EPSHTEIN: A French perspective on corporatization

As Yale students, we’re all incredibly focused and ambitious; we expect the best. Therefore, it’s perfectly logical for us to criticize Yale’s shortcomings and expect them to be fixed.

Our complaints can range from the unresponsiveness of the Yale administration, to the cynical careerism of the student body, to the academic culture that seems to increasingly cater to this careerism at the expense of the more traditional liberal arts. Regardless, we all have aspects of the university that we’d like to see changed.

However, bemoaning Yale’s “corporatization” and calling for a return to the glorious days of yore when undergraduates could be seen burning their draft cards won’t improve anything. First of all, this corporatization that has been so discussed, and that the YPU debated just last week, hasn’t been particularly well-defined. What does it mean for a university to become more corporate?

Studying for this semester in Paris has given me the opportunity to look at Yale from the outside and compare it to a radically different system, a system that I believe to be suffering from overwhelming corporatization.

In France, students live off-campus (to the extent that a campus exists), go to class during the day, and return home immediately afterwards. There is generally very limited interaction between students and professors or administrators. Professors are required to both teach and do research; there are no pure lecturers.

Overall, the focus of such an education is usually narrowly defined as preparing students for a job rather than ensuring more thorough personal development. The liberal arts are very much a foreign concept here. Even the academic work represents a certain level of corporatization, as oral presentations emphasize rote memorization and summary over analysis and argument. Admissions committees emphasize test scores to the exclusion of almost any activities done outside of class.

All of this is symptomatic of a rather impersonal approach to education. It prioritizes the collective over the individual. In order to ensure a flawless meritocracy, objective exam scores take the place of subjective extracurricular passions.

As my French political philosophy professor would say, Rousseau’s “People” (singular) have taken the place of Madison’s “Factions.” This is, in short, what a corporation looks like: a place where individuality is discouraged and adherence to a single pre-professional track is the norm.

Many of the complaints about Yale, however, that have been leveled under the heading of “increased corporatization” have nothing to do with these issues.

Instead, they might bemoan Yale’s abandonment of the humanities in favor of investments in math and science, the infamous Yale-NUS venture, famous faculty hires, controversial programs, etc.

The use of “corporatization” here seems to be intended only to convey a vague sense of unease or anger resulting from the negative connotations associated with the word “corporate.” Accusations of corporatization in each of these examples are little more than rhetorical strategies intended to make disagreements over priorities into profound disagreements about the future of Yale. They attempt to tie specific undesired policies with broader, more dangerous undercurrents. In effect, those that engage in this type of criticism try to make their complaints more dire by arguing that some particular policy is symptomatic of the university’s “grand strategy” of corporatization.

Though much of this language is misdirection, I wouldn’t brush aside all accusations of corporatization. To the extent that Yale’s administration doesn’t take into account student or faculty opinion, to the extent that it seeks to burnish its brand at the expense of its education, to the extent that it lets public relations direct its actions — various manifestations of corporatization can exist. (Though I do appreciate Yale’s efficient administration, and as a student on financial aid, I appreciate its generosity.)

Nonetheless, I do believe that it’s important to call a spade a spade. If your problem with Yale has something to do with a consistent trend in bureaucracy, top-down decision-making or dehumanization, then go ahead and make your corporatization claim, but if your criticism is something else entirely, then don’t confuse the matter. And if you want to see an example of corporatization at a university level, look no further than the Continental higher education system.

Uriel Epshtein is a junior in Morse College. Contact him at uriel.epshtein@yale.edu.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    It’s not “increased” corporation, it’s the membership.

    There’s no Rt. Rev. Radical, Bishop of new York, Paul Moore.

  • jimsleep

    Uriel Epshtein tosses into this column a lot of disparate arguments and impressions of corporatization that contradict one another and have little if anything to do with French understandings of corporatization but much to do with something else that the French do understand.
    He seems to have missed the difference between for-profit, publicly traded business corporations – which many of us believe that Yale and other universities have been emulating increasingly and disastrously — and the statist kind of corporatism that he encountered in a French university. Perhaps he was confused by some dispiriting similarities in the regimentation of students and professors. But there’s a world of difference.

