‘Academic Capitalism’ Is Reshaping Faculty Life. What Does That Mean?

Nov 25, 2019

Professors have long savored their position outside of commercial systems. But these days, there’s plenty of signs of capitalism within the academy—scholars seek support from funders in hopes that the findings will lead to commercial applications, departments market their courses to students as pathways to lucrative careers and universities replace tenure-track positions with adjunct jobs to cut costs.

Last week on the latest installment of EdSurge Live, our monthly online discussion forum, we dug into the topic, often referred to as “academic capitalism.”

Our guest was Kevin R. McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He’s also the coordinator of the Education Doctorate Program in higher education leadership there, and an expert on higher education finance, management and leadership. We thought he would be a great person to come and talk with us a little bit about academic capitalism and market forces shaping faculty life.

Listen to the conversation below, or read a transcript of highlights, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: What is academic capitalism?

Kevin McClure: The theory of academic capitalism was designed to help us describe and explain how colleges and universities are changing in response to a couple of external pressures. Those external pressures include things like the advent of a global knowledge economy. In that economy, the idea is that knowledge becomes much more valuable. Organizations like colleges and universities that produce knowledge suddenly have products that they’re able to buy and sell and trade in global markets.

Another big change that has pushed for certain types of changes at colleges and universities is declining government support. We’ve seen per-student state appropriations declining over time for many public colleges and universities. Academic capitalism helps us understand why colleges and universities have changed in certain ways and have responded to some of these pressures.

The theory suggests that they have responded by trying to integrate into this new global economy. They’ve also responded through market and market like activities, trying to figure out new ways to bring in revenue to make up for some of those cuts in state funding.

What pressures does that put on a professor who primarily considers him or herself to be a classroom teacher?

For faculty, I think it has meant changes in all of the core areas of faculty work, including teaching, of service to the university and research. Certainly on the research side, academic capitalism predicts that universities will increasingly compete for grant money being used to fund research. There has been intense pressure on faculty members to compete for grants. In some cases, you’ve got institutions that set very clear parameters around how much faculty ought to apply for when it comes to grants. You need to apply for $100,000 or $200,000 worth of grants before you go up for tenure. Certainly that’s going to vary by discipline. Some disciplines that becomes much more crucial than in others.

Another dimension on this is that many institutions are trying to figure out ways of launching revenue generating programs. Faculty are part of those, sometimes willingly and sometimes less willingly. It means that faculty are asked to think creatively about the ways that they teach, the way that they deliver programs, maybe starting to think about using technology and online teaching as a way to increase enrollments.

I read an interesting article this week suggesting that Moody’s has perhaps downgraded some universities, because they have been spending or taking on larger debt loads to climb up in the rankings or to compete for a higher tier of student. How does the search for prestige factor in?

As institutions are pursuing new sources of revenue, they are competing against one another. The pools of money that they’re competing for are relatively scarce. There’s not enough for everybody. Given that environment of competition, institutions are constantly trying to think of ways to either keep up with a peer, or to in some ways outperform, outmaneuver out-strategize a peer. When you get up into the upper echelons in terms of those prestige categories and rankings, the competition intensifies. What it requires to stay up with the top or to enter into that upper echelon, the resources are enormous. There is no end game, and so you basically have to continue to spend, continue to compete.

Some of this is spending I think that is justifiable and makes a lot of sense. Institutions are really charged with pursuing excellence. They’re charged with improving, and so in order to do that, they often need to ensure that they’ve got the right staff and faculty. That they’ve got the right infrastructure and facilities.

It’s also the case that some of that spending is not as necessary. It can be a little bit frivolous even. But it’s spending that’s really targeted with an eye towards trying to keep up, or with an eye towards trying to compete for that grant money. Or trying to compete for that certain type of student, trying to compete for certain all star faculty, and that spending can really add up.

When I think about capitalism at universities, I think a lot of people think about adjunct, the adjunct vocation of the professors. How does the question of academic labor fit?

There are a couple of facets to the adjunctification process. One is that there is the perception that part-time faculty are less expensive. The research on that is a little bit inconclusive because I think there are some times hidden costs that are not always adequately factored into the equation. Nevertheless, institutions have looked for part time faculty in part with the hope of reducing costs, especially at a time when they’re experiencing budget cuts, but also [a need for] flexibility.

Institutions are getting entrepreneurial when it comes to launching academic programs. When they’re doing so, and they may be taking on some risk by launching those programs, having nontenured faculty provides them with a certain level of flexibility. That if the risk doesn’t pan out and a program isn’t as successful as they thought, they are able to let go of people.

It’s also the case that institutions are launching programs that are more revenue generating. They want their tenured faculty to be focusing more on research, and potentially focusing more on their prestige driving programs like graduate level programs or doctoral level programs that help to increase the status and the reputation of the institution.

Meanwhile, some of these other programs that are more on the periphery of the academic core, but bring in money, are taught by adjuncts and part time faculty, while freeing up time for tenured faculty to teach. I think it’s the case that this idea of academic capitalism can help us understand these processes.

The other way that I might apply academic capitalism to help understand this idea of adjunctification is that academic capitalism tends to shift authority and power within universities more towards individuals that are directly connected to revenue generation, and often more in the direction of people that are in managerial and administrative roles.

If you are trying to bring in money, trying to act quickly, trying to be nimble in a market, shared governance and faculty opposition can be a real challenge and can be a real problem. Given that, there is good reason for universities to not really want a powerful faculty opposition. They would much rather have a somewhat docile faculty, so that they’re able to more quickly, more easily adapt as necessary. That justifies in some cases bringing on more people who are not protected by tenure. I do think that there’s a relationship between declining shared governance and declining faculty involvement in university governance and this idea of academic capitalism.

[Audience question - Byran Alexander] Do you see the growth of information technology, something that drives campuses as a whole to be more capitalist in your model?

I think it has a huge impact. In fact, the theory that we referenced at the outset of this is, again, partly premised on the idea that, because of information and technology, what universities produce in terms of knowledge does become much more valuable and can be dispersed globally.

You’ve got institutions that are able to create programs that can be accessed globally or can be purchased globally. Certificate programs, online programs or online courses like Coursera—those types of things are possible by virtue of information technology that create new market opportunities for colleges and universities that did not previously exist.

You’ve got examples of campuses that are saying, “Hey, we would love to launch this accelerated online program or work with an online program manager. What do you all think?” Faculty say, “We don’t really understand what you’re talking about.” There is an interesting dynamic at play where things are moving pretty quickly. Some institutions are able to keep up well, others would like to be able to get into the game and are struggling to do so.

[Audience question] Is there any work looking at possible connections between academic capitalism and faculty anxiety or mental health?

Many faculty feeling as if there is not really a time where things ever slow down. There’s this joke that faculty only work nine months out of the year. I actually heard it just from an administrator the other day here on my own campus. The reality is that in this moment that we’re living in now, one that academic capitalism helps us to understand a bit better, the idea of faculty working nine months is a joke. Faculty are working all the time.

Some of the pressures related teaching, specifically with respect to enrollment growth and faculty feeling as though demands on their time have increased. Communication plays a big part in this. Through things like Canvas and email, there’s a sense that communication volume has amplified.

The way that that ties into this idea of academic capitalism, again, circles back to declining state support and an unwillingness to fund public universities in the way that they once were, that may help certain colleges that right now are struggling to better navigate some of these challenging waters. Faculty, staff and students are all paying the price of that.

This is an excerpt of the full discussion, which also explores what is the “hidden curriculum” of college that many first-generation students don’t know. You can listen to the entire conversation here.


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