Thorstein Veblen and Business Models of Governance


Thorstein Veblen and Business Models of Governance

Nearly one hundred years ago, the social scientist Thorstein Veblen published a book suggestively entitled: The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men (1918). In it, Veblen mounted a spirited defense of the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, and advocated for enhanced faculty representation, as ballasts against the unchecked power of university presidents and business-minded governing boards.

The reissue of this classic text (with annotations) by Johns Hopkins University Press is extraordinarily timely, for faculty members in the United States are once again locked in a struggle against those who Veblen pejoratively called the “captains of erudition”—a deliberately provocative analog to the exploitative robber barons of the nineteenth century Gilded Age, such as Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and J. D. Rockefeller (who all lent their names and fortunes to major research universities dedicated to “practical” learning for the benefit of industry and commerce).

Richard F. Teichgraeber, in his informative introduction to Veblen’s witty and sometimes sarcastic tract, situates The Higher Learning in America in a long history of “professors’ literature of protest.” Veblen wrote against the decidedly downward flow of power from institutional presidents—who in the bedraggled American university of the early twentieth century chose their own deans (who selected department chairs), hired and fired faculty at will, and otherwise made promotions and demotions free of procedural constraints.

No doubt, such a low point in the history of American higher education may seem rather a shining beacon to some contemporary college and university presidents bent on wrenching governance from the professorate and domineering over academic professionals (including Lower Columbia College president Chris Bailey, Hartwick College president Margaret Drugovich, and former Pitzer College president Laura Skandera Trombley).

For similar offenses, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) recently censured four American institutions of higher learning for violations of tenure, academic freedom, and shared governance. Unhappily, though, AAUP chairperson Hank Reichman admits that these censures represent only the “tip of a larger iceberg threatening our fundamental values” of non-profit higher education and the free exchange of ideas.

We therefore have many reasons to revisit Veblen’s warnings concerning the corrosive effects of importing corporate business practices into tertiary education. Veblen charged that the hierarchical structuring of the American university, which he witnessed firsthand as established modes of governance were taking shape, led inescapably to the intellectual acquiescence of the faculty, and to their deprofessionalization (by making them employees-at-will).

Veblen provided evidence for the  bullying and dismissal of faculty members by presidents for disagreement with their policies—as well as for compiling (and sharing) blacklists containing the names of professors holding heterodox notions! Were that not fault enough, Veblen also highlighted a (still-evident) penchant among university presidents for acquiring prestige, for themselves and their institutions, and a pandering obsequiousness in convincing members of boards of trustees that they were in possession of “a business like character” (20-21).

Writing in the “Introductory” to The Higher Learning in America, Veblen takes aim at the noxious influence of mercantile values on pure theoretical inquiry. He asserts:

University teaching, having a particular and special purpose—the pursuit of knowledge—it has also a particular and special character, such as to differentiate it from other teaching and at the same time leave it relatively ineffective for other purposes. Its aim is to equip the student for the work of inquiry, not to give him facility in that conduct of affairs that turns such knowledge to “practical account” (48).

For Veblen, the university at its best is comprised of “mature scholars and scientists” who each work at “the pursuit of knowledge, together with whatever advisory surveillance and guidance he may consistently afford such students as are entering the career of learning at a point where his outlook and methods of work may be of effect for them” (49). By contrast, under the cultural imposition of corporate values, learning becomes reduced to practical expediency and takes the form of “utilitarian instruction.”

From the vantage-point of the twenty-first century, we realize that Veblen was correct in his appraisal of the deleterious consequences of business values in the academy, particularly on teaching, scholarship, and disinterested research. Historically speaking, the formation of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1915, with John Dewey as its first president, enabled development of a framework for the advancement of the doctrines of intellectual freedom and shared governance. AAUP set professional standards for tertiary education, and clearly defined that endeavor as a not-for-profit one dedicated to the commonweal.

Once it jettisoned the business values that infiltrated the academy in Veblen’s day, the American university thrived. The widespread adoption of AAUP’s “Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure” (codified in 1925, and reinterpreted in 1940 and 1970) protected faculty from interference in their research and teaching, and empowered them with tenure protections. In return, the faculty eschewed most corporate ties and relied instead on robust public funding. It proved a fortuitous combination: following the Second World War higher education in the United States became the global standard for excellence (reaching an apex of influence and academic integrity between 1945 and 1980).

Truly, as Veblen understood one hundred years ago, “the intrusion of business principles in the universities goes to weaken and retard the pursuit of learning, and therefore to defeat the ends for which a university is maintained” (192). We do well to heed his warning, for re-emergent corporate values, in the guise of neo-liberalism, surged to prominence in the 1980s (as a new conservatism among voters meant an unwillingness to fund public education with tax dollars).

Corresponding with Veblen’s observations, the reintroduction of business values into American higher education over the past thirty to forty years led to the “substitution of impersonal, mechanical relations, standards and tests” (what he called “accountancy”) in place of personal guidance and mentoring between teacher and student (192). We might add to these woes: steadily rising tuitions, administrative bloat, adjunctification, a decline of humanities education relative to job-related training, and the undue influence of wealthy donors and alumni.

In light of Veblen’s trenchant analysis, we should do more to stem the tide of corporatization in the American academy. That effort might begin by addressing presidential overreach head-on, recognizing the loss of intellectual integrity that corporate-sponsored research represents, and opening more tenurable positions to the seventy-three percent of all faculty members across the United States currently serving on a contingent basis. It’s time, once again, to right our course.

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