A leadership university for the twenty-first century? Corporate administration, contingent labor, and the erosion of faculty rights

Mary Nolan

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    In 2005, the premier international business magazine the Economist accorded NYU the dubious distinction of leading American higher education into a brave, new corporate future. American universities are the best in the world, according to the Economist, and the secret of their success is attributable neither to American wealth nor per capita spending on higher education. Rather, it is because the best universities are private, faculty are not civil servants, the federal government plays a limited role (except when turbocharging particular research fi elds), and schools compete for students, faculty, and money. American universities forge links between academe and the corporate world-especially the high-tech knowledge industries.1 According to the Economist, NYU's rise "from underdog to top dog" came in part from hiring academic superstars. Much more important was NYU's ability to turn its downtown location into an asset and spot and exploit market niches. What made all of these market savvy activities possible was "the fact that power is concentrated in the hands of the central administration." While "most universities in other countries distribute power among the professors," the Economist concluded, "American universities have established a counterbalance to the power of the faculty in the person of the president, which allows some of them to act more like entrepreneurial fi rms than lethargic academic bodies."2 The NYU administration, not known for its modesty, shares this positive assessment. Upon becoming president of NYU in 2002, John Sexton proclaimed that the university was "poised to effect a category change" and become "among a handful of 'leadership universities'" in the twenty-fi rst century. Unburdened by "entrenched or anachronistic structures and archetypes," NYU could "capitalize" on its location in the "geographic capital of the world" and "live the interconnection between the world of ideas and the world of action." In language a corporate turnaround expert might employ, Sexton promised that the "university leadership team" would begin "probing our selfdefi nition, concentrating on key issues, and overcoming institutional reticence." NYU would become "the enterprise university," a model of intellectual community, energetic entrepreneurship, accountability, and governance.3 In Sexton's subsequent epistles to the NYU community-there are often several a year-he elaborated his vision in a much more explicitly market language. The essence of the "common enterprise" (a term adopted when faculty objected to the excessively corporate connotations of the original designation) was "our University's special blend of creativity, entrepreneurship, cooperation, striving and dedication." NYU had "a venture capital attitude."4 When the Kaufmann Foundation awarded NYU a $1 million grant to "make entrepreneurship education a common and accessible campus-wide opportunity," NYU agreed to raise $5 million in matching funds. "Entrepreneurship was key to creating the NYU that exists today," Sexton stated. "This grant . . . is a perfect fi t for NYU."5 In 2003, he proudly noted that NYU had developed "a culture of rigorous review and accountability," and talk of "the research enterprise," "the teaching enterprise," and "the intellectual marketplace" is pervasive. Faculty, administrators, students, and staff are described as "stakeholders" and lauded for their willingness "to invest" in realizing NYU's ambition.6 This is a far cry from the days when NYU could claim to be true to its motto, "A private university in the public service." Even the discussion of NYU as a "global university," the preferred designation in the 1990s, is now couched in terms of global economic competition and entrepreneurial opportunities. NYU, Sexton insists, must not only pursue fiscal discipline but also "explore new entrepreneurial opportunities" and do more to "develop revenue sources."7 With government support for higher education declining, "marketplace competition from commercial providers" expanding, and NYU having reached the limits of its ability to borrow money and raise funds by expanding the student body, the university needs to reconsider "our techniques for treating our major product [knowledge]."8 The Development Offi ce, with a full-time staff of ninety-eight and a yearly budget of $26 million, aims to bring in $1 million a day until the goal of $2.5 billion is reached.9 Like other universities, NYU has aggressively marketed its undergraduate and continuing-education programs and outsourced many activities, such as cleaning and food services. Research universities, Sexton wrote, "will be tempted to act more and more like commercial institutions." Indeed, NYU already has succumbed to that temptation. In 2005, it reported earning more than $133 million from intellectual-property licensing.10 While acknowledging that intellectual-property licensing is complex and risky, Sexton insists that fi nancially needy universities must pursue revenue this way. The academy should not "devalue research that enters the world." Indeed, "an enlightened approach" might enable social scientists to emulate scientists by linking their research to those outside the academy and thereby produce commercial revenue to support higher education.11 To be sure, as befi ts his doctorate in theology and self-proclaimed identity as a person of faith,12 Sexton also speaks a religiously infl ected language of dialogue and duty, of sacred spaces and spiritual missions. In the enterprise model, he wrote in 2002, "Each person who accepts the title of professor simultaneously accepts a larger duty to the entire community." Students, faculty, administrators, and staff are "privileged" to be at NYU, and "those to whom a good is given must give something back in return."13 Even as the university pursues commercial revenues, it must "sustain a sacred space for learning and discovery."14 Sexton has repeatedly called for consultation, dialogue, and cooperation, insisting that he cannot succeed alone: "We will succeed or John will fail.15 Faith and the market, communal spirit and entrepreneurship, dialogue and competition coexist in Sexton's vision of the enterprise university. In practice, it has proved easier to corporatize than to create a community. This essay explores how the enterprise university has profoundly restructured the personnel and management practices of the administration, as well as the remuneration and status of academic labor. It suggests how these changes have eroded faculty rights, diminished faculty governance, and destroyed any sense of common interests and goals.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Title of host publicationThe University Against Itself
    Subtitle of host publicationThe NYU Strike and the Future of the Academic Workplace
    PublisherTemple University Press
    Number of pages14
    ISBN (Print)9781592137411
    StatePublished - 2008

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • General Social Sciences


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