Thursday, May 9, 2024

Universities as factories


I have seen, and read about, of many instances when the police would clear universities of students who were demonstrating. The police would come in on the orders of the authorities unhappy with student-created oases of freedom. It would come, armed, beat up students, and end the protest. University administration would side with the students, invoke “the autonomy of the university” (that is, the right to be exempt from policing), resign, or be removed. This is the usual pattern.

            The novelty, for me, in the current wave of freedom of speech demonstrations in the United States was that it was the university administrators who called for the police to attack students. In at least one case, in New York, the police were puzzled why they were brought in, and thought it was counter-productive. One could understand that this attitude by the administrator might happen in authoritarian countries where the administrators may be appointed by the powers-to-be to keep order on campuses. Then, obviously, as obedient civil servants, they would support the police in its “cleansing” activity although they would rarely have the authority to call it in.  

But in the US, university administrators are not appointed by Biden, nor by Congress. Why would they then attack their own students? Are they some evil individuals who love to beat up younger people?

The answer is, No. They are not. They are just in a wrong job. They are not seeing their role as what traditionally was the role of universities, that is to try to impart to the younger generation values of freedom, morality, compassion, self-abnegation, empathy or whatever else is considered desirable. Their role today is to be the CEOs of factories that are called universities. These factories have a raw material which is called students and which they turn, at regular annual intervals, into graduates. Consequently, any disturbance in that production process is like a disturbance to a supply chain. It has to be eliminated as soon as passible in order for the production to resume. Graduating students have to be “outputted”, the new students brought in, moneys from them have to be pocketed, donors have to be found, more funds to be secured. Students, if they interfere with the process, need to be disciplined; if necessary by force. Police has to be brought in, order to be restored.

The administrators are not interested in values, but in the bottom-line. Their job is equivalent to that of a CEO of Walmart, CVS, or Burger King. They will use the talk about values, or “intellectually-challenging environment”, or “vibrant discussion” (or whatever!),  as described in a recent article in The Atlantic, as the usual promotional, performative speech that top managers of companies nowadays produce at the drop of a hat. Not that anyone believes in such speeches. But it is de rigueur to make them. It is a hypocrisy that is widely accepted. The issue is that such a level of hypocrisy is still not entirely common at universities because they were, for historical reasons, not seen exactly like sausage factories. They were supposed to produce better people. But this was forgotten in the run for revenue and donors’ money. Thus the sausage factory cannot stop, and the police needs to be called in.