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Simon Liebling '12: Why we bother

There's a certain soul-searching proclivity among students who take an active interest in university politics, an inevitable tendency toward crises of justification for spending time — despite everything else we could be doing — on something that might seem so provincial.

We are here, after all, for only four years — fewer still by the time the honeymoon effect has worn off to reveal the unsavory realities of the administration's priorities. Most tangible academic consequences of their corporatization agenda will not appear until after we have graduated — Brown, Inc. will be a severe reality for our younger siblings much more than it has been for us.

And while we do our best to save the university-college for them and the generations of prospective Brown students who will succeed us, our classmates devote themselves to political problems unbound by Hope and Prospect streets, issues whose personal relevance will not end with a springtime walk through the Van Wickle Gates. The obvious criticism is all too tempting: to concern oneself with university politics and with Brown's educational philosophy is to become an activist for the entitled and a defender of the traditions of an institution for the elite — a privileged waste of time.

And even if we were to ignore these nagging doubts, there remains the sad likelihood that the advance of Brown, Inc. is inexorable and the spread of corporatization uncontainable. Given the student body's 100 percent turnover every four years, given the self-selecting nature of the applicant pool, given the administration's monopoly on control over the University's public image and marketing materials, it seems only a matter of time before Brown, Inc. crafts a student body in its own image, one drawn to the corporate university and its promises of pre-professional education instead of the university-college and its New Curriculum. The growing prominence of students who publicly embrace Brown, Inc. suggests that this process is already well underway.

Why, then — in the face of fleeting personal investment and the likelihood of defeat — do we still care?

Mostly, we care because university corporatization, whether at Brown or anywhere else, deprives us of the cultural contribution made only by those nonprofit universities that take their commitment to academic freedom seriously. As our national political culture shifts ever further to the xenophobic right, universities are the only mainstream American institutions that have been allowed to remain progressive, cosmopolitan and even a little bit subversive.

University corporatization, though, assimilates schools like Brown into the masses of commercialized institutions, leaving no room for the dissent that our society relies on universities to provide.

Brown, Inc., for instance, has a material interest in appeasing the corporations and military branches that fund its research and bankroll its facilities. It is eager to devote its research to the development of marketable products rather than to incisive investigations and cultural critiques. And it would sooner maximize the return on its endowment than concern itself with the humanitarian impact of its immoral investments.

Brown, Inc. prefers to instruct pre-professional students eager to claim their guaranteed ticket to personal wealth — wealth that Brown, Inc. would then love to see donated in quantities that Brown University's alumni were never able to muster. It would like to teach them all at once in large lecture courses, freeing up professors' time for profitable research. And if it could make sure that those professors were working without tenure on short-term contracts, unable to make an intellectual stir for fear of jeopardizing their employability, administrators would think they'd died and gone to heaven.

The primary targets of these reforms are, of course, the students and faculty who cope with them as part of their daily lives, but their consequences extend well beyond the limits of the university community. Anyone who has ever benefited from academic freedom and its role as an important check on power — which is to say everyone — stands to lose as universities abandon their critical role in a democracy for the temptations of assimilation and cash.

This is why we care — because the victims of corporatized universities are not just those privileged enough to attend them, but every member of a society that has historically depended on universities, their faculties and their student bodies to push unpopular positions and act as catalysts for positive progressive change.

 

Our interest in resisting the emergence of Brown, Inc., then, is not just a product of our role as students but of our identity as citizens. What seems a provincial issue, a concern only for Brown's limited community, actually carries implications for national politics, and that makes Brown, Inc. worth fighting whether we're current students or alumni from 50 years ago.

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




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