Don’t Compromise. Improvise.

Non-profit isn’t a status, it’s an ideal. The chief problem with “corporatization” in academia is not a greater emphasis on financial matters or the increased influence of companies on research. A non-profit organization needs to think just as much, and just as creatively, about financial sustainability as a corporation does. The influence of private corporations on academic research, and the corruption that follows, is a big issue, but it’s a different issue than “corporatization”.

The real problem is that the increasingly constricted imagination of late 20th/early 21st Century corporate management (which has not been entirely healthy even for companies) has all the wrong answers for the financial difficulties of a non-profit organization. Particularly higher education. As Aaron Bady notes, this is the heart of the problem with Emory President James Wagner’s citation of the “3/5 compromise” in the early American republic as a guidepost for consensus in academia. The ham-fisted stupidity of holding up one of the most painful episodes in American history as a model is inflammatory enough, but if you can leave aside the racial provocation for a moment, the analogy is a warning about where a corporate way of imagining organizational life leads at this moment in business history. Namely, that when an organization is financially challenged by changes in its economic environment, the first and last answer is to get rid of employees or reduce their cost by shaving compensation and benefits.

Higher education is labor intensive, and making it sustainable in the long run has involved and will continue to involve thinking intelligently about how to deal with the costs of labor. That’s just as important for a non-profit or public institution. The question is how you go about it. When you read back over the last year to see why Wagner is talking about “compromise” at Emory, you see that he has been going about it all wrong. He is doing it the way that American companies have done it for the last twenty years, which is the same way that a lion goes about figuring out which gazelle to chase: find the most vulnerable members of the herd. The injured, the elderly, the young, the isolated. Then cut whole divisions or workgroups once they’ve been identified by their inability to protect themselves in internal politics and explain the cuts as automagically generating profit. (No company gets a boost in the stock price for reinvesting its profits in R&D or in developing its workforce.)

As Bady points out, Wagner is not alone in this respect, whether we’re talking Marc Yudof’s clumsy mimicking of corporate language about revenue and profit in assessing the humanities or countless research university administrations pushing the adjunctification of most of their teaching and then pretending to be surprised by the disaffected and scattered students produced by that shift. American business leadership now sees growth only in contraction, and that’s the managerial style they are passing on to every public, civic or non-profit organization they touch upon, even the family.

The idea of a non-profit is inextricably linked to the idea of the public and to a commitment to a vision. The manager of a non-profit isn’t maximizing the returns to owners. He or she is the guardian of a trust, the custodian of a mission. If the trust is threatened because it has too many obligations, is doing too many things, is spending beyond its means, the route to sustainability can’t be travelled just by finding out who brings in the least money and tossing them overboard. The entire enterprise might depend upon its least remunerative components, rest on something more ineffable than a balance sheet.


Now for their part, faculty across American higher education have not necessarily done the best job at providing a systematic alternative way to think about financial sustainability. In at least some cases, the response to budgetary problems has been either to reject the existence of the problem because some of the people bearing news of it are seen as untrustworthy and manipulative, or to argue that the answer is a restoration of the social and political contracts of yesteryear, principally to return to greater public funding (both direct and indirect) of higher education. Tenure-track faculty have in many cases been at the least passive accomplices of adjunctification and at the worst have very nearly demanded it as a way to shift the labor burden of teaching. Equally, many tenure-track faculty have blandly looked on as tuition costs have increased while income inequality has grown, and at rich institutions, they grew accustomed to the expansion permitted by endowment incomes in the 1990s without questioning too much the preconditions of this growth. (Students at such institutions have been even less interested in long-term institutional sustainability, generally preferring to advance their own momentary causes and interests and blithely dismiss the consequences–but that at least is understandable for a variety of reasons.) When challenged, many tenured faculty tend to reflexively echo Benjamin Ginsberg and blame administrative growth and overreach for financial (and other) weakness in the contemporary academy.

