Esprit de Corporatization

A group of faculty fear there is a new, structural hunger for money that seems to leave their interests by the wayside.

By Asher Klein

/ The Chicago Maroon

GREY CITY

  /  

November 30, 2010

For a university to be considered great these days, it must have both great teachers and a great deal of money. Its administrators must weigh the research needs of its faculty with the financial needs of the corporation. But a group of University of Chicago faculty claim that too much of University administrators’ time and resources are spent attending to the bottom line—that there is a new, structural hunger for money that seems to leave faculty’s interests by the wayside.

At the heart of the matter is the fear that the administration no longer shares the faculty’s values, especially after a vocal protest two years ago against the controversial Milton Friedman Institute produced few results. It is born of a feeling that the University Senate, which represents faculty, can’t or won’t exercise the power it is given. “I think this is a University that’s more responsible to its faculty than most, but the idea that we are a faculty-run university with some kind of democratic structure and where major policy issues percolate upward from the Faculty Senate” is a fiction, English professor W.J.T. Mitchell said.

President Robert Zimmer and Provost Thomas Rosenbaum defended the way the University is run at length in a June letter to faculty. In an interview yesterday, Zimmer expressed confidence in the way his administration makes decisions and faith that they are made for the right reasons. “We are in a constant effort, and we need to be in a constant effort, to make sure that this is the place that faculty can do their best work. That’s a huge piece of the University’s responsibility,” Zimmer said.

But faculty aren’t so sure the University is living up to that promise. Many concerns over the corporatization of the University were outlined in a petition circulated among faculty in May. It argued the University’s intellectual life has been corrupted by certain administrative actions. “The University becomes an instrument through which other kinds of actors—some well-intentioned, and some decidedly not—seek to advance their own pet projects and interests,” the petition said.

A recent flash point in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) department exemplifies this alleged change in mission—where fundraising for a faculty project takes precedence and faculty interest becomes an afterthought. According to professors Janet Johnson and Cornell Fleischer, who both signed the petition, Martha Merritt, a study abroad administrator, told NELC faculty this summer that a wealthy donor had provided funds for a study abroad program in Cairo. The program seemed to have been directed by the donor’s wishes, though Merritt and NELC chairman Theo van den Hout are adamant this was not the case. The faculty took umbrage at the fact that it hadn’t been consulted on the program’s direction until what seemed like the eleventh hour. “The University of Chicago calls itself a university that is run by its faculty. If that’s true, then faculty should be involved in major discussions of things like this,” said Johnson, who also said she didn’t think administrators acted in bad faith.

Though the program was soon changed on the advice of faculty, the move came just a few months after the petition that alleged that money has undue influence on University decisions. “The administration is quite frank in saying that [the Cairo program] was not going to happen without a donor,” Fleischer said, “and that doesn’t necessarily sound very good to those of us who are concerned about the galloping corporatization of University life and governance.”

Signed by 174 faculty members, or about eight percent of the faculty, the June petition was released after months of bad feeling over the establishment of the Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics (MFIRE). The petition, released by a faculty group called the Committee for Open Research on Education and Society (CORES), called MFIRE part of the trend toward corporatization: “We would hate to think that the University’s evident fixation on financial assets and its desire to exploit the Friedman brand name for fund-raising purposes would lead it to neglect its most valuable assets—its students, faculty and staff—while committing itself to a project whose very name reinforces a narrow, retrograde, and now demonstrably failed set of social and economic policies,” the petition said.

A collaboration between the Economics Department, the Booth School, and the Law School, the Milton Friedman Institute for Reasearch in Economics is so named because CORES organized in opposition to its founding as simply the Milton Friedman Institute in 2008. CORES’s outcries spurred the first full meeting of the faculty in 14 years, an annual event that had fallen by the wayside. The group was concerned that the Institute was created mainly as a fundraising tool, to capitalize on the recent death of Milton Friedman. “I think that signaled to us the University’s aggressive interest in fundraising and its willingness to function in a novel fashion, creating academic units and programs for their fundraising appeal,” said religion professor Bruce Lincoln (Ph.D. ’77), a CORES leader, in a recent interview.

There were public protests, panel discussions between prominent economics professors and CORES co-chairs, and a closed meeting of the University Senate, as the collected faculty is known. CORES wanted Zimmer to put the Institute’s establishment to a vote; instead, there was a compromise—an addendum to the name that clarified its research-oriented mission. Yet the name change didn’t allay CORES’s concerns.

