The Neoliberalization of American Universities

Neoliberalism has invaded American universities. Across the various fields that constitute social welfare, education is one of the most significant in shaping the values and worldview of a society. For a neoliberalist ideology to permeate it is, many would hope, a strong wake-up call to academics, institutions, and the state alike.

Here is, first, a brief way to define neoliberalism:

“Neoliberalism is a philosophy in which the existence and operation of a market are valued in themselves, separately from any previous relationship with the production of goods and services… and where the operation of a market or market-like structure is seen as an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide for all human action, and substituting for all previously existing ethical beliefs.” – Paul Treanor, Neoliberalism: Origins, Theory, Definition

My reading of this definition draws two understandings. The value of a transaction is based on a short-term grasp of what would be most productive in a cost-benefit analysis. More crucially, a neoliberalist worldview relies on exchanges to be transactional in nature. In reality, this is translated to mean increasing privatization and, often, either superficial goals or lofty ones measured in superficial ways.

The adoption of this ideology by American universities is only getting clearer. A running joke among college students is the amount of money it takes to earn a piece of paper – a joke that, to me, exemplifies the extent to which a college education has been commodified. If what we get out of four years is a good to prove our ability to intellectualize, then where are the metrics that ensure we’re getting this service as well?

My experience of the American undergraduate system has primarily been with the University of Southern California (USC), so I will begin by looking at the embrace of neoliberalism in this context.

USC touts itself as “one of California’s strongest economic engines,” spurring $8 billion annually in the Los Angeles region according to an independent study conducted in 2017. That same year, USC’s fundraising campaign reached $6 billion, shattering its previous record of $3 billion reached only four years earlier. On its own, this information might not seem threatening, but as with any current discussion of USC it is necessary to note that the president who led this campaign, the “Six Billion Dollar Man,” was valued precisely for his business acumen. Although he stepped down earlier this year in light of his involvement with the Puliafito and Tyndall scandals, both of which were extremely hazardous to student health and wellbeing on campus, he has since retired into the roles of President Emeritus and Life Trustee of the university – roles that retain a certain level of engagement with the school administration.

Yes, his fundraising efforts netted us new schools and many new buildings, including the $700-million Village. But when former trustee and interim president Wanda Austin praises Dr. Nikias for “his tremendous experience with the people we do business with” in justifying his continued involvement with the university, it presents a clear message that the ability to raise money somehow makes up for the ability to set an example of ethical leadership. For neoliberalism to invade higher education must mean, in my opinion, an ideological emphasis on the capital gains of a collegiate experience instead of viewing a college education as intrinsically worthy of pursuit. And this sort of sea change is evident in the values of the institution that will affect the rest of the structure top-down.

As part of the shift in attitude from viewing college students as learners to viewing them as consumers, the cost of tuition has risen dramatically, effectively burdening them with the responsibility of treating their college education as a financial investment. The state of student debt has been well-documented, and I expect this will be a problem for many USC graduates. In the 2018-2019 school year alone, tuition will cost $55,320 for the average USC student. One-third of the student body receives no aid, and 25.9% of the aid that is provided consists of loans.

What makes matters worse is the defeatist mentality students now walk around with. Daily Trojan writer Shauli Bar-On opens by qualifying that “tuition increases are common practice in colleges around the country,” because what is a student to do when the university hikes its prices without being fully accountable or transparent to its consumers? Drop out or pay up. It’s a bleak sort of inevitability that students are resigned to when they realize they’ve been made pawns with nary an illusion of power.

And it isn’t just the student body that’s suffering. A couple years ago, debate emerged over the decline of tenured professors in American universities that paralleled the explosive hiring of adjunct faculty. Based on the American Association of University Professors (AAUA) in their 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, to be tenured is to enjoy a comfortably permanent academic appointment that would enable “the free search for truth and its free exposition.” In USC’s own report on faculty for the last 2017-2018 academic year, roughly 30% of its 6,222 faculty members are part-time. Within this grand total, less than 20% are tenured, and an overwhelming 4,641 faculty members are on non-tenured tracks. If we are to take into account the AAUA’s rationale for academic tenure, then its decline should be startling to any bearers of intellectual freedom. The more disposable a faculty is, the less power they hold, be it over employment rights or the ability to influence university policy.

I find this to go hand-in-hand with the narrowing of political ideology on campus. Fiercely contested notions of ‘safe spaces’ aside, professors now seem to have every reason to refuse controversy and none whatsoever to encourage contention. Sure, discussion here and there might be lively, but there’s a constant sense of trepidation in the classroom, that one step too far from the left might simply be regarded as too far.

