Branding Neoliberal Education


Branding Neoliberal Education: Michael Crow and Arizona State University

In the book Designing the New American University, Michael Crow and William Dabars proffer a jarring vision of the fully corporatized higher learning “enterprise” that panders to the needs of industry and government, while paying lip service to humanistic learning and the common good. The authors deride American “Ivy League” schools—together with leading land-grant universities and major research institutions founded on nineteenth century personal fortunes—as “impervious to change,” “aloof from social needs,” and “inaccessible to the majority of Americans” (60).

As a consequence of those shortcomings, Crow and Dabars argue, more American public research institutions should become “complex adaptive knowledge enterprises.” Yet, such a transformation is tantamount to a rededication of public and private research universities to a brand of corporatization that commodifies knowledge, and brings its goods to the marketplace as rapidly as possible.

Such a change is urgently required, Crow and Dabars contend, because a widespread envy of elite institutions leads to a fierce competition for prestige and culminates in endemic “isomorphism” (or institutional uniformity). They cite ongoing efforts by college and university leaders nationwide to replicate the likes of “Berkeley and Harvard down to the last Ionic entablature or Georgian portico” as part of a “notorious ‘construction arms race’ of academic infrastructure and campus amenities intended to enhance curb appeal” (123-24).

In their view, the “cost disease” in the American academy, which unremittingly pushes tuition and fees upward, derives from prestige building (rather than excessive executive remuneration and administrative bloat). The matter is so pressing, Crow and Dabars declare, that the American academy “might even learn from the Cheesecake Factory, the successful restaurant chain,” to help reign in escalating costs—for the “nation can no longer merely tweak the status quo in an effort to sustain the present model for another generation” (138-39).

Therefore, Crow and Dabars submit Arizona State University (ASU) as a scalable prototype for the “entrepreneurial” research university. They justify an emphasis on “knowledge production” by citing historical ties to industry, as well as precipitous generational declines in state and federal funding for American higher education (60-61).

Global competition (particularly from rapidly advancing nations such as China) is deemed an imminent threat to American leadership in international higher education, and Crow and Dabars assert that American society is presently “divided between a vibrant and dynamic upper class, a static and challenged middle class, and a disadvantaged majority increasingly defined by the working poor and those socially and economically unable to realize the American dream” (48).

This mixture of propagandistic advocacy for the conversion of non-profit public research universities into profit-minded corporate enterprises, and the rationalization for it by identifying real economic and demographic challenges facing the American academy, explains the profound “vertigo” experienced by dedicated readers of Designing the New American University, who reach the conclusion having endured rhetorical appropriations (of open systems theory, pragmatism, “filiopeitism,” and the “multiversity”), terse jargon, and strings of quotations that rationalize corporate features of the “adaptive knowledge enterprise.”

On these grounds alone, we might reject overwrought proclamations of Arizona State as a prototype for the twenty-first century public research university, or as a viable solution to the crisis in American academy. The “adaptive knowledge enterprise” championed by Crow and Dabars codifies a generational embrace of neoliberalism, which David Harvey defines as a political economic theory positing that human well-being is advanced by “liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong property rights, free markets, and free trade” (2).

In practice, neoliberalism results in deregulation, privatization, and the withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision (including healthcare, education, and banking). Historically speaking, New Deal social and economic reforms, which followed the Great Depression, curtailed “laissez-faire” capitalism. By contrast, Harvey observes, neoliberalism reestablishes the conditions required for capital accumulation and the restoration of power to economic elites (19).

Crow and Dabars build neoliberalism into the foundation of their “New American University” using “four major objectives” supported by “eight design aspirations.” In place of the disinterested pursuit of knowledge and pure research (by which the integrity of research universities was once measured), ASU commodifies “knowledge production,” emphasizes “use-inspired research,” commercializes intellectual property through the creation of spin-off and start-up companies, and accelerates the movement of research from the laboratory to the marketplace. To date, sixty-seven business start-ups at Arizona State have reportedly produced “solid returns on investment” (271).

