03/13/2012 12:13 pm ET Updated May 13, 2012

The Corporate University Model: Part One

As public universities around the country move closer toward a symbiotic relationship with corporate America, it seems that now is the appropriate time to pose a few questions regarding the goals, purposes, and practices of public universities. In this post, I will sympathetically present what I see as the corporate model of public education that many university administrations (and corporate America) seem keen on building and nurturing. In my next post, I'll take apart that argument. But for now, take this seriously and try not to picture a scraggly white guy gritting his teeth in front of a computer screen. Picture Mr. Moneybags or something.

The Corporate University: It's What the Market Demands

American public colleges and universities must adapt to a rapidly changing economic landscape and prepare for the 21st century. We can no longer expect state governments to provide the funds necessary to support our vision for the modern American public university. Expansion and improvement projects are absolutely necessary, but while our budget may be increasing, government support is decreasing or, at best, stagnating. The only way to overcome the funding gap is through collaboration and cooperation with both individuals and private enterprise.

The modern corporate university will be a center of economic activity. The university will run as efficiently as possible. University administrators should be experienced corporate managers -- education experience is not necessary. Programs that bring in money will be given priority for funding, and their surpluses can be reinvested into programs that run at a loss, if the administration so chooses. Programs that fail to improve the university's bottom-line should be trimmed, if not eliminated altogether. Degrees should no longer cost the same. It costs more to put an engineering student through college than an English major, and the price of the degree should reflect that; so should the length. If possible, the university should become a for-profit institution, although the political viability of this position is questionable. The profit motive would sharpen the incentive structure, allowing universities to be more efficient and more attuned to the needs of the market.

Research and the Local Economy

Becoming an elite research institution is a prerequisite of the corporate university model. The corporate university will attract dozens of large corporations to base a major part of their operations close to the university. Graduates will have a fast-track to jobs with these companies, and the entire geographic area will reap the economic benefits. Research -- especially technological research -- should be commercialized. Corporations can help fund and guide the research of university students and faculty, by keeping it in tune with market demands. This will attract companies to the area, but it will also give students and recent graduates a tremendous incentive to start companies of their own. The immediate area surrounding the campus will become a hot spot for economic activity, which will create positive spillover effects.

Privatization and Cutting Costs

Building the foundation for the corporate university model requires intelligent prioritization and shrewd development. Any university operation that is not essential to the educational process should be privatized. If privatizing something can save the university money, it's likely a good idea. Privatize parking, privatize security, subcontract food services, custodial services, construction, etc. If you can't privatize it, make sure you find a way to exempt the university from contracting union labor. There are hundreds of ways to cut costs and lower the university's wage bill, but it may be risky to privatize housing, or public spaces on campus.

Attracting Strong Leadership

The only exception to decreasing labor costs are administrators' salaries. Administrators' salaries should reflect the importance of their positions. The university is competing not only with other universities, but also the business and non-profit sector. The corporate university runs on a model of a largely privately funded public university. Since state money has dried up, accountability and transparency are only necessary when the school's public image is at stake. Consolidating decision-making power will increase efficiency. The corporate university's administrative team are its leaders, its most valuable asset, and in order to attract the best, the university must offer compensation comparative to corporate America.

Education or Training?

As universities are able to form close partnerships with corporations, funneling them employees, contracts and research while receiving financial support and direction in return, the corporate university will become the ultimate vehicle for increasing student labor power, providing them with white-collar job training. While in a sense, the corporate university model replaces education with training for the corporate world, if education isn't going to get you a good job, what's the point anyways?

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