Along with the large proportion of faculty members being disposable, there is also an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of administrative staff to faculty members – almost 2.5 times the former to the latter. This matches a trend identified close to five years ago that has seen the number of non-academic employees in universities across the nation climb tremendously. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing on its own, when we take into account these phenomena as an entirety, the situation does start to look pretty bad for USC and universities across the board.

So, in totality, what can we gnaw on as the symptoms of this rising tide of neoliberalism? There is the increasing pressure on professors to engage in self-promotion in order to remain relevant and reputable, as English professor Jeffrey J. Williams elucidates. There is also the problem of colleges becoming a space reserved more and more for the elite, as schools vye for ever-reducing admissions rates and cultivating, some might argue, the sort of environment that rewards competition and hubris. Most certainly the top-ranking universities in America are nearly all privatized, ridiculously expensive, and reliant on the amount of alumni donations to prove ‘customer satisfaction’. The U.S. News Best Colleges Rankings very blatantly describes the process of shopping for colleges as “finding the best academic value for (your) money” – a statement one would hardly bat their eyes at these days simply because it is truly what we understand the process to be.

My university released a strategic plan this year that loftily outlines the need to “answer the call,” with this call being a warning to equip students with the ability to face the challenges of our century. Its values and ambitions are stated boldly, among which the phrases “reimagine the college experience,” “prioritize ethical behavior,” and “commitment to creative expression and free inquiry” stand out. It is difficult and unnecessary to argue against USC’s plan and, with it, the mission statements of most other colleges, because they do express the sort of dedication to cultivating lifelong learners that one should hope is the ideal.

Neoliberalism is not an inherently bad philosophy, not least when its advocates like education secretary Betsy DeVos can argue for the neoliberalizing of education as a way to ensure it doesn’t remain “a closed system,” immune to innovation. What remains troubling about it are the real-world effects of expecting a college education to be treated as a transaction, which is ultimately a short-term way of thinking. Anecdotally, I am seeing much less discussion in the classroom than I looked forward to; methods of testing and grading that hardly prompt real inquiry (and within this problem, a surprising number of professors with no qualms about grade inflation); an over-reliance on internships to supplement an educational experience; and an inequitable distribution of resources, at least within the cinema school where I major, that awards students most for corporate partnerships. On the ground, my peers and I are so busy working (juggling multiple jobs is not uncommon practice, by the way) that the energy we devote to our academics forces us to pick and choose which of our classes – never all at the same time – would make most practical sense to focus on.

This is not to say that USC has no programs from which I’ve benefited, or professors who inspired the fervor that led me to writing this. Neither should we believe that the student body has no voice or power, which might render this entire discussion fruitless. But if academic institutions are trying to break the mold, as it were, then they must recognize that it’s not enough to simply rebrand it. The issues surrounding the privatization of education and the hyperspecialization of collegiate academia are doubtlessly more complex and require a broader look at neoliberalized society as a whole, but I have personally never been a fan of writing that assumes itself a sufficient means of addressing the problems it raises. I will endeavor to speak with members of USC’s administration to gain a better understanding of the issues from their perspective, and will follow with any updates on this matter.

2 thoughts on “The Neoliberalization of American Universities”

  1. Amanda,

    You bring up an interesting discussion of how ethics and business acumen can, and should, interact. It is of utmost importance to our lives as students as USC. I think equally important as Nikias’s business acumen is his ethical conduct, but as you mention, his exceptionally ethical actions are being eclipsed due to his ability to fundraise.

    Indeed, I did not know that Dr. Nikias occupies a continuous role with the university, and I’m sure that this is incredibly intentional. I do not believe many students are aware of his ongoing involvement. That being said, I do appreciate that USC focus on and drive profit in order to survive & succeed as an academic institution. Clearly, the University and its leaders appreciate this urgency of fundraising and wealth, so much so that they are willing, in my opinion, to compromise upon ethical standards. This fine line between ethics and the necessity to operate USC as fundamentally a business is of urgent concern; a concern that is only becoming more prevalent across campuses worldwide.


  2. I really like your comment that– ‘But if academic institutions are trying to break the mold, as it were, then they must recognize that it’s not enough to simply rebrand it.’ I think USC has this problem especially more than other private elite universities— not to say that Harvard, Yale, Princeton don’t have the same neo-lib tendencies, but I think USC is especially susceptible to this phenomenon. We have risen exponentially in rankings and reputation in the last 15 years, and it can be tied almost directly to the amount of money that we have seen poured into our school and diverted towards academics, when at one time sports (and at times arts) were the majority of where our funding was going. A university that, to some degree, has more to lose, whereas the Ivies and solidly top 7-10 universities are very secure in their position and that’s very likely not to change– USC has more of a motivation and in some ways a necessity to view their university as a business model. Especially, when it has shown that USC’s success is almost directly correlated with increase funding for our academic programs.


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