October 21, 2008

Admitting influence is the first step

We can guess, accordingly, that the MFI will be marketed not just to donors in general, but to a very particular set of donors: those whose business interests lead to a certain affection for Friedman’s economic policy and politics.

[img id="76880" align="alignleft"] The University hopes to raise $200 million for the new Milton Friedman Institute (MFI). As we heard in last Tuesday’s roundtable, several economists feel that Friedman’s name will help sell the institute to donors. But who are these donors? According to the University, they will be “alumni and business leaders around the world.” We can guess, accordingly, that the MFI will be marketed not just to donors in general, but to a very particular set of donors: those whose business interests lead to a certain affection for Friedman’s economic policy and politics.

But just what does that mean? In my view, we have not yet faced up to the real questions raised by the whole MFI controversy—which have less to do with the symbolic significance of Friedman’s name and more to do with the University’s general relationship to business and the corporate world. The economist James Heckman, a member of the MFI’s faculty committee, recently said, “Yes,” when the Maroon’s Sara Jerome asked whether the MFI’s relationship with its donors “could, in practice, affect research.” He added, “I doubt there is a truly unbiased academic.... If you think the [Graduate School of Business] is an unbiased environment, think again. They are recruited for their views. I wonder also how many free marketers would get jobs in anthropology or sociology.”

Heckman deserves applause for stating the obvious truths about a university founded with John D. Rockefeller’s oil wealth on Marshall Field’s spare lots. Money talks at the University of Chicago because money brought it into existence; impartiality does not exist on any side of the debates. Academic inquiry obviously requires financial resources, but a university’s relation to these resources is often problematic. I have yet to meet critics of transnational capitalism who go so far as to tear up their paychecks in protest of Rockefeller’s donations. On the other hand, there seem to be some faculty and administrators—lost in massive self-deception or a charade of propriety—who pretend that big donors have no motive beyond a whimsical, politically neutral altruism that expects no returns. Give us a break. I doubt that even the economists’ own rational-choice theory would predict donations in the absence of real benefits given in exchange. The mask of propriety only forestalls principled discussion on how the University’s donors do in fact affect us.

Moreover, business influence on campus does not end with donations. More than a hundred years ago, the economist Thorstein Veblen criticized our university in a book titled The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men. He drew attention to business dominance of the Board of Trustees—and incidentally, has anyone looked up our current trustees’ affiliations? Of 44 trustees, by my count there are 38 board chairmen, CEOs, and other high-level corporate officials, the rest being lawyers, financiers, and academic executives. Can anyone believe that this is without significance? Veblen went on to argue that one product of a business-dominated board of trustees is a dominant university president, modeled after a corporate executive. Not all universities have had presidents, it’s worth noting. In France, for instance, universities only started having presidents in 1968. It seems that higher learning can live without them, and indeed, Veblen ended his book with a modest proposal for abolishing both the President and the Board of Trustees.

A hundred years ago, Veblen already thought that faculty governance was a sham. While the President makes the major decisions, it is merely the detail of policy implementation which, he said, “devolves, properly, on the clerical force, and especially on those chiefs of clerical bureau called ‘deans,’ together with the many committees-for-the-sifting-of-sawdust into which the faculty of a well-administered university is organized. These committees being, in effect if not in intention, designed chiefly to keep the faculty talking while the bureaucratic machine goes on its way under the guidance of the executive and his personal counsellors and lieutenants.” He remarked that “the subservience of the faculty, or of a working majority, may safely be counted on.”

Is Veblen right? Is the Faculty Senate just one more committee for the sifting of sawdust? Or as Richard del Rio asked at the end of Tuesday’s debate, “Who runs the University?” And how is this related to the money the University needs… or merely wants? Rather than simply decrying or denying the influence of business and big donations, we need a more open discussion about how, when, and why we accept or resist the lure of money. Our faculty remains among the best paid in the nation, while our T.A.s, even after a 100-percent salary increase this summer, are still paid below a living wage. But no doubt the administrators have a principled argument that the money should be spent elsewhere. I am especially eager to hear the principles they’ll use to govern the influence of the still hypothetical MFI donors. Let’s just not delude ourselves by pretending they won’t have any.

Eli Thorkelson is a Ph.D. student in anthropology.