Thomas Ramey Watson

How American Universities Turned Into Corporations

On Monday, you could read about a new study of public universities showing that schools with the highest presidential salaries also had the fastest-growing student debt. That same night, Senator Elizabeth Warren was on the Colbert Report to bring attention to the nation’s student loan debt, which now exceeds $1 trillion. And over the weekend, New York University was the subject of a New York Times investigation detailing inhumane working conditions at its far-flung Abu Dhabi campus, the crown jewel in president John Sexton’s octopus-like plan to grow the university throughout New York City’s Greenwich Village and across the globe.

At their core, these stories reflect a fundamental change in higher education: universities act increasingly like big businesses that treat students as customers.

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As universities succumb to this cost disease, they begin to resemble businesses more than nonprofit schools charged with a public mission. The future of higher learning and, more broadly, our society hangs in the balance. If there’s any inspiration we can glean from the recent headlines, it’s that the laundry list of problems demanding solutions is becoming clearer. But it will be harder for us to effect change if we are unable to understand the broader cultural problem at play in the corporatization of the university.

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