higher education

With Corporatized Universities, the Customer Is Always “White”

Professor Teresa Buchanan got fired for dropping an F-bomb. Which is what happens when universities become businesses: students are consumers, and education is the casualty.

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“What the fuck?”

That was my initial reaction after reading a story about Teresa Buchanan, a tenured associate professor of education at Louisiana State University, who was recently fired for saying, “fuck no” and making a joke about sex in her classroom.

According to a report in The Nation, a faculty committee voted to censure her only after finding no evidence that her words were “systematically directed at any individual.” However, they determined that her colorful language created a “hostile learning environment”; that her utterance of the f-word was tantamount to sexual harassment.

Reflective of today’s corporate university, the administration rejected a recommendation from the faculty that she keep her job, sending Buchanan, who’d been known for her “off-color language,” packing after 20 years at the university. The ultimate Fuck You!!!

The criminalization of language, pedagogy, and the assault on academic freedom is slowly becoming as normal as overpaid football coaches and know-nothing administrators. In 2015, Laura Kipnis, a film professor and feminist at Northwestern University, was brought up on changes under Title IX—the federal law that prohibits sexual discrimination in education—following the publication of “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Addressing a culture of “student vulnerability,” Kipnis states, “These are anxious times for officialdom, and students, too, are increasingly afflicted … after all, anxiety is contagious.”

To illustrate her point, Kipnis highlighted the lawsuits filed against fellow Northwestern professor Peter Ludlow by two students in his philosophy course. Following its publication, these same students filed Title IX complaints against Kipnis saying that her essay and a tweet that followed had been “acts of retaliation” against those who had accused Ludlow.

Despite widespread media hand-wringing about political correctness run amuck, about “minority students,” “safe spaces,” and “trigger warnings,” these moments signal the rampant privilege and entitlement of spoiled, and largely White, students. These accommodated demands demonstrate how academia is seen as little more than a capitalistic interaction where the student/consumer holds the power to strike back if they are displeased. The administrators are ready to throw their faculty and other employees under the bus because the “customer” is always right.

These are young people who are raised to believe that nobody has the right to cause them discomfort or unease, that they are owed both deferential and preferential treatment, and that their rights are the only ones that need to be considered. And in a litigious culture, they are reared to view formal complaints and lawsuits as the means to assert their dominance and get their way. These students act like Donald Trump, lashing out at those who cause them harm, bullying those who don’t give them what they want, demanding apologies, threatening to sue until they get their way.

These are the students who are the source of grade inflation. They go to great lengths—except for actually doing the work itself—to force professors into falsely padding their grades. Sure they slacked off. Maybe their work wasn’t very good. But they paid, and therefore they deserve a good grade.  This is a generation who grew up believing that the fact that they’re showing up (and paying tuition) puts them in charge of the educational transaction—that they are owed top marks not for what they do or how well they do it, but simply because of who they are, even when they are aggressively mediocre.

And colleges and universities are increasingly bowing to this pressure. Only a few institutions of higher education have real financial stability, so a growing number are forced into “the customer is always right”-type consumer-focused mind-set. While the specific student actions aren’t always racially driven, it’s easy to see how that additional layer can create fear among faculty of color—many of whom are saying they will now have to “watch their mouth” in the classroom.

The Yelp-ification of the university is causing great anguish among faculty. After news of Teresa Buchanan’s firing, I saw faculty on several social-media pages expressing their anxiety, worrying that this is yet another weapon students can wield against them. Some are concerned that we’ll see more and more of these pretexts for firing tenured professors—mainly the liberal/progressive/left professors who teach “uncomfortable” subjects or ask “uncomfortable” questions or make “uncomfortable” remarks about the social, economic, and cultural status quo.

A major force in academe’s ideological battles and attacks against professors, especially left-wing and those of color, are the more than 100 right-leaning publications such as Campus Reform, The College Fix, Daily Caller, and YoungCons. Each is devoted to the same cause—printing biased and sensationalist bootleg reporting as a means of protecting the rights of students from “politically correct multiculturalism” and faculty “indoctrination.” The editors, student writers, and their financial backers are protecting their vision of the world and preserving the narrative that White people are victims of “minority rights” and political correctness run amok. They have convinced students that they are being victimized. And university administrators are quick to placate to outrage because publicity and a bad review from a disgruntled tuition-paying customer should take precedent over the educational mission or the concerns of faculty. With hundreds of Ph.D.’s waiting for a job, faculty are expendable; tuition dollars, and the happiness of future alumni donors provide the university with its compass. 

