Commodification of Higher-Ed in Changes to University Governance

By Alex Kong

The Maroon’s recent series of articles constitute an invaluable contribution to campus life. My experience has been that it’s taken for granted among my peers that the administration’s attitude towards those it serves is one of indifference at best and hostility at worst. Thanks to The Maroon’s excellent reporting, we’ll now be able to point to specific examples of actions taken by the administration that confirm our suspicions.

Now that we have incontrovertible evidence of the administration’s petty dictatorial aspirations, it’s worth asking ourselves what exactly is propelling the structural changes to the University that The Maroon has delineated. It’s probably not power just for power’s sake (although I wouldn’t rule that out entirely). The more probable explanation is that the administration has its own agenda, priorities, and vision for the University, and that their centralization of authority is just an instrument for the imposition of this broader vision. So the next step in the process of critical scrutiny that The Maroon has opened up is to ask: What exactly does that vision entail?

It seems to me that this administration’s priorities reflect a broader phenomenon which extends beyond UChicago: the commodification of higher education. This process would replace our quintessential commitment to the life of the mind with a model of the University that values prestige, status, and wealth above all, and that understands its chief objective to be the reproduction of these quantities. This type of university views its students as mere consumers who pay good money in exchange for a degree that will act as a stepping-stone to a lucrative career. In the College, this mindset has manifested itself in an obsession with pre-professional preparation at the expense of academic rigor, as evidenced by the introduction of the business economics major and the proposed change to a semester system . Both of these moves bring us closer to the prevailing view of college as nothing more than a glorified credential mill for aspirant members of the ruling class (a line of thinking that’s intimately connected to a conception of the university as a vehicle for class stratification and the propagation of economic privilege).

What’s more, when we consider the administration’s motivation through this lens, their recent major initiatives start to make sense. Why go on a national tour trumpeting our commitment to “free speech,” only to turn around and betray those principles on campus? Because this “commitment” is nothing more than the most cynical of branding exercises to differentiate our product in a crowded marketplace of universities. This is also what accounts for the proliferation of donor-funded research institutes, not to mention a myriad of ostentatious new dorms and amenities. And of course, all of this is in the service of bolstering that ultimate metric of prestige: a prized spot in the upper echelons of the U.S. News & World Report ranking, which serves as a validation of the administration’s competence and a justification for their fat paychecks.

This conceptual transformation in thinking about the nature of higher education provides the crucial background for understanding the administration’s consolidation of power. The structural changes in governance highlighted by The Maroon are a means to an end, with the end being the realization of the new, neoliberal model of the University. I can only hope that this effort fails.