University, unincorporated

The university’s business interests get in the way of a commitment to scholarship

My high school made sure to drill the college application process in our head the second we were able to think about it for longer than ten consecutive seconds. Consequently, even in my sophomore year mandatory meetings about it were far too frequent. A bit over four years ago, at one of these meetings, a panel of individuals who worked for the admissions of different universities was brought in to speak and answer our and our parents’ questions.  I don’t remember the context in which the following was said, the name of the man who said it nor the university he worked for, but it has stuck with me to this day: that the university is also a business, a business that educates and graduates.

At the time I didn’t think much of it. I just took it as a general statement of fact; pretty much everything in the world is a business. It was a model that, like it or not, all American universities adopt in some capacity. Yet, the more I ruminated about it over the years, intuitively it made less and less sense to me. If the goal of a business is to, for whatever reason, make money, wouldn’t that interest conflict with a university’s mission of educating and supporting students who are at the same time treated as consumers by the university? In other words: is it possible to marry the goals and intentions of scholarship and generation of surplus value?

My answer to this question is no. There are times, though, in which the interests of business and university—insofar as it is a place for scholarship and personal growth—are not necessarily at odds, but often, compromises must be made, and one interest is chosen above the other. Too often, in my opinion, “university-as-business” is chosen above “university-as-university.” Vanderbilt is no exception.

As much as the administration may want to make the change quickly, they, like a good business, must consider how it impacts their revenue.

It is not beneath Vanderbilt to put business interests ahead of its mission. For instance, Vanderbilt’s refusal to divest from the private prison industry, despite a unanimous VSG Senate vote recommending that the administration disallow private prison investment, demonstrates this phenomenon perfectly. The administration’s inaction is contrary to the stated support of “equality and compassion.” Furthermore, Vanderbilt maintains its early decision policy, despite arguments that ED favors the financially able and the recent Opportunity Vanderbilt initiative and goals to increase socioeconomic diversity. And, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, Wendy’s remains a part of the “Taste of Nashville” program, despite student protests a year ago, largely for economic reasons.In an ideal world, universities ought to adopt an entirely new model so that they don’t have to engage in a perpetual balancing act and make compromises to their scholarly intentions and service to a community. But until that day comes, if a university, Vanderbilt included, wishes to truly uphold its mission, it must place its business interests secondary to its interests of a university proper.

When preference is given to the accumulation of money, the actors who ultimately have the final say are not students, faculty or even administration, but donors and, paradoxically, prospective students insofar as they are consumers. In other words, university decisions are beholden to the questions: What will our donors think? How will our decisions impact prospective applicants? Consider the sluggish action of the administration on something intrinsically inconsequential like the renaming of Confederate Memorial Hall to just Memorial Hall. What’s in a name? The prospect of losing donors, evidently. As much as the administration may want to make the change quickly, they, like a good business, must consider how it impacts their revenue. Consider further the hesitancy towards taking action against greek life for hazing and the like. What would putting a fraternity on probation, or kicking it off campus altogether, mean for the future of donations?

When the university acts this way, as a business seeking surplus value, it structurally removes universities farther and farther away from their purpose of being pioneers of thought. In Vanderbilt’s words, having the university act as a business detracts from its goal to be “a center for scholarly research, informed and creative teaching, and service to the community and society at large.”

To a certain extent, this is not entirely Vanderbilt’s fault. Professor of Political Science at UC Berkeley Wendy Brown in her book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution argues that recent economic and cultural shifts have lead to people seeing the value of higher education not for their intrinsic value and content but rather for their “return on investment.” Such a view is reinforced by the recent increase in relevance of college ranking systems, transforming the college decision process into something more like buying a car based on Consumer Reports.

The top two criteria for determining college rankings for U.S. News and World Report are graduation and retention rates–remember, as the panelist said the university is a business of graduating–and undergraduate academic reputation. It is worth noting the phrasing here: reputation is the object being evaluated, and academic is an adjective. In other words, perception is valued over reality, and for a prestigious private university such as Vanderbilt, even moreso. As Brown puts it: “elite privates continue to offer two unique commodities to their students…prestige and social networks that themselves yield socioeconomic access and status[.]This is why, amid declining cultural and economic value of the content of a college education, competition for admission to the top privates grow ever more ferocious.”

In fairness, evaluation of academics can’t be done justice by mass surveys or other prima facie metrics. But it is for that very reason that scholarship is slighted when the university acts as a business: academic value does not translate into the logic of the market. Various pieces have been written about how the university-as-business harms the value and nature of higher education itself. Professor Brown argues that it ultimately is harmful to a democratic society. One other thing reflected in the literature on the subject also remarks how public universities, due to dropping of government funding and thus increased dependence on tuition and student loans, are especially pressured into specializing to their benefit to the market rather than emphasizing their value as a place for higher learning.

So what about private universities such as Vanderbilt? To a certain extent, they are affected by the demands of the market, but less so due to, ironically, the nature of private endowments and the unique prestige that allow them to stand out in the “university market.” As I mentioned earlier, the academic content of Vanderbilt is independent of its prestigious casing which it markets, what the student-consumer is ultimately being sold.

It is because of this unique independence that Vanderbilt can place emphasis on the intrinsic value of higher education, and actually can follow through on its mission. Public universities don’t have this luxury. It is why I said earlier that Vanderbilt ought to place business second to the interests of higher learning–because it is uniquely predisposed to do so.

Even with a change in disposition, I still believe that the best thing to be done is for the university structure, public or private, to be upheaved entirely–the administration on one hand and students and faculty on the other cannot be competing parties with competing interests, they must be the same. Yes, it does fly in the face of conventional wisdom of the division of labor leading to increased efficiency, but efficiency is again a concern for a business. Maybe it is a far-fetched goal, but its one worth working towards. I don’t excuse the nature of Vanderbilt’s endowment itself nor any of its questionable investment activity so that the “university-as-university” can be preserved. Yet as it happens now, Vanderbilt has a $4 billion endowment that can pay the price of integrity and a commitment to its stated mission. Until that structural change occurs, until the day when integrity and commitment to scholarship and service don’t have a price tag, Vanderbilt ought to put that commitment first so that it does not lose its way.

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Dominic Rottman
Dominic Rottman ('20) writes for the Opinion section of the Vanderbilt Hustler. He is majoring in Political Science and Communications in the College of Arts and Science. He enjoys drinking (and then complaining about) coffee, reading (and then complaining about) political and philosophical literature, and finally writing (and then complaining about) his own points of view.

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