Saving Universities From the Sacrificial Altar of Neoliberalism

The neoliberal economy exists as a framework for production in which business and industry are privatized to the extent that government recedes as a command and control structure. Examined through the lens of higher education, the absence of command and control transforms thought into a commodity--which is not very good for thought.


In the 1980s and 1990s, the neoliberal tradition was aggressively exported from the United States, and to a lesser extent from Europe, to Latin American societies emerging from military regimes. Neoliberalism dictates that if a nation loosens the reins of state control, allows for unfettered private enterprise, and drops regional and international trade barriers, then a higher standard of living, a happy society and favors from the United States will follow. It has long been El Norte's chief ideological mantra repeated to Mexico over the decades. It's crowning achievement was President Clinton's—NAFTA in 1992.

Conflicts between the public and industry--pollution from Mexican manufacturing, for example--were given a cost-benefit analysis. If the pollution caused by manufacturing Mexican products was less damaging than the industry's benefits to the overall national and global economy, then pollution was allowed.

But as Stanley Fish writes in this morning's Times, neoliberal economies inevitably face a compromise. "Short-term transactions-for-profit replace long-term planning designed to produce a more just and equitable society." One of the casualties of neoliberalism's transactions-for-profit in the United States in recent years has been the public university system. As state funding has dried up, universities have had to raise tuition, solicit corporate sponsorships especially in research intensive fields like science and medicine and staff themselves with a medley of underpaid adjunct and part-time faculty.

The pollution scenario in a society where public education becomes an extension of neoliberal thinking is loss of equity for everyone. Considering tuition hikes alone, it follows that the well-educated would increasingly be those who can afford to be well-educated. In manufacturing scenarios under NAFTA, pollution was nearly always allowed to continue as was the case in Mexico in the mid-90s. The risk to society--let alone the environment-- was considered negligible when compared to the prosperity the industrial activity delivered.

What kind of prosperity do big thinkers see when education becomes a commodity to be bought and sold like any other? How should public universities be managed in an age of shrinking public coffers? If universities are to be managed as extensions of a neoliberal economy, how can the costs and benefits be brought back into a relationship that brings the greatest good to the greatest number?

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