Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Are Private Universities Corporate Proxies?

Dating back to the 1960's, I've always had difficulty understanding campus protest. I mean that not in the sense of not understanding the concerns of the protesters, which are usually readily apparent, but in the sense of the logic of campus protest itself. My cognitive dissonance usually occurs more with private colleges and universities than with public ones. In the U.S., public universities are readily funded by state governments, and most of their students are residents of those particular states, so there is a discernible connection between the protestors and the local political process. Since this is supposed to be a democratic country, it makes more sense that protesters would express political views at a government-administered institution than at a private one. Of course, not all protests are political in nature, and I suppose that non-political protests can make sense anywhere.

The strange thing to me is that, for example, if a student at a private university disagrees with U.S. funding of the Israeli military that results in the killing and displacement of thousands of innocent Gaza civilians, there is an established process for addressing that concern: they could contact their congressional representative or senator or protest outside Congress. Their university has little or no connection to the relevant government proceedings, and its students do not necessarily have any say in university policies. Moreover, private universities are not funded by taxpayers, and the processes by which they fund themselves are not necessarily democratic. One might argue that private colleges and universities are "communities" that can build their own consensus through internal discussion or protest, but that view doesn't have legal footing: students are not true stakeholders and ultimately have no authority in how their private college or university is administered.

The situation with the Vietnam War was quite different from the Hamas-Israel War, because the U.S. itself was the aggressor. In that instance, general political objection to the war seemed reasonable. These days, college and university protests often call for the ending of purchase of stocks of the companies that are located in the country of the principal offenders. For example, colleges and universities were discouraged from buying South African stocks during apartheid and, more recently, the stocks of large oil companies that contribute to global warming. Now the protesters are calling for the divestment of Israeli stocks. While, theoretically, that can be construed as a suitable disincentive for Israel to continue the war, I don't consider that methodology appropriate for a couple of reasons. 

First, in the case of private colleges and universities, investment choices are beyond the purview of their students. The students are essentially customers. Their college or university may be around for hundreds of years, and its administrators have to figure out how to fund it well after the current students have departed. The protesting students can be seen as behaving like the customers of a traditional delicatessen who collectively march in and demand that the owners immediately change the menu to include only vegan and gluten-free items. The fact is that the customers don't own the store, and if they dislike the menu, no one is forcing them to buy food there. Also, more subtly, private colleges and universities in the U.S. are actually participating in the capitalist ecosystem of the country. In order to ensure the health of their institution, it is in their interest to produce graduates who go on to become wealthy and leave them bequests in their wills. The small colleges that didn't follow that model are dropping like flies now. I find it hard to take seriously the "values" of most private colleges and universities. Even when there are stated educational goals, their importance is purely symbolic when you consider the actual tasks required to sustain a private college or university over time. Most of them are devoted to the development of future donors purely as a matter of survival. That is why they coddle their alumni. The richer their alumni, the better.

Second, as a personal matter, I dislike the divestment argument because it trivializes the underlying conceptual framework of what is actually occurring. In this instance, I would rather hear a discussion of the errors made by Netanyahu and the long-term consequences of his behavior. The news media are missing in action as usual and aren't advocating a specific actionable plan. The protestors also seem to be sleepwalking through history and are unable to provide a coherent description of the situation. What, exactly, is the explanatory value of the word "hate"? With better journalism and more effective protest, the Gaza conflict might already have ended. Moreover, the current crisis has been brewing for decades, with the underlying problems festering for many years.

One of my corollaries here is that student protestors seem to be in denial of the fact that they and their universities inhabit a corporation-dominated world.

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