The Corporatization of the University: Part I — Guest Post By Agnes Larson

Agnes Larson is a long-time university insider. This article is Part I of a three-part series. Read Part II, Part III


As early as 1918 Thorstein Veblen bemoaned the fact that the American university had been taken over by businessmen. No longer was a college a place of higher learning, but a specialized jobs-training workshop to prepare people for ready-made careers. Such specialization, argues Veblen, widens “the candidate’s field of ignorance while it intensifies his effectiveness within his specialty.”1 Veblen would not be astonished to see today’s university, which is run for a most part, like a corporation. He expected nothing less.

For our purposes, the phrase “corporatization of the university” means that the university is taking on forms and structures that hitherto had been in the realm of for-profit organizations. American universities have always worked hand in hand with wealthy supporters. Often successful businessmen were sought after and appointed to the board of trustees. Walking through any campus one is bound to encounter the equivalent of Cornell University’s Sage Chapel and McGraw Tower—not named for notable faculty but for notable funders. Up for grabs these days are auditoriums, stadiums, and individual programs. Another dimension of what is loosely defined as corporatization is that presidents of universities profitably sit on boards of directors of corporations.2


One feature of the 21st-century corporation is its often transnational nature. Universities are traditional brick-and-mortar institutions with typically one location. Land-grant universities frequently maintain some kind out outreach activity that supports their core mission, but it is not typical for these outposts to offer degree programs. This kind of university presence is different from the satellite campus—miles away from the alma mater, such as University of Michigan-Dearborn or UM-Flint. In sparsely populated areas, the community college is increasingly becoming the home of the four-year degree. The community college itself does not issue the diploma, but one of their partner schools. A student in Petoskey, Michigan can earn a bachelor’s degree in information technology from Southfield-based Lawrence Technological University without leaving town.

Another feature of the modern university is its international reach. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 671,616 international students, both graduate and undergraduate, were enrolled in American institutions for the 2008-09 school year. US institutions desire international students because they will pay full tuition and not require/be eligible for financial aid. As a bonus, the home school has no obligation to provide job placement. The understanding is that the students will go back home upon completion of their coursework and their job prospects are someone else’s problem.

Universities are reaching outside of the US, with mixed results. Michigan State had to close its campus in Dubai in the summer of 2010. Originally, the plan was to enroll 100-200 students into each graduating class. Cornell has more success with its outpost of the Weill Cornell Medical Center in Qatar. In 2001, President Hunter Rawlings announced that Cornell would establish the Weill Cornell Medical Center in Qatar. Cornell has made many partnerships with colleges in China. Former Cornell president, Jeffrey Lehman, is chancellor and founding dean of an American-style law program at Peking University.

There is a quieter debate than in the past regarding should an American university pursue and agenda in another country. Some try to say that the homegrown academic offerings will be diluted. Others see opportunity and more tuition dollars—through both credit and non-credit certificate programs


1Tellingly, the title of Veblem’s work is The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum On the Conduct of Universities By Business Men, 1918.

2Goldschmidt, Nancy P. and James H. Finkelstein. “Academics on Board: University Presidents as Corporate Directors.” Academe. 2001. URL:


  1. DAV

    Globalization: manufacturers and telemarketers outsource labor ** while universities outsource education. Interesting.


    ** Not really sure, though — I missed class that week because of the curling finals and there was a The Frost concert too. Lost a lot of sleep cramming. Would have been nice to have someone in Dubai learn all that stuff for me back then.

  2. bob

    I have always thought that the appeal of US universities to foreign students was two-fold: 1) get a superior education at a US university, and 2) use the US education to get a job and immigrate to the US. I know that many foreign students go home after graduation, but I speculate that those homeward bound are in the minority.

    The problem with universities being run like corporations is that many are like poorly run corporations. Perhaps there are some principles inherent in an educational institution that forces a university to be run differently. But, to the administration the bottom line is still the bottom line. You can’t get away from that.

    One of the biggest problems I see with higher education is the proliferation of for-profit schools awarding degrees meant to compete with university degrees. Some of these places will give you up to two years “life experience” credit toward a four year degree. Where is the education in that?

    With the mix of institutions out there, what is higher education, and how do we define a college degree? What goes into an education? I guess Part 2 of this series will better inform me.

  3. DAV

    Depends what’s meant by “life experience”. 15 years of surfing, beach partying and pot smoking probably shouldn’t qualify for much I agree but, in most professions, it’s experience that counts. A professional degree supposedly means the holder was exposed to some useful tools. Engineering is problem solving and nothing replaces experience.

    But, really, who’s to say what experience is necessary? A beach bum doesn’t need a degree to function in his career choice. Truth is: most professions don’t either. At one time, all that was required to be a lawyer was the ability to pass the bar exam. We might be better off nowadays if actual experience were reinstated as a requirement and the prep degree discounted. I recently was forced to attend a refresher in systems engineering (that damm gummint cert process!). Several of the attendees were recent grads. They had all the buzz words down pat but knew JackS about applying them.

    There’s always that “well rounded” thing but IMO what constitutes “well rounded” is a throwback to the skills needed in medieval diplomacy and leadership which was the syllabus at any young warlord’s university. Maybe that’s relevant today; maybe not. YMMV.

  4. Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class is also a fun read.

  5. jack mosevich

    some funnies about education:

    sample: Education seems to be in America the only commodity of which the customer tries to get as little he can for his money.
    Max Leon Forman (1909-1990) Jewish-American writer.

  6. Ari

    Just got back from a “how to succeed in Japanese companies” seminar. Once again, I was reminded of how poor Japanese universities are compared to American ones. Yet, their high schools blow ours out of the water.


  7. kuhnkat

    Actually. going back to the early 1900’s would be an improvement on the perversion of our universities into institutions of indoctrination in leftist religion. At least they learned something useful in reality rather than something useful in an assumed future utopia.

  8. Bernie

    I hope Part II is more incisive. The current article presumes a comparison but does not articulate what it is either through time or across countries. Universities are corporate entities, so I do not get Agnes’ point(s). Nor do I buy that a business corporation is some how inferior to a non-business corporation. The amateur is not morally superior to the professional (viz., Chariots of Fire).

    That said, many colleges and universities seem to be pursuing too many competing and conflicting goals that leave only a few stakeholders feeling satisfied.

  9. maman

    Is it “Alice” or “Agnes”?

    Oh, how wish I could frame this question with the literary panache of Mr Briggs. 😉

  10. maman


    that should be for Part II

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *