College is not a corporation: the union pushes back on corporatization on campus

from AFT Voices on Campus

By Jennifer Proffitt

The Academy has a long, cherished tradition of challenging dominant thought and the powers behind it, finding new ways of approaching old problems and exploring fresh solutions. That curiosity and willingness to question, that impulse to help students find ways to make the world a better place — that is what drew me to academia, and it’s what I’ve dedicated my life to.

But what happens if the worldview of one powerful institution begins to dominate higher education — especially if that worldview is narrowly constructed to place just one aspect of the human experience above others? That is what is happening today. The institution is the multi-national, neo-liberal corporate complex, and the narrow worldview is profit.

Changes being made to higher education in Florida offer a glaring example of how corporate power is restructuring our cherished institutions to meet its worldview. Corporate culture wants to absorb our universities, our faculty, and our students into its complex and change the world to reflect its profit-driven agenda. Its efforts highlight how critical unions are for preserving higher education’s real role in society.

Corporate culture wants to absorb our universities, our faculty, and our students into its complex and change the world to reflect its profit-driven agenda.

The corporatization of higher education is a nationwide trend, but it’s affected Florida in particular, and in numerous detrimental ways. From the privatization of faculty research to university boards filled with business people and politicians rather than higher education professionals to a governor who treats every institution like a profit-driven business that should only be pumping out widgets, the corporatization of higher education is affecting all aspects of teaching, research and learning. The following account of what happened at State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota (SCF) is just one example.

Adopting business culture: no tenure for you

InSeptember 2015, despite opposition from faculty, students, community members, and current and former college administrators, the SCF Board of Trustees — who are all political appointees — voted 7–1 to eliminate the college system’s tenure-like continuing contracts for new faculty hired after July 1, 2016 (it is important to note that the only no vote came from the only SCF alumnus on the Board). This decision was first proposed the month before by Carlos Beruff, a multimillion dollar homebuilder and strong political supporter and confidant of Governor Rick Scott who in 2016 ran for the U.S. Senate against Marco Rubio, hoping to benefit from the “anti-establishment” Trump wave. He made several proposals in August of 2015 before stepping down from the Board soon after.

As reported in the Bradenton Herald, the elimination of continuing contracts was “one of several policies he proposed in August aimed at bringing some of the Manatee County-based college board employment practices in line with private industry and other state organizations,” even though institutions of higher education are not and were never intended to be businesses. As if this idea weren’t bad enough, Beruff added insult to injury when he proposed that new faculty “bid” for their jobs, presumably in an attempt to lower salary costs. Fortunately, this proposal has not moved forward.

Beruff added insult to injury when he proposed that new faculty “bid” for their jobs, presumably in an attempt to lower salary costs.

The composition of this board offers clear and convincing evidence about the motives behind these changes. As reported by the Bradenton Herald, “SCF’s board of trustees is comprised entirely of members from private industry, including three in the construction trade, three in the finance sector, an insurance agent, a physician and the president of a Manatee County boat hull mold maker.” These private industry turned academic experts apparently know more than those directly affected by their rash decision making: faculty and others who argued that such an action would disadvantage the college since it would be the only one without continuing contracts and would make it more difficult to recruit and retain quality faculty.

Months later, a member of the SCF Board argued at the governor’s higher education summit — a gathering designed to plot a course for the future of higher education and a gathering at which planners brilliantly decided to exclude faculty from speaking — that all colleges should eliminate continuing contracts. “I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “We’re the first ones to do this and people are still applying to come to our college. Our college has not closed down. The doom and gloom hasn’t happened.”

The end of continuing contracts for new faculty became official in January 2016, with the one no vote switching sides. As detailed by the Bradenton Herald, he “said doing away with continuing contracts will help SCF better compete with low-cost, for-profit colleges.” It is unclear how or why public education must compete with for-profit colleges for students, especially with the fall of so many of them in the last year or so, and it is unclear how eliminating due process lowers costs, but there it is.

The insecurity of at-will employment allows political ideologues to get rid of faculty who do not toe the political and corporate line and leads to self-censorship that comes from fear of losing one’s job.

What this “business model” intends to do is eliminate opposition by eliminating job security for faculty. The importance of tenure and tenure-like systems like continuing contracts includes the ability for faculty to teach and students to learn without the fear of undue influence of the political or ideological views of administrators, donors, politicians and others. The insecurity of at-will employment allows political ideologues to get rid of faculty who do not toe the political and corporate line and leads to self-censorship that comes from fear of losing one’s job. This clearly affects student learning, as one of the missions of higher education is to develop critical thinking skills that come from listening to differing points of view.

As a professor who studies political economy of media and who works to unpack (and hopefully dismantle) the structures of media power in our culture, what will become of that work if one of the mega-media conglomerates decides to “sponsor” my school after my rights of tenure and academic freedom are stripped away? What happens to my sisters and brothers in all fields who perhaps find a better way to do something or to understand a phenomenon if that new way conflicts with the profits of corporations sponsoring their own institutions? These fights aren’t just about faculty privilege and our basic rights as workers (although some forget that we are in fact workers). This is about the Academy’s survival and our role in helping the world build a brighter future.

Organize

Immediately after the SCF Board’s decision, faculty began to organize to become a chapter of the United Faculty of Florida (UFF). Organizing is the only way to counter the corporatization and politicization of higher education. UFF knows we cannot count on politicians and administrators to protect academic freedom and forms of tenure allowed by Florida law and rule, but we can represent our members in the maintenance of these long cherished principles of academia.

Together we are stronger.

Jennifer Proffitt is a communications professor at Florida State University and the president of United Faculty of Florida.