The American university system has been increasingly in the public eye, but not in an especially friendly way, which is in part because of an increase in the percentage of students attending university. More families see and hear the effects of universities on their own children. The additional media coverage, often negative, only crystalizes a drive of reformation.
However, a problem for many observers is that they fail to recognize what the idea of college is in the American context. They view it as a business that provides a good or service, which must respond to customers like any other enterprise. Some who have read Howard Zinn or other communist scribes will see universities as the means for plutocrats to produce good, obedient workers. Instead, the university system is better conceived as a structure that cranks out theory to justify current elite rule and promulgate the state religion. Universities are indoctrination centers; this idea has caught on even among the broader right-wing.
As a wing of the reigning power, the university has the special dispensation of educating the masses. Universities have tax-free endowments, they receive grants from the official sovereign, they have their own police forces, they operate courts outside the rule of law, and they even earn billions tax-free. They have another special dispensation. They are the official union card stampers for any job in the white collar world and also what the sovereign’s official propaganda organ declares and portrays as ‘the good life’.
One should look at universities less like a business and more like stationary bandits. They take a cut (tuition) to make sure future workers and thinkers can function well. They provide some order to the system. To cut off rival power centers, progressives moved to make it illegal for private firms to have entrance exams for prospective employees because of disparate impact to minorities (Griggs v. Duke Power Co.). Rather than corporations having the power to determine work qualifications, the central government rendered doing so illegal and allowed the universities to fill that role by proxy.
This is not the only manner in which the progressive federal government helped the growth of universities. There was significant debt reform in the ’80s that protected lenders, making rates on debt lower, which allowed increased enrollment on the margins. There was more student debt reform in the ’90s. This had the effect of turning students into debt slaves.
One could argue that universities follow fiefdom theory, which states that managers of a firm expand a business to maximize the employee count and scope of their departments but are still subject to minimum profits. This makes sense with the runaway growth in tuition and even the steady growth of administrative positions in comparison to actual faculty. Faculty themselves are even limited as the lowly paid adjunct lecturers continue to grow as the last remaining guild (professors) hold tightly to its hierarchy.
However, fiefdom theory does not fit quite right. Managers seeking to expand their employee count or an asset they control still have to have a profit focus, even if that focus is not profit maximization. They still have to make some money to justify their existence. Due to the nature of college funding of subsidized never-ending debt, there is no profit constraint. These are non-profit institutions, after all. The product of college itself does not take many students to make a professor, an adjunct, a lecturer, or an administrative employee like a diversicrat marginally profitable.
Again, the theory does not fit because there is no competition on price. No group of universities use their product differentiator as price. As goes the Ivy League in price, so go the colleges that consider themselves Ivy equivalents. Each university in the chain, including the state universities, continually mark up their price. No college even considers offering a stripped down college experience but the same good life diploma granting power for $8,000 a year. Not every college freshman needs a single dorm or suite dorm set up with rockwalls in the gyms.
There is another theory on firm behavior that fits well. The work of Cyert and March in the mid-20th century is obsolete now, given how lean the globally competitive private side is, but universities with their economic moats are a good fit. They maximize their influence and control of where society and culture goes. They need to reach broader and wider groups to make sure they influence every facet of society. It is about maximizing reach not profit, and it is only dependent on how much money third parties feed it.
Any theory of how universities work as firms needs to accept that they have tremendous organizational slack. All of the money pouring in makes for well-funded endowments and means of buying off groups. With the system of education consumption, universities have no skin in the game, as Nassim Taleb would argue. Someone else is fronting the revenue, and even if loaned, the university has nothing to fear if the loan is unpaid. Court-enforced payment makes creditors happy, so loans are forever coming. Since the federal government is the main lender and controlled by progressives, the money will not stop.
Universities themselves are coalitions of groups. Money must be used to fund new endeavors to satisfy the different pieces of the progressive coalition. With never-ending money, these groups are bought off. With the positive status attached to the positions of academic or researcher, this makes buying off employees a little easier. One does not need to maximize earnings if the status of being published in peer-reviewed journals grants autoethnographers a way to the priest class. Administrative bloat is even more tempting for buying off disparate coalition blocs, as a diversicrat neither needs a PhD, nor needs to fulfill professor guild requirements. Added to this, administrative employees are governed by a completely separate collective bargaining agreement compared to faculty.
This last piece also hits on a bit of Cyert and March’s theory. Our universities need to attack the native cultures of Western nations and deconstruct them, while at the same time feeding grievances to members of their coalition of fringes. Money must be granted to satisfy the needs below. As evident from all the ’60s campus takeovers and agitation, the elite at those universities wanted to form ethnic studies and women’s studies groups, but there was no conflict to allow them to safely give it to their allies in the low. Black studies groups were formed that served the dual purpose of buying off a rising new member bloc of the priest class and allowing for expansion in recruiting new marginal students.
A university is an empire. As part of a unified, distributed system, the university is a well-fed monster without restraints. Every possible advantage is structured for them, and every possible negative is a risk passed on to another bag-holder.
Much has been made of the University of Missouri’s lower enrollment rates after the campus protests by black students. New students did not reject university life entirely; they just went elsewhere. The technostructure of education still won. That protest itself was a good example of how graduate students were bought off using some fake hate crime. Administrators never clear out protesters or rioters, and they always cave to their demands. It is a play for money, though, this one happened to hurt the university for a short spell.
The university system is an empire and one of unlimited resources, due to its place in the broader system. A proper attack on the university system cannot solely be monetary. Funding must be removed. If the federal government can hold over one trillion in student debt, it can fund one trillion in infrastructure, energy, and even transportation that will require jobs outside the university credential system. Student debt must be made dischargeable once more and if defaulted on, the university must share the burden.
Even more important is that the idea that colleges offer the ticket to the good life must be altered. And while this idea is admittedly under attack now in our great recession, it must be finished off with a redefinition of the good life. High schools send their graduates off with scholarship announcements. They never transform these monetary awards to grants or funding for entrepreneurial endeavors.
These imperial organizations are really just one blob of the education technostructure fed not just by our government largess, but our status value system. The campus insanity, the nonsensical peer-reviewed articles, and the ever-expanding workforce of the system’s priest class will not stop until all attack angles are employed.