The allegation of corporatization is a serious one at a school whose president often touts its longstanding guarantee of an environment where academics can argue unimpeded. In a long response to CORES’s complaints, Zimmer and Rosenbaum—both U of C professors as well—asserted the need for faculty involvement in University governance while defending recent investment decisions. “Our donors support our work because they believe in the values of the University of Chicago and want to enable us to achieve our highest aspirations,” they wrote on June 9. “These donors understand the importance of academic freedom and the essential role of unfettered inquiry. This University has stood firmly on the principle that such external support must never direct or limit our intellectual pursuits.”

But MFIRE is only one part of CORES’s scattered constellation of evidence that purports to show the influence of the corporate on the University. They say another donor, the Chinese government, will play an even more active role in directing the curriculum of Chinese language study at the University. China backs the U of C’s recently established Confucius Institute, one of over 300 set up around the world, including one at the University of Michigan and one in the Chicago Public Schools. The Institutes run Chinese language training centers funded by the government of China. They have been called an organ of propaganda by Sweden’s Parliament and Canada’s intelligence agency, and in 2007, faculty at the University of Pennsylvania voted against a proposed Confucius Institute on their campus.

The U of C’s Confucius Institute was approved without ever coming to a faculty-wide vote, but Zimmer and Rosenbaum discussed it with a committee of faculty from the East Asian Languages and Civilizations Department before giving it the go-ahead; a June press release said it will be run by a number of University administrators. Professor Donald Harper, who has since taken the chairmanship of the Center of East Asian Studies, said the discussion with faculty was meant to vet the proposal more than offer final approval. “It wasn’t as if it was on the vote of the China Committee that it happened,” said Harper, who also signed the CORES petition, though he did not discuss it or corporatization with Grey City.

Lincoln described such discussions of administration-backed initiatives with groups most closely concerned as “theater of consent,” meaning conversations held more to produce the impression of accord than to generate alternatives or create real compromise. These displays are a way of glossing over dissent while being able to note that administrators received input on contentious issues, Lincoln said. However, administrators always maintain the importance of input received from any group during decision-making processes.

Another major concern for CORES is the redirection of University resources away from Ph.D. programs and towards undergraduate programs, professional schools, and one-year, terminal M.A. programs like the Masters of Arts Program in the Humanities (MAPH), Masters of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS), and Master of Science in Financial Mathematics.

The University of Chicago of the 1970s was a more informal, less bureaucratic place with a much different way of thinking about its students—especially undergraduates, who made up a much smaller proportion of the population. But the school changed in the 1990s, when an analysis of University finances by President Hugo Sonnenschein led him to conclude that enrolling more College and M.A. students would help sustain the University’s finances. “Even saying that created a furor among many faculty who don’t like economic thinking,” said Richard Shweder, a professor of human development and psychology who has been at the University since 1973.

Sonnenschein created three faculty-led committees that spent a year assessing the University’s educational work and its strained finances. Then came University-wide reform, resulting in an increased focus on the College and professional programs, as well as the requirement that all faculty teach undergraduate courses.. Shweder and others said increased faculty responsibility brought more money and more bureaucratic red tape. Such bottom-line thinking persists, according to Lincoln and other CORES members.

Lincoln gave a slew of reasons why Ph.D. work needs to be prioritized, including challenging faculty and training the next generation of thinkers. “It’s where novelty occurs. It’s not just the transmission of established wisdom, it’s where the rethinking of critical problems is likeliest to occur,” Lincoln said. The College, but especially the terminal M.A. programs, bring smart students to the University in a “broad and unfocused” program that isn’t likely to produce deep, scholarly thought in the same way as Ph.D. programs—professors’ time is better spent on students with more academic background and ability. “I think what those [M.A.] programs do is well worth doing, but I’m not sure this is the kind of institution that should be doing it,” Lincoln said. “I’m pretty certain that doing that is not in the best interests of this institution, except possibly in financial terms.“

Enrollment in MAPH, MAPSS, and the Financial Mathematics programs have consistently increased since their inception (see top figure). The MAPH program had 102 students last spring. With tuition and fees for a student taking three classes at $42,444, the MAPH program would have brought in over $4 million that year. The Ph.D. program has increased as well, albeit at a slower rate (see bottom figure). While administrators have developed a graduate aid scheme that works to ensure Ph.D. students receive funding for four years of study, many think more funding is necessary.

The flip-side of Lincoln’s argument is that the terminal M.A. programs provide students with the exposure to serious intellectual work that might spur them onto great scholarship at the U of C or elsewhere. Shweder called the programs “a brilliant institutional innovation,” bringing in needed funding while allowing smart students to explore stimulating graduate coursework. Philosophy professor Candace Vogler, who co-directed the MAPH program for a number of years, said MAPH is a vast improvement over the system it succeeded, in which many Ph.D. students were cut after just a few years. To them, increasing M.A. programs doesn’t supplant the intellectual mission of the University, it enhances it.