    The useful explanation of the difference between for-profit and non-profit corporations was published recently right here in the News by Amalia Skilton, but apparently Epshtein missed it, since he doesn’t contest it: http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2012/sep/27/skilton-corporate-doesnt-mean-efficient/

    His arguments have even less to do with a talk I gave recently on Beinecke Plaza that he alludes to yet doesn’t identify explicitly: http://yaleherald.com/voices/discretion-and-caution-at-yale-have-been-carried-too-far/ )
    In that talk, I never mentioned “burning draft cards.” The phrase is cant, heard often from pro-war neoconservatives who remain sadly stuck in the time when military valor, indispensable though it is, was thought rather too loosely and indeed desperately to make real men out of something less. This mindset also has difficulty coming to terms with the fact that Nathan Hale, Class of 1773, was subversive of the established government and military of his time. It certainly doesn’t comprehend what a republic might owe to the kind of civil disobedience I described in my talk at the location where what I was describing had actually occurred.

    Beneath the tangle of notions that comprise arguments like Ephstein’s lies a deeper tangle of what the French call ressentiment – a word that he may have encountered, if not in Paris, then elsewhere, and that I explain here:

    http://www.cjr.org/the_kicker/read_jim_sleepers_essay_on_res.php

  • uepshtein

    In response to Professor Sleeper’s comment: He alludes to the differences between “for-profit, publicly traded business corporations… and the statist kind of corporatism in a French university.” He does not expand on these differences at all however. Amalia’s article speaks (in my opinion wrongly) about the inefficacy of a for-profit institution advising a nonprofit. Basically, not-for profit (read statist) institutions are at heart motivated by promoting the greater good while for-profit (read private) institutions are motivated by money.

    I don’t believe that this metaphor, however, extends to the cases we’re discussing. By NO means do I see France’s university system as motivated to help the individual student or even a general community of students. This is precisely because of the mind-numbing and dehumanizing effect that a bloated and inefficient bureaucracy has on both the faculty and students of a university.
    The corporatization that comes with an overwhelming obsession with profit has the same result: a complete disregard for the individual student or the feelings of a community of students.
    Thus, though they come at it from opposite perspectives, much like right-wing and left-wing extremists will end up coming full circle and finding that their ideologies collide, so would obsessively for-profit universities and those that were entirely controlled by the state.

    Yale, however, doesn’t seem to have reached that point at all. Professor Sleeper’s critiques of the university here are rather off-base. His evidence of a “parallel university” that has hired people like General McChrystal, Charles Hill, Ryan Crocker, et al. has nothing to do with “corporatization”. Who should Yale hire if not the top people in their field? While it is important to have professors renowned for their writing and theory, it’s equally important to bring on board articulate and intelligent practitioners who were the best at what they did. If you disagree with the war in Afghanistan, great; why not talk to the man who ran it?

    At the end of the day, Yale does care for its students, it maintains the liberal arts, and if students were so cowed by authority, then I certainly wouldn’t be arguing with a professor via the YDN comment board…

  • jimsleep

    Little of what Mr. Epshtein writes in this comment has to do with my arguments, and the confusion began in his column. This format isn’t the place to untangle that confusion, but I can offer some links, as I did in my last comment and do now in this final one.

    I’ve never proposed statism as an alternative to for-profit corporations. I don’t oppose for-profit corporations in their place — which isn’t and shouldn’t be everyplace, as we’re all-too tempted to forget. Their genius and efficiency lies precisely in their relentless focus on investors and consumers as more narrowly self-interested than humans actually are, and this focus works wonderfully for purposes that are limited by a republic or democracy which hasn’t been taken over by apostles of this narrow self-interest.

    The “parallel university” I describe has not hired people whose teaching is compatible with that of a liberal education, as I explain in the following links. Nor were these people were top in their own areas of “expertise” or prominence; often as not, their leadership in those areas was discredited, for telling reasons, before Yale gave them the opportunity to rationalize and clean up their reputations and re-fight their failed wars.

    The role of business-corporatization in the construction of this parallel university in national-security related studies is so obvious and entrenched that the former supreme commander of the allies in World War II, Dwight Eisenhower, in his farewell U.S. Presidential address, warned against the growth of what his address’ first draft called a “military-industrial-academic complex”. The word “academic” was stricken from the final draft, for reasons that someone with a liberal education might parse more readily than could anyone heavily invested in the military-industrial-academic complex itself.

    http://www.jimsleeper.com/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=724&message=7

    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/08/13/grand_strategic_failure?print=yes&hidecomments=yes&page=full

    This will have to be my last comments on this thread, but I am always open to discussion, as evidenced by the link in my previous comment to the talk that I gave three weeks ago and to which Mr. Epshtein alluded in his column.

  • jimsleep

    The first link in my comment above was incorrect. Here is the correct one:

    http://www.jimsleeper.com/?p=724