Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 28, 2006

Columbia expansion

Filed under: Education — louisproyect @ 8:23 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on April 28, 2006

Yesterday there was a picket line at the front gate of Columbia University, my employer. The Columbia Spectator reported:

Shouting slogans and waving signs, opponents of Columbia’s proposed Manhattanville expansion brought their gripes to the University’s gates in a large protest Thursday.

A crowd that peaked at nearly 200 circled behind police barricades, chanting variations of “Harlem not for sale.” Several signs read “Save our homes” and “Stop Columbia” in English and Spanish, while one suggested “Harlem is short on space, needs to expand. Let’s take Columbia’s South Lawn by eminent domain.”

This is not the first time that Columbia has clashed with its Black and Latino neighbors. In 1968 the university was going to build a gymnasium in Morningside Park, which was used primarily by Harlem residents. Anger over the Vietnam War and this racist expansion into Harlem brought the campus to a boil and students occupied Low Library, the administration building. The cops who were sent by "liberal" mayor John Lindsay to evict the students were so brutal that a massive strike broke out.

Now, nearly 30 years later, another imperialist war is happening and another racist expansion is planned. Lacking the irritant of a draft, however, I would believe that Columbia students are not inclined to go as far as they did in 1968. Also, the Black community is not as militant as it was in 1968 when the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords were on the front lines of the struggle rather than NYC Councilmen as is the case today.

I have worked at Columbia University since 1990 and have watched the institution become more and more aggressive in its bid to compete with NYU within the city and with the Ivy's beyond the city. In fact my department was scheduled to have moved to the Manhattanville campus over 2 years ago, but community resistance has put this project on hold.

Last April a document was uncovered that detailed the university's plans to spend $300,000 on a consulting project to determine whether the law of eminent domain could be applied to the Manhattanville land grab. The university tried to assure the community that this would be a "last resort".

For me the interesting question, which does not really surface that much in discussions around the proposed expansion, is what forces are driving the university to compete with other institutions. Listening to President Bollinger, it is almost a case of penis envy:

"As alumni know only too well, Columbia is both one of the great universities of the world and one of the most constrained for space. At 326 square feet per student, Columbia has less square footage per student by far than other leading research universities (compare Yale at 866 sq. ft., Princeton at 828 sq. ft. and Harvard at 673 sq. ft.)."

I have seen the same empire-building tendencies at work at my alma mater Bard College which had a single campus with about 450 students when I entered it in 1961. Now it has 1400 students on a campus that no longer has the slightly dog-eared rural charm it once had. With its icy postmodernist architecture, it looks more like a projection of Leon Botstein's id than anything else. Botstein has also made Bard the hub of a network of subsidiary institutions, including the Bard Graduate Center for Design on West 72nd Street in NYC. The school received money for this expansion and others as well in exchange for putting George Soros's wife Susan in charge.

Probably the most extreme example of using a business model for university expansion was Larry Summers' tenure at Harvard University, where he garnered as much publicity for pissing off the faculty as he did for raising capital.

In July 2001 the former head of the World Bank became President of Harvard with a mandate to expand, as the July 1, 2001 Boston Globe reported:

Lawrence H. Summers today starts what many think will be a defining and controversial presidency of Harvard University, a run likely to alter not only education on campus but also the landscape of Boston.

As he takes the helm of a university with wealth and power unprecedented in higher education, Summers by all accounts wants to dynamite the slow-moving Harvard culture that might stall his academic reforms and ventures. A Harvard economics professor in the 1980s, and treasury secretary during the Clinton administration, the 46-year-old Summers views complacency as an enemy and sees parts of Harvard as too set in their ways.

"This is a huge moment of opportunity for Harvard, and it's very important that we take advantage of it," Summers said.

But his biggest impact may be well outside Harvard Yard. With the university now owning more land in Boston than it does in Cambridge, Summers is poised to put Harvard's stamp on the city like no president before him.

Barring an economic crisis, campus sources say, members of Harvard's governing corporation are inclined toward rapid development of their huge acreage in Allston by moving prestigious professional schools across the river – including the Law School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government – and by making a push for prominence in the sciences by building a research park that includes academic programs, business incubators, and museums.

Since universities are by definition nonprofits, one wonders why there is such a driving need to follow what is basically the business model of a capitalist firm. As we know from reading the business press, big corporations are under tremendous pressure to add new lines of business and increase volume. But why can't Columbia University remain in a static state?

You can find answers to this question in a perceptive article titled "The Corporate University in American Society" by David Schultz that appeared in Logos Journal:

Higher education in America is being transformed by the contradictions that have historically defined and determined its existence. Seen as an educational institution, its importance lies in empowering individuals—both within the academy and outside—to become critical and knowledgeable citizens capable of self-governance in a democracy. Seen as an economic institution, its value lies in producing trained subservient workers for employers, and in socializing many of the costs necessary to sustain profit accumulation in a capitalist society.

Yet while for much of their existence colleges and universities have managed to hold these twin imperatives in balance, political-economic forces such as globalization, an increasingly conservative political agenda, and a tightening of public financial support for higher education have tipped the balance, resulting in the emergence of the corporate university. As corporatized entities, American colleges and universities are under increasing pressure to emulate other market participants and operate in ways that affect their governance and structure, as well as how they generate revenue. The result is that the new corporate university seeks to jettison many of the traditional manifestations of higher education, such as tenure, academic freedom, and shared governance, and replace them with a business model of management and more adjunct faculty who are viewed as mere employees. The need to do this is simple—less revenue to support colleges and universities is coming from the government, thereby forcing higher education to reduce labor costs and also seek financial support from private sector investors who view the traditional mission of these schools with suspicion.

In December 1980, Congress passed the Bayh-Dole bill which gave universities the right to profit from patents on products developed within the institution. As the inventor of numerous pharmaceuticals, Columbia was able to realize 62 million dollars in licensing revenue in 1996. There is little doubt that in order to increase this kind of revenue, more laboratory space is required.

Ultimately, the ties between the university and the corporate world go back to WWII when governments turned to the university to help provide the technologies that would win the war. After all, it was Columbia's Physics Department that developed the first nuclear pile as part of the Manhattan Project that would ultimately result in the production of atomic bombs. So in the final analysis there is a dotted line connecting the Manhattan Project to the Manhattanville expansion.


  1. Colleges depend less on governnments, and increasingly on corporations.

    Basic research is often slanted for the big corporations, that pay for it. I think you see that in drug research.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — May 1, 2006 @ 6:49 am

  2. Nice post. I work at a college too and see this trend happening across the board. Our institution is going through the transformation now. My alma mater, UTSA, was from day one concieved as a corporate university and it looks like it. Actually, it looks more like a military prison, but I suppose that is appropriate considering.

    Comment by reasoninrevolt — May 5, 2006 @ 12:25 am

  3. Corporate University

    I work at a college, actually two colleges to be precise. As I have pursued a graduate degree and due to other circumstances, I have in fact been affiliated and involved in academia for my entire adult life. My professional background is as an ……

    Trackback by Fruits of Our Labour — May 5, 2006 @ 12:26 am

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