The Failing American University
by H.E. Whitney, Jr. / November 15th, 2011
The sex scandal at Pennsylvania State University threatens to blow up into an uncontrollable public relations disaster. It has largely dominated the sports news cycle in recent days and there is a high sense of outrage over the arrogance of a university to conceal the alleged rapes of young boys by one of its football coaches, and the culture of permissiveness that allowed these abuses to occur over the course of a decade. Grand standers speak of the university as having a moral obligation to the victims and the community to stamp out these offenses but this outrage fails to largely address the corporate climate of the university ethos which provides fertile ground for the flowering of misdeeds and bad behavior.
The Gospel of Tacking on of Student Fees that Often Have Nothing to Do With Academics
What I refer to as the “corporate climate” is the transition of the modern university from its academic mission to its financial mission. In large state universities that have cash cow athletic programs, almost none of the funds these athletic departments generate go to the general student body or academic programs, and often students are still saddled with fees that often have nothing to do with academic instruction. When I was in graduate school, my institution charged fees for recreation (use of its recreational facilities), transportation fees (parking permits and shuttle bus rides), and technology fees (computers and networks). While I was a student, I never used the fitness center, never used the bus system (I had a bicycle), and while I did use the university’s computers and networks, the technology fee was primarily in place to pay for software upgrades that were unnecessary. One of the aspects of the computer technology business is to always sell upgrades to the consumer when the consumer is already comfortable and efficient with the current version of a software program. The need to push what are essentially useless upgrades is what keeps the likes of Microsoft and Apple in business. Universities have jumped on this bandwagon by swearing allegiance to Blackboard which has a virtual monopoly on classroom management software and Microsoft, whose array of office products is required for nearly every computer terminal supported by the university computer system.
Falling Diverse Interaction Outside of the Classroom
Gone in today’s university experience is the nexus of rich student interaction where diverse students often congregate and exchange ideas over a burger: the campus dining hall. The campus dining hall has largely been replaced by high end dining chains that often cater to wealthy students. This has been a blessing for universities because they can lease out their academic buildings to the highest bidder. Independent local dining establishments or coffee houses often have to struggle to acquire a student clientele against corporate chains that have an inside track to a student customer base, thanks in large part to universities looking to cash in by leasing space to corporate dining establishments who can afford the high lease rates.
The University as the foundation of “moral values” such as “integrity” or “character”
This is largely an antiquated notion as the university has largely outgrown its monastic past. The number of arrests of college athletes and coaches, the number of students arrested for underage drinking year after year, the number of campus rapes all point to a systemic breakdown in values in the American university. It is laughable that universities are still in the business of promoting moral values, especially when they actively promote wage inequalities within their own ranks. As an institution of capital, the university sees no problem today in relying upon cheap labor, in the form of adjuncts and graduate assistants, for student instruction. I can recall as a graduate assistant making nearly a fourth of my salary as a full time worker in the private sector while having considerably more responsibilities: the primary of which was to shape the next generation of minds. This was while I was also completing my own course of studies and neglecting job prospects that I would have otherwise engaged. It is morally repugnant for universities to rely upon underpaying their adjunct and graduate instructors while also raising tuition and fees on the very employees who are charged with teaching undergraduates.
The moral outrage at Penn State is more than justified but I think the situation requires that the public look more closely, more intensely, at the inner lives of universities and the economic disparities they perpetuate. That administrators who profited while these abuses occurred should speak mightily about how as a corporatized entity, the university has sought the same status of corporations in trying to shield its questionable practices and abuses from the public eye.
H.E. Whitney, Jr. is a doctoral candidate in history at Florida State University and teaches medieval and modern global history at Howard Community College in Maryland. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Read other articles by H.E., or visit H.E.'s website.
This article was posted on Tuesday, November 15th, 2011 at 8:00am and is filed under Culture, Education, Sports, Students.
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