Alison Dundes Renteln on the Corporate University

Increasingly, universities are becoming more and more corporatized. 

Alison Dundes Renteln
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California

Universities have a proclivity to invite more individuals from the business world to serve on boards of trustees rather than those with substantial experience in academia.

Despite their expertise in corporate affairs, they often lack sufficient familiarity with the intellectual life of the university. 

And one manifestation of the influence of the business world is the increase in the number of deans that leads to administrative bloat.

Deans also speak in the jargon of the business world – strategic plans, business models, “teams,” and so on. Grant proposals are expected to be formulated as business plans.

The result: a reduction in the number of tenure-track and tenured faculty. In the past, tenured professors could assume they would enjoy academic freedom, so they could publish controversial scholarships and could speak out without fear of retaliation. 

As some universities shifted their priorities from academic pursuits to fundraising  – euphemisms include “advancement” and “development” – they have reallocated budgetary resources from academic programs to fundraising programs.

That’s the take of Alison Dundes Renteln, a Professor of Political Science and Anthropology and Law at the University of Southern California, co-editor of the new book – The Ethical University – Transforming Higher Education.

Are there better and worse universities when it comes to the question of ethics, or is it a systemic problem?

“It’s systemic, but public universities are better,” Renteln told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last month. “They are required, for example, to publish salaries. In private universities, salaries are not public. Many of the problems are systemic. But some are worse at private universities because of the lack of transparency. It depends on the type of problem.”

“Public universities used to be better because they were state funded. The University of California used to be well funded by the state. Public universities didn’t have to have their deans focus so much on fundraising. Because of the lack of public funding, they also became pretty terrible insofar as the leaders have to be so concerned with fundraising. And that is one part of the problem that has led to the corporatization of the universities. Mostly business people are on the board of trustees.” 

Even at public universities, it’s difficult to find out who these professors are consulting with and what kinds of deals they have with corporations outside the universities.

“It may be that they are required to report, but there is a lack of enforcement. One of the main arguments in the book is that there is a lack of accountability. Professors who are so involved are supposed to make that known to the universities.” 

“The universities have weak enforcement. The people who run these offices are being paid by the universities. And their own careers and advancement and promotions depend on pleasing the university.”

“When professors get involved with outside corporations, some of them lose their focus on teaching the students. And they end up devoting too much of their time to activities outside the university. That’s partly because of salary compression and the fact that faculty are not paid very well. These things are self-reinforcing. If professors were rewarded for teaching, maybe they wouldn’t be so tempted to take outside consultancy.”

“I’ve also had colleagues who have left to protect their own intellectual property. The university claims title to it, and the professor leaves to protect their creations. Professors may abuse the system but they are also sometimes victims of it.”

How has the corporatization of the culture affected your students?

“The students here are extremely bright. They are concerned about community service. And they are quite energetic and imaginative. The thing I love most about USC are the students. But they are very concerned about getting jobs after they graduate. I teach primarily in the undergraduate college, even though I teach in the law school from time to time.”

“There is a lot of pressure on students from their parents or their peers to land jobs and make sure they get into some graduate school. So, it’s hard for them to enjoy college. The tuition is so high that most of them have jobs or internships to help pay for college. They don’t have as much time to enjoy activities on campus, or to come to office hours. They are way overloaded. Some of them are holding down two jobs to help pay for college. The tuition is an incredible burden. And for many students, it takes years to pay off their student debt.”

“If the right to education is a human right, we have to do something about the tuition.”

“But the other kind of corporatization is the fact that they are closing libraries. We had specialized libraries that are being closed. They closed the East Asian Studies Library at USC. They closed the Social Work Library and turned it into the University Club. It used to be the Faculty Club, but now it’s the University Club because mostly administrators eat lunch there.”

“There was an attempt in 2009 to close our Social Science Library, but the faculty, students, librarian and some alumni challenged it. And the Provost reversed the decision.”

“At Berkeley, they are trying to close the Anthropology Library.” 

“So that’s one sign of corporatization – the closing of libraries. The other thing is the merger of departments. My department used to be the Department of Political Science. But several years ago the deans decided to merge us with the School of International Relations. They merged a number of the language departments. These are some manifestations of a corporate outlook on universities and colleges.” 

“They are outsourcing. We are being forced to post exams and syllabi on platforms like Blackboard. That means our intellectual property is being posted and controlled by some unknown company. Teaching evaluations used to be given out to students to fill out in class. Now they are being outsourced to companies that send emails to students to fill out teaching evaluations, irrespective of whether the students have come to class or not.”

“These activities used to be carried out at the university by our own staff.” 

