“He who pays the piper calls the tune”

The former quote is from a commenter on a recent opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Dr. Laura Essig, assistant professor of sociology at Middlebury College and frequent Chronicle columnist, laments the instances of donors to academic institutions asserting restrictive control over the use of their “gifts”:

As neoliberal economic policies set everything from prisons to schools to compete in the market, and took away a heck of a lot of public funding in the process, universities had little choice but to rely more and more on corporate and individual donors. And rely we did. The result? The rich now directly shape academic inquiry. I have heard of universities where wealthy donors literally get to dictate the name of a program and the shape of the curriculum… But it’s not just that being set “free” in the market means that wealthy donors can directly shape knowledge. It’s also that the neoliberal university must constantly be careful that the knowledge it produces doesn’t rock the boat too much. (emphasis hers)

Universities and colleges seem to be stuck between a rock and a hard place: increasing budget shortfalls due to lack of state/federal support coupled with the increasing desire from external funding sources for more control of what is taught/researched.

Foundational to comprehending this current state is the tension between accountability and academic freedom. What Essig highlights is the degree to which academic freedom is being nudged out of the academy by the prevailing (neoliberal) economic value scheme – in the interests of accountability of monies given.

I fear that there isn’t much universities can do unless federal support for education becomes a priority. But our current policies implicitly treat the academy as a business to be measured against the standard of surplus value, which is fundamentally incompatible with the academy’s existence as a social and intellectual institution. How does one put a price on the academy? On academic freedom? Better yet, how does one put a price on the loss of it?

This entry was posted in Accountability, Economics & STEM Research, Future of the University, Public Philosophizing. Bookmark the permalink.

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