How neoliberalism feeds political correctness

Maximillian Alvarez, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, wrote in the current issue of The Baffler that the real driver behind “political correctness” on American university campuses is the neoliberal idea that students are customers, and that the job of the university is to give the customers what they want.

education-in-liberal-artsThe traditional idea of the university was that the professors were the custodians of knowledge, that their job was to impart knowledge and wisdom to students and that their work should be judged by their peers.

The neoliberal idea of the university is that professors are vendors and students are customers, and that the measure of a university’s success is the ability to maximize enrollment and tuition.

Alvarez wrote that the conflict over “political correctness” is a conflict over which of the university’s customers are more important—the students and parents, or the wealthy donors.  (In the case of public colleges and universities, there is a third customer—the businesses that depend on public institutions to provide vocational training.}

Here’s what Alvarez had to say:

When professors today say they fear their students, they’re really saying that they’re afraid their students’ reviews and complaints will get them fired.

What professors fear are the changing administrative policies that have pinned the fate of their job security to the same unstable consumer logic behind Yelp reviews and the reputation economy.

The image of the wise, hard-nosed professor who upends her students’ assumptions about the world, who provokes and guides heated debates in class about subjects that may offend as much as they enlighten, rests on a whole host of factors that no longer enter into the crabbed, anxiety-driven working life of the casually employed academic.

Nor do such factors typically emerge in our debates about political correctness at universities.

Three in particular are worth highlighting.

First, tenure for faculty is disappearing—and along with it the sort of job security that once made university teaching an attractive long-term career.

Now the lion’s share of college teaching jobs goes to part-time (adjunct) instructors and non-tenure-track faculty.

Overworked and underpaid, these custodians of knowledge, who can end up making less than actual custodians, are often unable to give students the time and attention they deserve.

What’s more, the hand-to-mouth nature of their professional life denies them the intellectual luxury of giving measured classroom attention to any material carrying the faintest whiff of controversy.

Like any other precariously employed service worker, these classroom docents well understand that offending or disenchanting an influential customer could easily get them fired.

But even this is an understatement of the deeply, economically unbalanced nature of the student-instructor relation at American universities—which brings us to the second unacknowledged driver of today’s PC conflicts on campus.

With students and their families paying more for the four-year college experience than ever, and with that massive payment transforming the paying academic public into an elite client class, students now enjoy more power than ever in the administration of higher education.

collegekids97944673-copyMore than consumers, these students are regarded as high-end investors.  And this new class of student-investor has every right to be more demanding about his or her projected return on investment.

Indeed, the high-profile campus dust-ups over this or that “PC” controversy are merely the traces of a tide that’s already risen, an academic market that’s already been reconfigured.

If critics of rampant thought-monitoring on campus are as distressed as they say they are, if compromising the soul of education is so abhorrent to them, they should be far more horrified by the widespread correlation between rising tuition costs and grade inflation.

University administrations have been all too happy to give in to the demands of student-investors, resorting to drastic action like dis-inviting controversial speakers or firing provocative professors.  More than this, though, administrations are beholden to wealthy alumni donors.

… There is a growing fear among administrators that wealthy alumni are withholding donations if they feel their universities are getting “too PC.”  What is playing out on college campuses is not a power struggle between students and professors, but a calculated risk assessment by administrators who are deciding which investors are more worth appeasing: students or donors.

What Alvarez describes is true not only of university professors, but of all the professions.

When I go to Pluta Cancer Center for my injections, I get a detailed questionnaire in the mail asking me to rank various aspects of my customer experience on a scale of one to five.

I would rather be served by pleasant, polite medical staff than people who are brusque and rude staff, but the main thing I want is a physician who can accurately diagnose and best treat my condition.  I am unable to judge this for myself until it is too late to matter.  I rely on professionals to define and demand professional standards.

The same is true of lawyers, accountants and other professionals.   What I want from them is competence and integrity.  I go to them because I rely on them to know better than I do.

But within the neoliberal framework, the only standards of professionalism or of anything else are economic standards.


Cashing in on the Culture Wars by Maximillian Alvarez for The Baffler.