To infuse a business culture across campus, “entrepreneurship is embedded in the curriculum” at Arizona State because major research universities, whether public or private, function in a fiercely competitive market. For Crow and Dabars, institutions of higher learning resemble Fortune 500 companies that must respond quickly to trends (268-69). Thus, their leaders have no time for the deliberative processes of shared governance—once a hallmark of the American academy.

Furthermore, the “boundary spanning enterprise model” at Arizona State University privileges research and development tied to the needs of the “triple-helix of university-industry-government.” A culture of “entrepreneurial academics” at ASU ensures that funding for research is doled out on a competitive basis—and that the outcomes of such inquiries are commercialized (268-69). The university is a business firm that speeds the efficient creation and transfer of “useful” inquiry (196).

Crow and Dabars believe that the ASU “institutional culture committed to academic enterprise” fosters a “focus on promoting excellence in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math” (270). Predictably, they correlate the social and economic development of leading research universities with “their role in the advancement of scientific discovery and technological innovation” (159). The coinage of the term “entrepreneurial university,” we are told, captures this aspect of ASU’s intentional design.

Although Crow and Dabars hype the liberal arts as an important historical feature of higher education in the United States, the humanities are diminished at ASU as a consequence of a focus on profit and the marketplace. In addition, solid evidence for repeated assertions that the entrepreneurial orientation of the “new American university” contributes tangibly to the common good are wafer thin. Perhaps the benefits of campus start-ups “trickle down” to the general public in the form of new products for consumers to purchase?

This sophistry regarding the positive impact of the “entrepreneurial university” on the commonweal is further evident in the continued reliance on contingent faculty at ASU, the reorganization of academic departments into “transdisciplinary” centers, and the excessive salaries paid to top administrators (President Crow took home almost $900,000 in 2014 alone).

Yet, the only significant acknowledgement by Crow and Dabars of the adjunct crisis in the American academy occurs in a footnote, which confirms that “between 1975 and 2007 the percentage of full-time tenure and tenure-track faculty declined from 56.8 percent to 31.2 percent.” By the fall of 2009, contingent academics “comprised more than 75 percent of total instructional staff” nationwide (14).

Despite that understanding, earlier this year ASU “announced that it was upping full-time, non-tenure-track composition instructors’ teaching loads to five classes per semester from four, without any additional pay.” Writer, translator, and adjunct professor at Arizona State University, John Washington, needs no convincing that “Crow’s modernization is a euphemism for privatization,” and represents “another leap towards corporatization, a trend that is happening at universities across the country.”

Crow and Dabars eschew the prestige race in higher education, but they base evidence for the success of the Arizona State model on many of the same measures that they ridicule traditional research universities for following. They boast, for instance, that “ASU ranks thirty-third among universities worldwide for patents issued to its researchers and fourth among U.S. universities without a medical school,” and that various “authoritative assessments of comparative institutional rankings” position ASU 73rd, 95th, or 146th—depending on the methodology employed (263-65).

Although both progressives and conservatives might applaud ASU for aiming to make public higher education more accessible, neither group should be comfortable with an emphasis on entrepreneurialism and individualism (at not-for-profit institutions dedicated to the public good), the continued exploitation of contingent faculty members, or attacks on academics protesting the state of the academy in the opening pages of Designing the New American University. “Screeds generated from within the bowels of academe,” Crow and Dabars write, “purport sober stocktaking but often assume the strident tones of rancorous vitriol one would expect from sworn enemies of the arts and letters.” Individuals who express a “sense of impending doom” or prophesize decline in the academy are summarily dismissed as “jeremiads” (1-2).

For all of these reasons, readers of Designing the New American University should not buy the pitch that the “academic entrepreneurial enterprise” is worthy of replication—for it brands a generational embrace of neoliberalism, exemplifies the deleterious effects of corporatization on traditionally non-profit sectors, and celebrates the rededication of the public research university to the more base pursuits of “entrepreneurialism,” useful knowledge” and “individualism.”

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