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Simon Liebling '12: A Brown, Inc. education

Education — the one-size-fits-all defense for the transgressions of Brown, Inc. in the age of university corporatization, the easy rationalization of the contradiction of the profit-seeking non-profit institution.

The argument is simple: profit is reinvested in education, meaning that the classically corporate behaviors of Brown, Inc. — the layoffs, the wage cuts, the tuition hikes — are justified by the resources they redirect to learning.

The unspoken premise — that securing additional funding is a higher priority than fulfilling the University's obligations to its community, its employees and its less- privileged students — is of course more debatable than those who excuse profit in the name of education will admit. But even for those who do accept the centrality of Brown's educational mission, the corporatizing influences that have transformed Brown University into Brown, Inc. do more to undermine that mission than promote it.

We should be skeptical, first of all, of the unquestioned link between profit-maximization and increased funding for education. There is ample incentive in the rankings-obsessed higher education industry to waste resources on aimlessly biggering and biggering untapped endowments like a Dr. Seuss villain. The lure of the status projected by a jealously guarded stack of unspent cash means that reinvestment — at the core of the defense of Brown, Inc. — is merely an empty promise. The administration's recent announcement that it will reduce the annual draw on its endowment by 20 percent is evidence of its susceptibility to these temptations, and such hoarding of wealth provides no material benefits for our education.

Elsewhere, Brown, Inc.'s executive administration implements corporate reforms whose educational consequences outweigh the benefits of whatever reinvestment may remain. The Provost, for instance, transforms the faculty into a cutthroat marketplace by slashing the tenure rate and undermining professors' job security, forcing them to turn on one another in competition for fewer slots than there are people.

For the University, this means increased profit — Brown, Inc.'s raison d'etre — resulting from the replacement of senior faculty with cheaper adjuncts and other new hires. For the rest of us, it means a faculty whose high turnover rate jeopardizes both student-faculty relationships and the faculty's involvement in campus culture. It means diminished academic freedom, as professors have to worry about appeasing their employer and protecting their future job prospects. And it means, in a profound cultural shift, the seizure of academic power from a once independent faculty and the consolidation of educational authority in University Hall.

This monopoly on control over education is so critical to the growth of the Brown, Inc. model because at the essence of university corporatization is the transformation of the traditional university-student relationship into a cynical association of business and consumer. It is a change visible in the rhetoric of Brown, Inc.'s defenders, who speak of profit enabling the University to better serve its "customers." Brown, Inc. posits that our education is a product sold to us for $200,000, and that we passively consume it in finished form by attending our classes and completing our assigned work. Its production — the transformation of raw educational ideals into finished academic instruction — is conducted entirely out of sight of the customer, no more visible to us than any other assembly line manufacturing T-shirts or automobiles.

But we are not customers drumming our fingers on the retail counter while a store clerk fishes our degree out of the storeroom in the back. Our education is not a prefabricated product to be plucked off the shelf. It is, as Brown assured us when we applied, the creation of our own initiative and direction. We are supposed to be active participants in its conception and construction.

This is the spirit of the New Curriculum, seen both in its content and in the story of its creation — the contention that an undergraduate education consists not only of 32 classes, but also of active extracurricular engagement with the University as a civic and political community. If we are customers buying a product, we have not been educated, we have merely attended class and purchased a degree — which suits the cynically pre-professional among us just fine.

But to be truly educated, we must take an interest in the production of our education and assert that the student is more citizen than consumer. We must insert ourselves into University politics and into the debates that carry pedagogical and academic implications, because Brown claims to believe that education without participation is no education at all.

Brown, Inc., though, is the administration's repudiation of this longstanding academic philosophy. By dominating academic decision making, by turning the undergraduate experience into a standardized product for our consumption, Brown, Inc. would ultimately deny us access to the full breadth of a Brown University education, and that is a problem that all the reinvested profit in the world cannot fix.

Simon Liebling '12 is from New Jersey. He can be reached at simon.liebling [at] gmail.com.




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