The university is a site for intellectual excitement: debate about new theories and hypotheses; rigorous examination of competing ideas; and research, teaching and community service. Most men and women who pursue such a career are inspired by intellectual curiosity, the prospect of educating and inspiring students, and serving diverse communities.
Moreover, the Morrill Act passed by Congress in 1862 committed the United States to construct and support state universities that would serve the people. Great state-funded public universities grew over the subsequent 150 years to facilitate the education of a growing population and helped build a more vibrant democracy.
But there are darker truths about the growth of the modern university. First, higher education is stimulated by, and financially beholden to, governments, political processes, corporations and banks. These institutions affect what research is done and what is taught.
Second, conceptions of disciplines, bodies of knowledge, appropriate methods, ideas accepted as unchallengeable truths, and the basic principles of whole universities are shaped by economic interests and political power.
Third, professional associations, journals, forms of peer review, and general procedures for validating the quality of academic research and teaching are also affected by the same interests.
Serving status quo
Therefore, in the main, the university as an institution is, and has always been, designed to serve the status quo, a status quo again that is governed by economic and political interests.
The following examples are from Purdue University. Similar examples can be found at virtually every large and prestigious university in the country. David Smith and Scott Bauer of The Lafayette Journal and Courier reported on Purdue President Mitch Daniels’ attendance at a conference of the conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. Daniels said he attended to learn and to touch base with one of Purdue’s biggest donors.
The meeting was populated by presidential candidates and conservative governors from Michigan and Florida. Other attendees included former Vice President Dick Cheney; former CIA Director David Petraeus; former Amway President Dick DeVos; and current or former CEOs from TD Ameritrade, Apple and Google. Republican operative Karl Rove also attended. Inadvertently highlighting the connection between corporate and political power and the university, Daniels said: I considered this a trip of use to Purdue.
Academic advocates for large-scale government and corporate commitments to increased space exploration, such as Daniels, who served as co-chair of the National Research Council, can be seen as serving the economic needs of research universities. The NRC issued a 286-page report in May, suggesting that a huge and redefined commitment would be needed to land on Mars by the 2030s. Despite the document’s skepticism about the possibilities of achieving new goals in space, Daniels said human space exploration remains vital to the national interest for inspirational and aspirational reasons that appeal to a broad range of U.S. citizens.
The report outlined a range of steps that would be needed to achieve long-term goals in space. These multi-billion dollar research-based programs could occupy the research agendas of academic departments in universities such as Purdue for decades and enrich the biggest corporations in America.
Daniels was not the only university-affiliated spokesperson of note who recently made news. Purdue Board of Trustees member Don Thompson, president and CEO of the McDonald’s Corp. weighed in on the debate about raising the minimum wage for fast-food workers after a nationwide set of protests against McDonald’s on May 22.
Thompson at a shareholders’ meeting declared that McDonald’s is often a first job for many entering the work force. About one-third of our employees are 16 to 19. We are proud that we open doors to opportunity, according to USA Today. Thompson praised his corporation for being a worker-friendly employer and added that it was the largest employer of veterans in the nation. Later he hinted at the possibility of raising the minimum wage at McDonald’s. Protesters argued that the median age of fast-food workers is 29, most work at today’s minimum wage, and economic survival on McDonald’s wages is virtually impossible.
Finally, the Purdue news service has announced increased collaboration of the university with the notorious Duke Energy Corp. most recently in the news because of its responsibility for a coal ash spill in North Carolina that coated 70 miles of the Dan River along the North Carolina and Virginia border with 60,000 tons of toxic sludge. A North Carolina judge ordered Duke Energy to immediately eliminate the source of groundwater pollution from company coal ash dumps. A criminal investigation of links between the spill and Duke Energy and state government officials in North Carolina is still under way.
Purdue News reported that the university would collaborate on the expansion of an education program to create the Duke Energy Academy at Purdue, a six-day instructional program to inspire high school students and teachers to work in STEM-related disciplines related to energy. The article erroneously claimed that the amount of students entering the STEM fields is declining. Other co-sponsors of the six-day educational experience include Bowen Engineering, General Electric, Kidwind Project, Siemens Energy and Windstream Technologies Inc.
Higher education is at a fork in the road. One path is to maintain its traditional mission to educate and inspire students while sharing knowledge with communities at home and abroad. Another path is to expand the needs of special interests, political and corporate, at the expense of the traditional role of higher education. Growing social movements should include demands that universities continue to serve the needs of the people, rather than politicians and corporations.