Benhabib warns of corporate influence

Political science professor Seyla Benhabib GRD ’77 participated in the YPU debate, “Resolved: Yale should be run as a business coproation.”
Political science professor Seyla Benhabib GRD ’77 participated in the YPU debate, “Resolved: Yale should be run as a business coproation.” Photo by Sharon Yin.

At a Yale Political Union debate Wednesday night, Seyla Benhabib GRD ’77 discussed the failings of applying a corporate model to a university setting.

Speaking to roughly 75 students and several faculty members at the organization’s fifth debate of the year, “Resolved: Yale should be run as a business corporation,” philosophy and political science professor Benhabib said the corporate model, which focuses on profit maximization, does not fit with Yale’s mission as an institution focused on teaching students.

Last spring, Benhabib voiced opposition to Yale-NUS and authored a successful faculty resolution requesting consideration of nondiscrimination and civil liberties at the new Singaporean college — though she refrained from discussing the school in Wednesday’s speech.

“Students are not our customers,” Benhabib said. “The administration is not here to direct what we [as faculty] do best but to facilitate what we do with you.”

She defined Yale as a “collegium,” an institution based on a community of learning, rather than one driven by profit.

Benhabib said that when universities operate using corporate models, faculty voice declines and administrative power rises. Benhabib added that she thinks the Yale Corporation cannot set the needs of the university alone; instead, the faculty should have a voice in deciding those needs.

In addition, she added, higher education has become more customer-oriented. Parents invest in their children’s careers and expect “returns on their investments.”

“Our universities’ presidents have become chief fundraisers,” she said. “We have to cultivate loyalty and commitment, but we also have to draw a line when money comes with strings attached.”

Benhabib said that in her experience, many Yale students choose to start careers in nonprofit work in developing countries rather than heading to jobs on Wall Street. She added that these decisions show Yale students straying from the corporate path.

Conservative Party member Nick Geiser ’13 said he thinks Yale can be run as a corporation. He said most opponents have a false conception of the definition of a corporation — according to him, a business exists to produce a good or service. At Yale, he said, that service is education.

YPU President Ben Wilson ’14 said he had hoped that more of the debate would have centered around Yale-NUS.

“We toyed with phrasing the resolution around Yale-NUS but ultimately decided not to,” he said. “I wish Professor Benhabib had spoken more about it.”

Following the debate, Benhabib reiterated her concerns regarding Yale-NUS, particularly that Yale’s decision to expand in Singapore stems from motives other than the spread of the liberal arts education.

“In principle, I am not opposed to expanding the liberal arts model,” Benhabib said. “But there is a sense that there is something driving this venture into Singapore outside of the liberal arts model.”

The next YPU debate will take place on Oct. 9 with guest David Bossie, president and chairman of Citizens United.


  • ldffly

    I am disappointed to read that the conservatives didn’t express scepticism over the reconceiving of the university as a business. You have to stand for the things that are valuable whether they can be sustained in the market or not. At the same time, not all things are commodities. Some members of the Conservative Party (is the Party of the Right no more?) ought to go back and study Burke.

    • metempsychosis

      Actually, quite a few of the conservatives were critical of the idea of Yale as a business corporation. In fact, the resolution failed by a vote of 11 to 66, I believe (which might have been a relevant fact to include in this article…).

      • ldffly

        Thanks for the clarification. Glad to hear it.