for ready-made careers. Such specialization, argues Veblen, widens “the candidate’s field of ignorance while it intensifies his effectiveness within his specialty.”1 Veblen would not be astonished to see today’s university, which is run for a most part, like a corporation. He expected nothing less.
For our purposes, the phrase “corporatization of the university” means that the university is taking on forms and structures that hitherto had been in the realm of for-profit organizations. American universities have always worked hand in hand with wealthy supporters. Often successful businessmen were sought after and appointed to the board of trustees. Walking through any campus one is bound to encounter the equivalent of Cornell University’s Sage Chapel and McGraw Tower—not named for notable faculty but for notable funders. Up for grabs these days are auditoriums, stadiums, and individual programs. Another dimension of what is loosely defined as corporatization is that presidents of universities profitably sit on boards of directors of corporations.2
One feature of the 21st-century corporation is its often transnational nature. Universities are traditional brick-and-mortar institutions with typically one location. Land-grant universities frequently maintain some kind out outreach activity that supports their core mission, but it is not typical for these outposts to offer degree programs. This kind of university presence is different from the satellite campus—miles away from the alma mater, such as University of Michigan-Dearborn or UM-Flint. In sparsely populated areas, the community college is increasingly becoming the home of the four-year degree. The community college itself does not issue the diploma, but one of their partner schools. A student in Petoskey, Michigan can earn a bachelor’s degree in information technology from Southfield-based Lawrence Technological University without leaving town.
Another feature of the modern university is its international reach. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 671,616 international students, both graduate and undergraduate, were enrolled in American institutions for the 2008-09 school year. US institutions desire international students because they will pay full tuition and not require/be eligible for financial aid. As a bonus, the home school has no obligation to provide job placement. The understanding is that the students will go back home upon completion of their coursework and their job prospects are someone else’s problem.
Universities are reaching outside of the US, with mixed results. Michigan State had to close its campus in Dubai in the summer of 2010. Originally, the plan was to enroll 100-200 students into each graduating class. Cornell has more success with its outpost of the Weill Cornell Medical Center in Qatar. In 2001, President Hunter Rawlings announced that Cornell would establish the Weill Cornell Medical Center in Qatar. Cornell has made many partnerships with colleges in China. Former Cornell president, Jeffrey Lehman, is chancellor and founding dean of an American-style law program at Peking University.
There is a quieter debate than in the past regarding should an American university pursue and agenda in another country. Some try to say that the homegrown academic offerings will be diluted. Others see opportunity and more tuition dollars—through both credit and non-credit certificate programs
1Tellingly, the title of Veblem’s work is The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum On the Conduct of Universities By Business Men, 1918.
2Goldschmidt, Nancy P. and James H. Finkelstein. “Academics on Board: University Presidents as Corporate Directors.” Academe. 2001. URL: