Are Corporations Taking Over Higher Education?

by Rick Mercurio

Profits and corporate interests are now becoming more predominant than the longstanding goals of educating well-rounded, free thinking students at our colleges and universities, according to a dedicated group of professors at Palomar College.

Shannon Lienhart, president of the Palomar Faculty Federation, is leading this group of a dozen faculty, which is producing a documentary film due out next summer. She is alarmed that big money and for-profit colleges are usurping the traditional role of higher education.

“There was a time when college professors were charged with motivating students to explore new ideas, challenge accepted ideas, reason, create, and communicate,” Lienhart wrote in a letter to her colleagues. “They interpreted their disciplines and developed their courses through their own individual lens. As a result, diversity of thought was abundant; creativity and ingenuity thrived.”

Over the last 35 years, however, Lienhart has seen an ominous trend away from this concept.

“This midcentury ideal of providing broad access to a liberal education – a concept designed to build a more democratic society – has gradually given way to the now widely accepted notion that higher education’s primary purpose is to serve the needs of the work force,” she wrote.

“The change occurred slowly and largely unnoticed,” according to Lienhart. “With each blow, we reluctantly accepted the new normal — that college presidents should be referred to as CEOs, that our job was no longer to develop independent and critical thinking but rather to produce outcomes, and that the best measure of a college’s worth was how efficiently it filled classroom seats.”

The Palomar teacher group has begun work on the documentary, which will be called Think Inc. They are using two student filmmakers who have ready interviewed experts and authorities including educational historian Diane Ravitch and the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten. Their website is www.thinkincmovie.com.

In its promotional film clip, Think Inc cites statistics showing that for-profit schools enroll 12% of all post-secondary students, only have a 22% graduation rate, and that 54% of their students drop out. These schools “create a society that does not think critically,” according to the clip, treating students “as a commodity, a number,” which is “anti-educational and anti-intellectual.”

Public over Private Education

The website touts the benefits of public colleges while exposing the “threat of a corporate takeover” to the system. “Public higher education is a critical part of maintaining American democracy,” according to the website. “Society cannot afford to sell it off to the highest bidder.” The group maintains that “a narrowed definition of education leads to an equally narrowed society.”

Think Inc also sees this threat in K-12 education. “Structures like Common Core, more standardized tests, and funneling public education funds to private institutions are not in the best interests of students,” they write. “Rather, these are schemes fattening the bank accounts and political power of the 1% interests behind them.”

Lienhart laments these trends at the community college level. “Now, professors are no longer encouraged to ‘teach,’ as that word has somehow taken on a negative connotation,” she wrote. “Instead, they ‘facilitate learning outcomes.’ The job description for a college professor has been downgraded. A market-centered vision of the future would have courses developed by corporate entities and the professor’s role reduced to helping the student achieve the learning outcomes defined by the developer.”

Lienhart adds that “the ability of professors to speak truth to power is often inconvenient for corporations. As such, both academic freedom and tenure are being eliminated from our colleges through anti-teacher propaganda and the hiring of contingent faculty.”

Both political parties, Lienhart believes, are culpable. “Major players on both sides of the aisle have announced their preference for private schools over public ones,” she writes. “The strategies of defunding schools, demonizing teachers, promoting a false failure narrative, and starving arts and humanities into extinction are working. Is this the new normal? I’m not sure we can answer that yet. What is clear, though, is that in order to change the current momentum, we need to have conversations.”

To that end, the Think Inc documentary, when released next summer, will undoubtedly inspire many such conversations and raise eyebrows in political and educational spheres.

Rick Mercurio is Alianza North County’s Lead Reporter.

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