Shweder did not sign the CORES petition this spring, though he did publish a scholarly article in 2006 arguing that corporatization has broadened oversight of faculty research, which is meant to be unfettered. “The petition as it developed did have a lot of points in it that should be discussed and raised,” he said, but the opposition to MFIRE seemed unreasonable. “To oppose something of quality that has the support of brilliant members of the faculty...I think there’s a live-and-let-live quality that’s very important.” Shweder said the opposition to MFIRE seemed instead to come from those faculty who don’t like bottom-line thinking.

But bottom-line thinking is a reality the University must deal with every day. Clyde Watkins (A.B. ’67) worked in the Development Office for six years during the ’70s, eventually serving as an associate vice president, before becoming an education consultant. In the 1970s, he said, the University raised $30–35 million a year; in 2008, the U of C finished a five-year fundraising drive that exceeded its $2-billion goal. $500 million now goes to research each year, according to the director of the Institutional Review Board, which oversees research. CORES accuses the University of “metastatic growth of administrative staff,” but according to Watkins, all large research institutions have adapted the size of their fundraising staffs.

CORES isn’t advocating for any specific changes, but Lincoln said a medium for faculty input on University-wide policy already exists, and should provide the kind of check that would have put MFIRE or the Confucius Institute up for a faculty-wide vote. The body of the faculty that engages with the administration is called the Council of the Senate, a 51-member group elected from the Senate that meets with Zimmer monthly.

The voice of the faculty isn’t heard because the Senate and the Council of the Senate have become a sounding board for administration concerns—a model the administration has espoused—or a “theater of consent,” Lincoln argues. “I think the structural forces that produce those kinds of errors are clear, I think they’re large, I think they’re powerful. I think you sound the alarm early, and you make your concerns very clear to warn against going further in those directions,” he said. Shweder had a similar take on the root of corporatization: Zimmer and Rosenbaum have the best intentions, but “it’s not personality, it’s structural issues that you worry about,” Shweder said.

Zimmer views the structure of the University as less problematic, arguing that University-wide decisions are made through a system of distributed authority that is necessarily complex. “You have literally hundreds of people making important decisions about the Unviersity, and it’s good that there’s this distributed authority. At the same time, when you’re going to be dealing with people who don’t like something or people who want something, those things need to be addressed in a vehicle that’s appropriate to the authority level involved,” Zimmer said.

Lincoln, a Council member himself, said the University statutes give the body jurisdiction over all academic matters, but faculty rarely introduce motions, something he attributed to a lack of real information on day-to-day financial and administrative numbers. The reactive nature of Council meetings means they are just “a top-down process of disseminating the company line,” he said. “Rarely is anything turned back.” Lincoln said that among the information he would like to review at Committee and Council meetings are detailed budgets and an overview of administrative staff. But when asked if the Council had access to the information it requested, Zimmer said, “We’ve attempted to give everybody the information they’ve asked for, and if people want more information, we can provide more.”

Another group, the seven-person Committee of the Council of the Senate, meets every other week with Zimmer and Rosenbaum. But there are problems here, too. “It really sits and listens and gives some comments. It’s not like we can decide on major things,” said statistics chair Yali Amit, who serves on the Committee. Though he co-chaired CORES in 2008, Amit didn’t sign the petition, which he said raised no new issues on MFIRE, and that its other complaints were not sufficiently substantiated. Still, he said the Committee would benefit from more information.

For Lincoln and CORES members, the ideal of faculty leadership is a more of a myth than anything, and one most faculty may not be interested in pursuing—Amit questioned whether faculty will ever want to be very involved in governing the U of C. “The Administration is always going to set the agenda. There are faculty initiatives, people come up with ideas, but I think they’re the ones sitting there, that’s their job. Large-scale agendas are rarely set by faculty,” Amit said.

Zimmer said he told faculty at recent Council and Senate meetings that his Administration is always acting in the faculty’s best interest. “That is what we need to keep asking ourselves at all times: Are we responding to changing conditions of all sorts so that we are ensuring that faculty are continually saying that this is the best place to do their work?” And he noted in the interview that the Provost has set up a faculty committee to assess any systemic problems raised by professors.

Lincoln heard Zimmer speak at the Council and Senate meetings and took his words as a tentative move towards a discussion of corporatization. “I felt like he’s taking it seriously, and if so that’s a hopeful sign,” Lincoln said. “It’s not concrete, material progress, no changes of policy were announced, no reversals of decisions we really think were very ill-advised, but there’s a discussion that’s ongoing, and that’s good news.”