A Threat to Freedom: Corporate Colonization of Curriculum

 Glen T. Martin            

(A version of this article was published in the Radford University Tartan 24 October 2012)

In universities around the country, corporate money is colonizing the curriculum, the research agenda, the infrastructure, and the thinking of administrators. The situation at Radford University is just one example.

Radford University has accepted the colonization of its curriculum by accepting 3/4 million dollars from BT&T Bank to organize a course and a series of speakers on capitalism linked to the thought of neoliberal economic ideologist, Ayn Rand, who promoted a raw laissez faire capitalism independent of government regulation.  The first question to ask, of course, is what interest BT&T bank has in doing this? Why did they not specify a course, for example, in the economics of Karl Marx?  Or, if they want to support education, why not leave the subject open to RU’s experienced professors in the College of Business and Economics?  The answer is plain: they want to promote a certain ideology at our university.

Students have a right to expect their classes to reflect the honest and best thought of their professors who are experts in their fields. Their education and their dignity are assaulted when they receive paid-for ideology and propaganda instead. The big corporations are working in our era to colonize the academic and educational process in the service of the interests of the 1% who own 37% of the wealth in this country. In the US, the top 20% of the population owns an astonishing 87% of the wealth. The ideology of Ayn Rand and Neoliberal economics constitutes the set of ideological lies justifying and covering up this system of domination and exploitation.

Under nationally accepted principles formulated by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), university faculty (as experts in their fields) are the ones to properly control curriculum.  Under AAUP principles, faculty (as experts in their fields) have the academic freedom to investigate and pursue truth impartially, without administrative interference. Administrators have absolutely no place promoting a certain ideology to the university community in exchange for money. If the subject of capitalism and study of Ayn Rand are part of RU’s scholarly offerings, these must be critically examined and introduced by competent faculty experts.  No university administration has a moral right to accept money to manipulate its curriculum in the interest of certain ideas. This strikes at the very heart of university integrity and at the pursuit of truth which is at the heart of a free society.

Background.  For most of its history the U.S. has been characterized by a struggle between ordinary working people (the vast majority) and the corporate owners of industry, banking, transportation, and communications. The key to corporate domination in a society lies in the realm of ideas (ideology).  If the population can be convinced of certain ideas they will accept conditions that are against their own interests and needs.  During each of the great depressions in the U.S., the population expressed greater interest in “democratic socialist” ideas that included unemployment insurance, labor rights, social security, worker safety, employer health insurance plans, pension plans, etc.  The corporations naturally resisted all of these initiatives because they would cut into the margin of corporate profits.

During the terrible depression of 1895 when workers were demanding these kinds of reforms, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) was formed to promote capitalism free from government regulation or restrictions.  During the great depression that began in 1929, when President Roosevelt was struggling to formulate the New Deal reconciliation between labor and capital that gave labor a share in the profits through pension plans and other worker’s rights, the National Association of Manufacturers mounted a systematic nationwide campaign to oppose this. They were afraid of this “creeping socialism” that was eroding the profit margins of industry and capital.

The New Deal was quite successful for the average American worker for several decades, with wages and benefits steadily improving.  The high point for wages and benefits in relation to inflation was in 1973. However, by then capital was big enough, and globalized enough, to begin a counter attack designed to roll back the New Deal and return American workers to a dependent, contingent status as a commodity to be used for the maximization of profit only. This was already the condition of workers in the third world where global capital was freely exploiting them without decent wages, benefits, or any form of job security. Capital was determined to return U.S. workers to a similar condition.

Beginning in the 1970s, NAM began colonizing faculty economists in various universities. It promoted a conversion from the dominant Keynesian economics (based on the work of John Maynard Keynes) which argued that government should regulate business to promote the common good, to Neoliberal economics that argued against all government regulation and for the freedom of capital to operate according to “free market” principles alone. Its big success in the universities was at the University of Chicago with the famous “Chicago School” of economics led by Milton Friedman which advocated this Neoliberal ideology.

Big business also began using its money to buy politicians and influence the making of laws. (Not that it did not always do this in one form or another.) Its first really big triumph was the election of President Ronald Reagan who began a systematic attack on the New Deal in favor of a globalized, raw “free market.” You can read the history of the suffering caused by the collusion between the Chicago School and the U.S. government in imposing “economic shock therapy” on many victim countries around the world in The Shock Doctrine. The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein (2007).  Another big victory for corporate domination of all aspects of life in the US was the “Citizens United” decision of the US Supreme Court in 2010 that gave corporations nearly unlimited right to use their immense wealth to influence the political process in this country.

Since the 1970s big capital also began developing international trade regulations to its own benefit in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and later in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the new right wing U.S. federal government led the way in this development (under both Democrat and Republican presidents). According to recent WTO regulations, corporations can sue governments if government labor, environmental, or other regulations cut into their profit margins while doing business in any WTO country. During this period, as well, the ideology of Ayn Rand, who taught a gospel of pure egoistic selfishness and survival of the fittest, became a key component in the development of Neoliberal economic ideology.  Professor Emeritus of Finance, Edward Herman, describes Ayn Rand as follows:

 The novelist Ayn Rand, most famously the author of Atlas Shrugged, was an extreme proponent of individualist, free enterprise, anti-government ideology, and it is no coincidence that one of her cult admirers and associates, Alan Greenspan, became a leading member of the policy-making elite in the 1980s and into 2006. Greenspan contributed three chapters to Rand’s 1966 book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, all of them reflecting her – and Greenspan’s – ultra laissez-faire ideology. In one, Greenspan castigates antitrust law and practice as not merely harmful, but with the “hidden intent” of injuring the “productive and efficient members of our society.” In another, he claims that all government regulation represented “force and fraud” as the means of consumer protection, whereas it is “profit-seeking which is the unexcelled protector of the consumer.”   http://www.zcommunications.org/neoliberalism-and-bottom-line-morality-by-edward-herman

The grant from BT&T for a course in capitalism that includes the work of Ayn Rand, therefore, is consistent with this background in which big capital is using its immense resources to colonize the political and educational institutions within the U.S. to promote its Neoliberal ideology of pure greed and selfishness free of democratic governmental controls at home and worldwide. It is part of a larger effort mounted by big capital since the 1970s to roll back the New Deal and any sense of entitlement that ordinary working people (who produce the wealth through their labor) might have to share in the profits of business, banking, and industry.

That is why the arrangement at Radford University must be taken seriously, because it is part of this larger, devastating attack on the rights of ordinary people at home and abroad to a share of the world’s wealth and to live lives of dignity.  Not only does the ideology of Ayn Rand attack this dignity at its heart but the fact of a university accepting this arrangement for the promotion of an ideology violates the academic freedom and pedagogical autonomy of the university, its faculty, and its educational mission.

Students deserve an education that empowers them to become productive and successful citizens in a viable democracy. That is what RU’s “citizen-scholar” program is supposed to be about. The colonization of the curriculum by the ideology of big business, at the expense of Radford University’s students and their future, strikes at the free pursuit of truth that is the student’s right to expect as the foundation of their education. Instead of the pursuit of truth guided by faculty experts trained in this process, which is the most democratic and empowering aspect of a higher education, we are given propaganda and ideology designed to colonize our minds and our future in the service of domination by the 1%.  We need to resist, protest, and fight back in order to reclaim our university on behalf of its faculty and students.

Glen T. Martin is Professor of Philosophy and Chairperson of the RU Interdisciplinary Program in Peace Studies