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When education becomes a business, students lose | The Triangle

When education becomes a business, students lose

Once upon a time, businesses stuck to what they knew how to do best, and education — not a business, but a collaborative enterprise serving critical social functions on a nonprofit basis — kept its eye on acquainting students with the heritage of civilization, preparing them for life in a democratic society, and extending human knowledge. That was a pretty tall order in itself, but apparently not tall enough.

Businesses, as we know, have now metastasized into something called conglomerates, greed machines that no longer want to do one thing well, or even several, but as many as possible, well or badly.

You can state an inverse relationship between the number of things you do and your success at doing them, as multitasking has taught most of us personally, but, for businesses — or the banks and brokerage houses that provide their model — not even the sky is the limit to what they’ll attempt, but only the bottom line of profitability, the so-called discipline of the market.

How badly this has worked for business — and for society generally — we can see from the still-smoking wreckage of the 2008 financial collapse. A single example may suffice: General Motors, which forgot how to make salable cars, extended itself into a new product line of “financial services,” and the hanky-panky there collapsed it to the point where it had to be bailed out to the tune of many billions of dollars by taxpayers who, like myself, had no interest in any of its products or services.

There was of course a lesson in this, namely the outrageous folly of erasing institutional barriers between business and finance, although the banks that now run the show in late capitalism have succeeded in preventing anyone from applying it.

The particular “business” I now work in, formerly known as education, displays all the hallmarks of conglomeration gone haywire, and nowhere more egregiously than at the institution where I am employed, Drexel University. Education, as a business, is distinct from most other commercial enterprises in providing its product at the direct point of service, namely the classroom.

You would think that, like an auto showroom, classrooms should be set up for the maximum gratification of the consumer, but, no, I do most of my teaching in stuffy, antiquated and minimally furnished rooms, which my students put up with remarkable forbearance, having learned higher education’s first lesson: that, if they are the primary source of its income, they are very far down on the list of its concerns.

In fact, students no longer really exist. Some time ago, they were redefined as “customers” (and my own relationship to them from teaching to servicing them). Now, a customer is, as we all know, an individual from whom the maximum of revenue is to be extracted with the minimum of value returned.

This applies not only in the classroom (where most faculty, quirkily, go against the rules by offering as much value as they can), but also in dormitory housing, meal plans and, above all, in debt enslavement. Your average graduate is the gift that keeps on giving, stoking a trillion-dollar student loan industry for years, even decades, after quitting any college premises.

Oh, yes, and you’ll be asked for alumni donations too. Regularly.

Some years ago, Drexel was featured in a Wall Street Journal article as a paradigm of the new corporate model in higher education. Those were innocent, halcyon days.

I would defy anyone to even find a university on the east side of Chestnut between 32nd and 33rd Streets, where the MacAlister-Creese complex has virtually disappeared behind a phalanx of shops, eateries and faceless dorms, with a bank in the middle to finish off the effect of a commercial district — Shake Shack U., we might call it.

Across the street on the southwest corner, meanwhile, classroom and student activity space (so abundant everywhere on campus!) has been demolished to make room for a 10-story hotel that is being called, with a maximum of chutzpah, “The Study.” Remove actual academic space and replace it with a commercial venue, and then make it sound like a shady nook to crack a book — wouldn’t George Orwell be proud of that piece of legerdemain.

And then go down a block to the oft-redesigned space that separates a desperately hemmed-in academic quad from the administration building, afloat on its isolated glory like the Pequod, and you’ll find Perelman Plaza, where the man so fond of his own face that he buys ad space in The New York Times to show it has put himself on permanent display to remind us of how he managed to remove the last visible green space on campus.

The fact that Ray Perelman is also principally responsible for destroying one of the great experiments in American education, the Barnes Foundation, only adds to the drollery. What’s next, a statue to John D. Rockefeller?

Next, in fact, has been the brouhaha about student housing, which President John A. Fry is anxious to sell but students are not eager to buy. The story behind that, of course, is the University’s drive to enlarge the student body over the past 20 years, climaxing in the come-one, come-all approach to recruitment that produced over 50,000 applications a year at one point, most of them duds.

This policy, the brainchild of Fry’s predecessor, has been belatedly rescinded, but not before having had the predictable result of depressing student quality and retention rates. It has also put a great deal of pressure on surrounding neighborhoods for housing — woe betide any city neighborhood that has the misfortune to be “home” to a university, let alone two — and that, in turn, has led to the present three-sided zoning war involving local civic associations, the Drexel administration and Drexel students.

You can guess who’s the odd man out here. The administration wants to corral as many students as possible in its own housing units, all of them pricier than local private options. In the words of one Drexel sophomore, quoted in the Feb. 6 issue of this paper, “It sounds like Drexel is trying to create a monopoly. I understand what they’re trying to do, which is make more money …”

We can stop right there. Create a monopoly? Make more money? Well, doesn’t every business do the same, especially when it has invested a great deal of money with its development partners in creating units to sell?

American universities, like the NFL, are tax-exempt institutions, and at this point I frankly don’t see what the excuse for not treating either as a business — especially as so many universities are in fact holding pens for the
NFL’s meat-grinder.

As Nicolena Stiles has noted in The Triangle, many Drexel students feel “blindsided and shocked by the University’s actions.” What they should not have been is surprised.

At least Drexel’s students are standing up for their “customer” rights. Since Fry took office, the University’s lump-sum retirement package for faculty has been halved on the pretext of rationalizing it, and a new retirement plan unilaterally imposed that will require drastically higher contributions from junior faculty.

Funny, but I didn’t see any Faculty Senate Newsletter report on the subject. Oh, the Senate doesn’t have a newsletter? Well, that’s not really surprising, since Drexel doesn’t have a Senate either, despite the office sign still up on the door of Randell 119.

In a better world, faculty would not be leaving students to fight their own battles with the administration, but would regard student welfare as inseparable from their own. In a better world, “the University’s actions” would refer not to the unilateral actions of administrators but to the consensus of an academic community. Since when, anyway, did the term “university” become synonymous with “administration?”

I can hazard a guess about that last question at least. When the faculty, as the permanent body of any university, permitted its own essential rights — the tenure system, collegial governance, and the maintenance of community — to be stripped away with hardly a ripple of protest, it betrayed its own fundamental responsibility and sealed its professional doom.

At this point, the American university system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. Until then, it’s just us clerks and customers here, and as for the product — well, just look at what passes for an informed citizenry and a democratic society around you.

Robert Zaller is a history professor at Drexel University. He can be contacted at op-ed@thetriangle.