However valid it is to raise growth on the administrative side as an issue, the fact is that faculty really need to tend to some issues that fall squarely in their own domains. The first of which is simply this: if being a nonprofit is a trust, a philosophy, an ideal, then we have to be able to imagine how we carry on with our mission without the assumption of growth and expansion. The assumption that you manage sustainability by slashing at “unprofitable” divisions or people is the dominant managerial logic of the last twenty years in American business, but the logic that endless growth is the only possible future of all institutions, the only possible language of progress is a deeper affliction. If faculty want to be custodians of the deeper mission of academia, we have to be able to imagine change and dynamism without yoking that vision to growth. And there is only one way to do that: by substitution. What we do now we have to imagine we will not be doing tomorrow: our disciplines, our methods, our interests, our practices, our publications all have to be, in the deepest sense, provisional. Not just in the relentlessly whiggish vision of some sciences, not always better or more true. The default assumption now as each new generation comes into academia is that we change only when there is a strong argument for change. It should be the opposite: every department and discipline and subject should assume its own transformation whenever there is a moment of natural transition, everything should be temporary until proven otherwise. Every commitment we make should be tenuous and fragile not because there is a profit-hungry manager looking to claw back some money but because that is the only way to keep what we do as scholars and teachers lively and responsive to the world around us without the assumption of endless growth. Assuming growth is how we end up with the kind of financial obligations that really do create crises–and thus opportunities for managerialism.

When we do end up on the wrong side of financial sustainability, we also have to imagine ways out of that situation that are philosophically and ethically satisfying but not unreal or abstract. If the faculty answer to limited resources are platitudes which soothe our sensibilities rather than corporate ones, or worse yet, just to pursue a less efficient and more insidiously brutal search for the weakest members of the herd, we shouldn’t be surprised when more direct or fashionable alternatives seize the reins. The faculty answer to crises of sustainability should never be to find the least fashionable or most vulnerable division or discipline, but we still have to have a way of imagining not just how to change without growing but in some cases, a principled way to do less or have less.

A good test of whether faculty at many institutions can come up with a better way to imagine change–and maybe contraction–will come out of shifts in enrollment patterns, particularly in the drift of students at many institutions away from the humanities. The wrong answer is to let enrollment drive a perfectly symmetrical change in resource distribution, to treat student interest as our “internal market” and our disciplines as products. The equally wrong answer is to close those markets off with requirements, to let disciplines and divisions engage in entrepreneurial schemes that route traffic, capture bodies, ratify existing commitments through cartels. That’s really what James Wagner is offering: that the people who are presently occupying the seats reach a “3/5 compromise” with administrators at the expense of students, at the expense of programs shoved to the margins, and worst of all, at the expense of a dynamic intellectual future. In many cases, I think the answer to the problem of shifting enrollments is as conceptually simple (if work-intensive) as re-envisioning what we teach and study, in travelling more than halfway to the lived world of our students and our society, and learning to let go of the course, the content, the curriculum that we’ve tricked ourselves into seeing as necessary and permanent. It’s not just indispensible men who lie in the grave. Look at a curriculum twenty years ago and you’ll see a bunch of courses that were thought to be perpetual and necessary, that were ratified by requirements and tenure, that were called forth by an endless slog of committee meetings and the harrumphing of professional associations.

Our answer shouldn’t be to cut. It shouldn’t be “compromises” that preserve our privileges at the cost of students, adjuncts, or the sense of higher mission that makes our enterprise beyond and outside of profit. Our answer? It should be to dance.

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3 Responses to Don’t Compromise. Improvise.

  1. Withywindle says:

    … Ser Rafaello, many have pictured colleges and universities which in fact have never been known or seen …

  2. Nord says:

    “as re-envisioning what we teach and study, in travelling more than halfway to the lived world of our students and our society, and learning to let go of the course”

    That sounds more than halfway to a market-based curriculum. I’d be curious if some humanities programs can in fact travel a quarter of the way, let alone 1/2 or 3/5s to where current student (parent?) demand lies.

    In any event, if Apple was run like the academy, they’d still be perfecting the Apple IIe. Business, for its faults, has a bias towards motion/change.

  3. CarlD says:

    I think this is right on. We just finally had our vote on gen ed reform, with the proposal taking the core down from about 60 s.h. to about 40. Not growth but contraction. In the process we got way more appealing to the Business and Nursing majors. Some good courses were lost, but they weren’t getting through to the students anyway (in many cases were actively putting the students off), and the trade-off was adding a thematic interdisciplinary cluster to make integration, synthesis, flexibility and metacognition intentional. Dragging our core kicking and screaming into the 90s.

    The defenders of the faith are already rallying to revisit the vote. They think the sacred heart of the liberal arts has been fatally gored by making History and Religion options rather than requirements. I think I can teach History classes in a cluster context that will deliver sustainably on everything the liberal arts are supposed to be at a gen ed level. To me it’s an opportunity. But there are two things I’ve (re)learned in the process: for many of our colleagues, fear is blocking perspective; and for many more of our colleagues, perspective was never a strong suit in the first place.

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