No to Mechanized Instruction instead of University Education: Occupy the Campuses!

Regular readers of Colonel Despard may be wondering why I have been paying so much attention to the events surrounding the forced resignation and eventual reinstatement of Teresa Sullivan, the president of the University of Virginia. In my opinion, the episode heralds  a major political battle over public higher education, about more than cuts in funding.

There are powerful political and economic interests devoted to plundering the human assets of higher education in a process David Harvey has described as “accumulation through dispossession.” With the collapse of the profitability of mortgage-backed securities, venture capitalists and hedge fund billionaires have an urgent need to find new sources of valorization for huge masses of capital they control. They are seizing on plans for online education as a vehicle for their speculative investment, aiming for rich rewards by driving millions more people into debt peonage.

The Washington Post attempted to portray the UVA events as a failed power play between two women who personified different sides in a debate over the university’s future. “In Sullivan, the Dragas camp — which included some powerful alumni and board members — saw a roadblock to the creation of the modern university. They believed that U-Va. needed to accelerate technological innovations and pay more attention to the fiscal bottom line. In Dragas, the Sullivan forces — deans, professors, and many alumni and students — saw nothing less than an assault on the public university’s role in society.”

Likewise, “Unrepentant Marxist” Louis Proyect considered that Sullivan was caught between “Mammon and God, known in the academic vocabulary as Business and Learning,” as he quoted from Upton Sinclair. “[W]hen you put together people like Dragas, Kington and Kiernan, the results are predictable. They will be focused on the university’s ‘bottom line’, and all the rest—from scholarship to teaching young people how to become good citizens—be damned.” Proyect depicts the events as simply an extension of the corporatization of every aspect of life; in my view he downplays the real struggle that involved most of the university campus.

As soon as Sullivan was reinstated, Virginia governor McDonnell made it clear that the whole point of engineering a unanimous vote was to keep rector Helen Dragas on the board of trustees. By reappointing Dragas, the main architect of the conspiracy to dump Sullivan, he sent a message to the campus and to Sullivan herself that his goal of cost-cutting and online education will remain on the agenda. He also reshaped the board with new appointments that included two conservative ideologues closely connected with the politics of educational “reform.” One is Bobbie Kilberg, a Republican fundraiser and enthusiastic supporter of McDonnell’s “Top Jobs” legislation, aimed at “reform-based investment” of higher education and “technology-enhanced instruction.” The other is Frank Atkinson who has close connections to the Koch brothers and is associated with conservative groups rewriting state education standards.

The UVA campus community’s fight against Sullivan’s sacking uncovered some important connections. A turning point in the buildup of resistance was the inadvertent release of an email from business school board chair and ex-Goldman Sachs partner Peter Kiernan that revealed his complicity in discussions with two “important alums” about Sullivan’s replacement, citing the need for “strategic dynamism rather than strategic planning.”

On the initiative of the student newspaper, the Daily Cavalier, other emails were released, including one from Dragas to vice-rector Kington with a link to a Wall Street Journal article written by Hoover Institute ideologists John Chubb and Terry Moe. Her subject line: “why we can’t afford to wait.” The article claims breathlessly: “Online education will lead to the substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive) – as has happened in every other industry – making schools much more productive. … Institutions such as the University of Phoenix – and it is hardly alone – have embraced technology aggressively. By integrating online courses into their curricula and charging less-than-elite prices for them, for-profit institutions have doubled their share of the U.S. higher education market in the last decade, now topping 10%.”

State governors like Virginia’s McDonnell and conservative think-tanks are deeply embedded in a strategy to substitute this kind of subprime mechanized instruction for university education, in the process transferring the costs of creating a partly-skilled corporate workforce onto the public sector.

Venture capitalists see the rising costs of higher education as an opportunity to extract tribute from a vast market of people desperate for job qualifications. As another article which caught Dragas’ attention – she forwarded it with the comment: “good article” – concluded:  “The Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun’s free course in artificial intelligence drew 160,000 students in more than 190 countries. No surprise, the venture capitalists have come a-calling, and they are backing educational startups like Udemy and Udacity.”

The plans of the plutocrats for higher education are spelled out in an ACTA letter that advocates turning public higher education into a mass-produced commodity by downgrading it to vocational instruction and turning faculty into teaching drones. The authors, a Harvard Business School professor and a Brigham Young University administrator, provide an ideological cover for monetizing education by arguing that all students should be admitted whether or not they have had the necessary groundwork from high school. “You’ll also have to push past arguments against admitting students who are doomed to fail, who ‘aren’t college material’. … Bet on your institution’s ability to harness those innovations, to serve students who couldn’t otherwise afford or hack a college education…”

If they can’t hack a college education, then what are they going to do online? The authors’ model, the University of Phoenix, has produced huge returns for its investors, but graduates only a small percentage of its students. It’s immaterial if students drop out or fail, because the company still charges them for the courses and is able to rake off a disproportionate amount of government Pell grants. All that counts is getting a greater and greater number of would-be students to sign up – exactly like the subprime mortgage scam.

When the fall semester begins, these issues will be raised acutely across America. Students and faculty will be engaged in battles over higher tuition fees and defending endangered curricula. These struggles will be different because of their experience of the Occupy movement, which has heightened consciousness of the politicians’ and banks’ role in creating poverty and holding society to ransom. The cynical political ploy to cash in on people’s failed dreams of a better life will meet with huge resistance; there could well be a resurgence of Occupy on the campuses.


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Filed under austerity measures, Hedge Fund managers, marxism, Neoliberalism, occupy wall street, political analysis, public higher education, University of Virginia

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