“Administrative bloat is another sign. More and more deans. Then the deans hire these corporate consultants from McKinsey and other consulting groups. We thought the purpose of all of these deans was to write corporate plans and other corporate documents. But then they hire consultants to do the work. Why hire the deans? Then they spend thousands of dollars on workshops to discuss whatever the topic is instead of putting that funding toward scholarships or trying to deal with salary compression or building libraries.”

“So you have this shift toward ever more administrative bloat and the hiring of consultants.”

“Our board of trustees are still all from the business world. USC is being run by people from the corporate world who don’t have the experience of being immersed in university life. One of the main changes would be to have a board of trustees that is comprised of faculty, staff and students, and not business people.” 

“The president of the university is basically there for fundraising. The chief academic person is the Provost. Presidents’ salaries could fund a lot of scholarships. So we could get rid of Presidents and have the Provost and President of the Academic Senate run the university together. More faculty would want to be involved in the Academic Senate. The Academic Senate at most universities have no power. Most senior faculty don’t even want to be involved. They see it as a waste of time.”

“Some sort of new model that reflects shared governance would be one answer. The Provost should not be from the business world, and the President of the Academic Senate should run the university. And then address the tuition problem so that students could compete on an equal basis. You wouldn’t have students working two jobs. You wouldn’t have students who are unhoused, as we have them now. We need to level the playing field. We should give power to the people at the core of the university.”

The name of the college of arts and sciences at USC is USC Dornsife. Why that name?

“It’s named after a couple who gave $200 million in 2011 to the college. So they named the college of arts and sciences after them. It’s the Dornsife College of Arts and Sciences.  People give money even to name a department. Even benches and chairs have names on them.” 

Football teams and baseball teams sell the naming rights to stadiums to raise money. Is it troubling to you that the university is selling off naming rights to departments and classrooms and benches?

“It’s troubling to me. It’s kind of a bizarre thing. People have this quest for immortality. People could give money without having their name on something. The idea that if you have money you should get something named after you for a donation is troubling.” 

“At UC Berkeley, it used to be Lowie Museum of Anthropology. It was named after an intellectual leader in anthropology at Berkeley. But then it was renamed after Hearst, who gave money to have it renamed. My father was deeply upset by that.”

“Why do we accept that if people give money they should have their name on something? It’s bizarre and it has become an obsession. If you go to the law school, there are chairs, benches sold for naming rights. Everywhere you look, there are names on things. It shows how fundraising has become an obsession. There has to be a better way of running a university than having massive teams of fundraisers.” 

You dedicate your book to your father, Alan Dundes. Tell us about him.

“I wrote that he showed how an academic career could be ethical and rewarding. He was a folklorist. He loved teaching. He felt it was a way to change the way people think and make the world a better place. He studied more than 200 genres of folklore – jokes, riddles and proverbs, curses and pranks, folk medicines.” 

“He would have had a very hard time teaching in this moment. Much of the material he studied was very difficult. He felt even if the jokes involved offensive materials, like racism or anti-semitism, we should study them because it reflected something about our society.”

“Now we have cancel culture, where if somebody says something wrong, they get fired or put on leave without pay. Professors are now targeted if they say something that offends students. Students file grievances against them and the administrators sometimes act without any kind of due process.”

“My father who taught all of these different kinds of folklore would have been fired. He would be very dismayed by the censorship that we are seeing at universities and the overreaction to people showing an image like Mohammed in an art class. There is a discussion in a chapter of the book that I wrote about a professor who was teaching about cross cultural understanding and gave an example and was fired by the dean without any kind of discussion.”

Your dad wouldn’t have lasted a semester in this environment.

“He wouldn’t have lasted a week. The students are now viewing professors more as adversaries in many cases, than as people who are there as mentors and resources and allies. The professors are fighting among themselves over salaries and other issues instead of coming together to challenge the administration. So the atmosphere at college is very divisive. And it doesn’t allow people to come together to challenge the kind of fundamental problems at universities and the lack of shared governance and injustices.” 

“I sometimes wonder if I should have become an academic. The atmosphere has become so toxic. There has always been academic politics and professional rivalries. But it seems much worse now than ever before.” 

“Right now, several of my colleagues are taking early retirement. People are just kind of exhausted from having to deal with these kinds of things. They say it’s just not fun to teach anymore. That’s kind of sad and sobering. I don’t want to give up. My Berkeley upbringing makes me somewhat naive and overly optimistic. We can overcome some of these challenges. I don’t believe in giving up. But it’s certainly daunting.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Alison Dundes Renteln, see page 37 Corporate Crime Reporter 19(13), May 8, 2023, print edition only.]

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