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[Your College or University Here], Inc.: Corporate Labor Model Threatening Academic Freedom?

Looks like the privatization of schooling (account required for access) is getting more attention in the news. This staff editorial in the Columbia Spectator about administrative plans to penalize potential graduate student unionization strikers caught my attention today:

Graduate students have encountered the same dishonesty that Columbia used with Manhattanville residents. Over the past year, Provost Alan Brinkley repeatedly assured students and the outside world that, even though the administration opposed unionization, graduate students were free to strike without fear of retribution. A memo published last week by The Nation says otherwise. Released with Brinkley’s signature, the memo outlines several avenues of punishment for administrators to pursue in order to discourage future strikes. Again, Brinkley did not technically lie. He now notes that punitive measures were only discussed, not acted upon. But, if the administration never planned to punish strikers, they would not have had to discuss punishment.

Interestingly, the student reporters had to get this inside information from an outside source—The Nation. In Jennifer Washburn’s article about Columbia University’s corporate-style management and its impact on academic freedom, she writes:

Ironically, although conservatives continue to see liberalism as the bogeyman, the rise of a corporate labor model in higher education may pose a far greater risk to academic freedom and free speech. Historically, let's not forget, the leaders of the academic freedom movement recognized that the only way to prevent corporate trustees and other outside interest groups from violating the free speech rights of their professors was to establish a system of faculty self-governance, peer review and long-term job security. Otherwise, any professor who voiced unconventional or unpopular views was extremely vulnerable to getting fired.

Viewed through this lens, the unionization campaigns at Columbia, Yale, Brown, Harvard, Penn and other institutions may be the last, best hope for stopping administrators from imposing a corporate labor model on universities that erodes faculty power—and with it academic freedom.

Washburn, the author of a new book, University, Inc., was also recently interviewed on CorpWatch. Her concerns about privatization of higher education institutions should also give civil libertarians pause. Washburn stated:

People who are on these college campuses must look into where industry money is playing a big role. Increasingly, universities are signing contracts that allow industry to dictate the terms of the research in ways that violate academic freedom. The only ways those contracts can become public is if someone starts to raise questions and insists on openness. A lot of these contracts are considered proprietary, and even public universities are reluctant to make them available. At U.C. Berkeley, it was very important that professors and students insisted on making the contract with Novartis open so that people could see the terms of the contract. Public exposure is critical.

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