Yes, it is all about Benjamins.

All of this is happening amid the growing corporatization of higher education. With 80 percent of instructional faculty on adjunct status, this corporate culture makes faculty more vulnerable to student complaints as they increasingly turn curriculum and policy over to the bottom-line driven financial realities of running the institutions.

As noted by Michelle Goldberg, “According to the Delta Cost Project, an American Institutes for Research program that studies the rising price of higher education, at most four year colleges and universities the average number of faculty and staff per administrator declined by around 40 percent between 1990 and 2012.”

In considering her firing, Buchanan said that, “Starting about a 10 years ago, we noticed that every new administrator that came to LSU had the discourse and language of a business person. So, for example, my dean calls himself the CEO of his organization. That never used to happen. We were the academy,” Buchanan added, “Their whole discourse has shifted to this business discourse. To me that explains the lack of faculty of governance, because corporations aren’t governed by their employees, and it also explains to me this policing of behaviors. Thus there’s a symbiosis between student demands for emotional safety and the risk-aversion of bloated bureaucracies.”

And off campus, the larger “deplorable” culture is increasingly shaped by Donald Trump, Fox News, and other right-wing media as they peddle the narrative that progressive universities are hostile to conservative professors and students; that today’s university culture takes it cues from Colin Kaepernick and other culture warriors, discriminating against Whites, males, and Christians, all while disparaging American Exceptionalism and the overall greatness of Western civilization. 

Fox News and other right-wing media family is fiercely protecting these students from having their feelings hurt by challenging ideas, grown-folks’ language, or the truth about their place in the world.

They are pushing a narrative that is popular among much of White America: “The tables have been turned against us. We are the biggest victims of discrimination. Islam hates us.  We are being overtaken by Mexicans. We are under threat.”

This form of faux-victimization is firmly rooted in the students’ core belief that they have a right to their privilege and power at everyone else’s expense. Isn’t it ironic that White students will invoke victimhood and demand protection from conversations about White privilege? These are the children of helicopter parents who grew up viewing any threat to their superiority comfort zone as a hostile force to be confronted and ultimately destroyed.

Meanwhile, students and scholars of color and our allies are truly being victimized on a daily basis. But nobody is putting up “trigger alerts” or offering any kind of protections from racist comments in class, misogynistic evaluations, homophobic jokes polluting dining halls, Eurocentric curriculum, and the violent and threatening backlash directed at those who protest the status quo.

Students use incidents like this, trigger alerts, and sexual harassment to claim faux victimization as a power play. Faculty of all colors and persuasions are paying the price. In this climate of hate, university administrators basically sanction threats by not standing in solidarity with the faculty or condemning their attackers. The reasons are many: Some departments don’t have enough power to do anything beyond scrambling to survive budget cuts, while others agree with the trolls and have bought into narratives of American Exceptionalism or respectability politics. 

Today’s (White, middle-class, male) students have been handicapped not only with this notion that nobody but them can possibly be right or have a valid point of view, but that their worldview and comfort should be central to all interactions at all times. A generation whose parents have diligently shot dozens of vaccinations into their bodies has somehow been left with no tools to help them thrive in today’s world. Between the browning of the USA, a workforce in which their peers of color are growing in number, and their inability to deal with the very real requirements of thriving in a diverse environment, these students might earn their paper, but they will be increasingly illiterate when it comes to real life.

As The Nation piece reminds us, “The current movement is largely about emotional well-being … it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.”

In a system that already naturally favors them, they grow up well aware that whenever they raise their voices, they will not only be heard, but also respected and responded to.

Trump knows how to play into this worldview. His campaign is built around the belief that his “deplorable” base of supporters are being unfairly attacked simply for who they are, and that anything they say and do must be accepted without criticism or pushback.  The message is clear: It is their opinion, so we can “eat shit and die”; yet liberal professors are the threats to puritan minds of the next generation.

And whether students or politicos, they know they can get away with it because our system, laws, and policies all support them. This is as far from victimization as you can get. But they not only know how to play that card, they own and stack the deck in their favor every single time.

This climate of growing intolerance—whether it’s in the ivory tower, the workplace, or tomorrow’s playgrounds and preschools, isn’t insignificant. It embodies a culture of white protectionism; an effort to preserve White dominance, and to protect White America from any challenges. What’s truly triggering: questioning white privilege and demanding equality.    


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