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.