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.
The 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.
More 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.