The recent vote of no confidence by the NYU Faculty of Arts and Sciences against President John Sexton has sharply intensified the debate over university governance and the role of education at NYU and other universities. Several weeks before the vote took place, I sat down with world-renowned scholar and MIT professor Noam Chomsky for an interview on the effects of corporatization of the American university.
I asked Chomsky about the provocative comparison Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein made during her 2012 campaign between student debt and indentured servitude. Stein argued that student debt is just a modern form of indenture. Although Chomsky didn’t quite use the same phrasing as Stein, he seemed to agree with her point, arguing that student indebtedness is a disciplinary technique of indoctrination and control, intended to restrict the political imagination of an active citizenry.
Chomsky raised the question of whether there is an economic justification for this debt. He explained, “We happen to be right next door to a poor country, Mexico. It has quite a good university system. It doesn’t have all the things we have since it’s a poor country. But it has a very high quality, high level of instruction. I’ve taught there, been there. It’s free … There are rich countries that have a very high level of educational systems, among the highest are Finland and Germany, both free.”
These comparisons, according to Chomsky, suggest that there are no legitimate economic grounds for high student debt, and that the correlation between receiving a quality education and the overwhelming burden of tuition seems tenuous. So what are the consequences of taking on this financial burden? First, there are some very practical, real effects on society — people lose the power to choose. They have to take whichever job is offered and lose employment freedom.
But the problem of student debt is just one part of a much broader process. Chomsky explained that in the last 30 years there has been a major assault on the population — wages have stagnated and the levels of inequality are among the highest in history. Admittedly, these years have seen some level of economic growth, but on the other hand, this growth has been met with an unprecedented shift in income disparity.
Since economic justification is nonexistent, Chomsky contended that the way cost is measured is just ideological. He said, “So if costs are transferred to individuals, they are not considered costs. If it’s a business, then it’s a cost. If you can find a way to transfer costs to individuals, that’s called savings.” In other words, according to the corporate model of efficiency, if the costs are less for the institution, it’s considered more efficient. It should not come as a surprise that a large number of university administrators at schools such as NYU come from business schools and have a business school mentality. Treating the university just like they would a business, they cherish the bottom line, seeking efficiency at any cost, especially if that cost is carried on the backs of students. In fact, NYU has the highest student loan debt in the nation. However, should efficiency in the business world be the measure of efficiency for academic institutions?
The humanities, for example, seem to be under great attack because they do not produce ‘tangible’ ‘outcomes and assessments’ that can be fit onto a balance sheet determined by market logic. When asked what should happen to traditional humanities disciplines given these pressures, Chomsky said, “Depends on whether we want to live in a civilized world or not. The wealth and richness of life doesn’t come from having more gadgets in your hands. It comes from literature, arts, decent society, decent human relations, and many other things that you can’t put a number on. Marketization of life is another form of destroying it.”
Another effect that comes with bringing marketization into the university ethos is that administrators are reducing the proportion of faculty teaching by hiring temporary, low-paid workers, such as graduate students. According to this type of market logic, if low-paid teachers can take over the work of highly paid faculty, that is more efficient. But Chomsky underscored, “It’s not efficient for the students. They’re not getting the same level of education, surely. It’s not good for the graduate students either. But that’s called efficiency. All of this is going on in parallel as part of a whole neoliberal onslaught, which is very harmful to the population, but very beneficial to the masters, the super rich.”
Indeed, when education is run as a business and not as a social or public service, educational inequality and social immobility are merely unavoidable byproducts that increase the power and influence of the rich. Given this, I asked Chomsky what role universities serve in a “just” or “democratic” society. After cracking a slight smile, he replied, “Universities ought to be the place where as many people as possible have the opportunity to develop their creative capacities, their independence, their joy of discovery, and their ability to work with each other to achieve desirable social ends that they can figure out. When students are in a university they are really at the freest time of their lives. They are out of parental control. They don’t yet have to devote themselves to putting bread on the table. A lot of freedom and opportunity — and that’s the point of a university… It ought to be open to the community and draw people in.”
NYU is taking the opposite approach by drawing in those students who can afford to pay the high tuition or those willing to take the risk. This demolishes the purpose of education: many students are not looking at education as a value in and of itself, a way to fully develop their own interests and express their creativity, but as a means to a high-paying job where they can pay off their debt. Students realize, too, that a high paying job is not even a guarantee, but that is still the aim.
This steadfast approach, spearheaded by President John Sexton, has made NYU an increasingly elite and powerful institution. And it is obvious that Sexton and the administrators not only intend to maintain this power, they also want to expand it in order to aggrandize the institution’s brand name. NYU now has over 10 portal campuses around the globe and may soon officially rename itself as The Global Network University. But the brand does not necessarily equal substance. This is the vastly deep flaw of business logics.
Considering the rigidity of these power structures, Chomsky’s optimistic vision of academic institutions in a decent society, while inspiring, hardly seems like a tenable solution. Anticipating this, I wanted to know what specific tactics the seasoned activist would recommend so that students can go beyond merely communicating the message about debt as a form of entrapment and indoctrination, and move to achieving substantive change of some sort.
Chomsky recommended that students study the models other fellow students had set up in neighboring countries, where protests brought about some meaningful structural changes. For example, in response to Quebec’s attempt to increase tuition in 2012, a large student strike was organized and soon after supported by much of the population. The strike led to an actual change in government, and the new government backed off on the proposals. The protests, Chomsky reminded, were “tied to concerns of many other people. It’s not just the students who are suffering this.” He then cited specific examples of sweeping progressive changes originating from student initiatives in the US during the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the women’s movement and the environmental movement.
In the face of significant challenges, Chomsky offered these words of encouragement and advice: “The students can become a galvanizing force, and not just for their own personal concerns, but because it is part of a general social problem. It should be possible to link up with other sectors that are suffering under the same attack in different ways, such as those working for the minimum wage.”
The challenge may indeed appear to be insurmountable, especially in an institution where the administration has purposefully rendered the student body powerless. But we must not retreat into a state of apathy and conformity. We students greatly underestimate the extent of our power. Despite the disciplinarian culture fooling us into thinking that there is nothing we can do, history shows us this is false and provides us with hope. By organizing effectively we can become a transformative, galvanizing force.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, April 3 print edition. Edward Radzivilovskiy is a deputy opinion editor. Email him at [email protected]