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2 Responses to “How neoliberalism feeds political correctness”

  1. Alex Says:

    The customer mentality is certainly part of it. If your business model requires expansion then you need a stream of happy customers. But I think there’s another issue here, which is that the tenured professors and administrators who sit at the top of this system have to answer to something even more demanding than students, donors, or accreditation agencies: Their disquieted consciences. Diversity is how they rationalize and legitimize this system.

    There’s a lot that’s wrong with the system. We spend a lot of money, we have a widening gap between adjunct and tenured/tenure-track faculty, and we face an ever-expanding administrative bureaucracy. We have made a lot of promises to America about class mobility, the workforce, and our role in it. The problem is that some of those promises can’t be delivered on, for a lot of reasons. The market for labor is more complicated than we want to believe, credential inflation is a real phenomenon, and there’s only so much we can do to remedy the problems of k-12. So there’s a lot that we can’t deliver, and we have a lot to answer for.

    Into this moral deficit comes an opportunity for redemption: Diversity. If we can’t fix all of our problems, we can at least promote diversity. Academia might be governed by a small, elite class that enjoys far greater comfort than those who do most of the teaching, but we can at least say that we’re trying to diversify America’s 1% (and possibly our own 1% while we’re at it). The value and purpose of higher education might be a complicated question with no simple answer, but we can at least commit ourselves to diversifying the ranks of degree-holders.

    To a large extent this is a good thing, in spite of our problems. Whoever gets degrees and for whatever purpose, we certainly want to make sure that we aren’t letting color and gender get in the way. Whoever runs this system, at least we can try to make sure color and gender aren’t an obstacle. All of that is good.

    The problem comes in when we treat diversity not as _an_ issue but _the_ issue. If it’s _an_ issue then there’s room to ask questions about the structure of the system. There’s room to ask questions about whether feeding economically vulnerable people into an over-producing PhD system is really a just course of action. There’s room to ask questions about the metastasizing bureaucracy. But when it’s _the_ issue there’s no room to ask these questions. The metastasizing bureaucracy has plenty of diversity coordinators and pipeline project administrators and who wants to question that?

    The best response to my post would be that I’m engaging in the derailing tactic of “What about this other thing?” That would be a valid response if the structure of the system were getting more than token attention from people with resources. Yes, it gets plenty of rhetorical attention, plenty of frustrated complaints about adjunctification of the teaching profession and growing bureaucracy…and then (at best) maybe somebody forms a task force, appoints a coordinator, and seeks a grant to support that task force.

    My ground-level observation of academic psychology is that this is as much about legitimizing ourselves (both individually and as a profession) as it is about serving society. I can’t easily point to any one thing, but my accumulation of intangible experiences and conversations, my summary of watching many people and how they interact in different settings, how they respond to various people and various presentations, is that this is our legitimizing project. This is our chance for redemption.

    Sometimes it even takes on religious dimensions. One could read the essay on anti-racism and religion by African American linguist John McWhorter. I endorse his essay in the broad strokes, because I believe it is a balanced and insightful piece, but I will demur from defending any particular detail against determined foes, because it’s a complicated topic and I freely concede that there’s insight to be gained from many different angles. Or, one could look at the way that the idea of our implicit biases sometimes seems to go beyond being a piece of the psychological picture to being something that we need to recognize and confess, in the same way as original sin in Christian theology.


  2. Alex Says:

    Here’s an example of original sin and implicit bias:

    The person writing this article described how she took an Implicit Association Test. I won’t try to describe it in detail, but basically they show you words that have certain associations and then have you do tasks, and the time it takes to do these mental tasks and click the right answer depends on whether the associations produced by those words are aligned with what you have to do in the task or opposed to it. Apparently psychologists use it to assess bias.

    The problem is that experimental psychologists tend to work pretty damn hard to blind study participants to the point of a study. If I know that taking a long time on certain tasks, or making a mistake on those tasks, will show that I hold a shameful attitude, then I will probably be nervous on those tasks. That corrupts the test result.

    The author of this article describes her experience taking the test, and describes being aware of what’s happening on certain tasks. She’s not blinded. But she believes that science has identified the biases in her mind, the evil in her soul.

    At least Jesus forgives. The IAT only shames.


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