There are many reasons why the creeping privatisation of public universities that we have witnessed in the past decade and more is a dangerous phenomenon. For one thing, the transfer of the cost of funding universities from the public at large to students and their families has the effect of making universities more exclusive, less democratic, and less accessible, particularly to “non-traditional” students who have long been the targets of an American university system as much about democratisation and citizenship as about training people for particular jobs.
And while too much utilitarianism in an institution of research and education can be a bad thing under any circumstances, if universities have some social responsibility, it is surely best that it should be to the public than to whatever private interests might fund it.
We are also seeing another byproduct of privatisation. When so much funding comes from private sources, those sources can inevitably have some impact on the kinds of thinking and research that is being done. In public research universities, researchers and faculty are able to reject efforts to obviously influence their work or their conclusions because such efforts cannot be made publicly and because universities have a great deal of control over how they spend publicly-provided funds.
In a private setting, on the other hand, those private sources providing funding can attach restrictions to that funding.
The Koch Empire, one of the most formidable bodies for the promotion of social inequality and corporate welfare, has been doing precisely this. A couple of years ago, the two sociopathic brothers, whose political efforts amount to stripping security away from the working class to increase their own wealth and power, and that of their class, gave $1.5 million to Florida State’s economics department. In exchange for this pittance they retain the rights to “screen and sign off on any hires for any new program promoting ‘political economy and free enterprise’”.
The point of the research done in public universities is that its researchers labour without conditions using public funds, thereby retaining the freedom to set their own agendas according to their deep knowledge of their fields, and the right to draw conclusions according to their investigations, data, or experiments. Theirs, in other words, is a liberty to pursue a kind of “truth”. But if they know that they will only retain their position or funding by drawing conclusions acceptable to politically-minded patrons, it’s a new ballgame.
So when state’s divest from their public institutions, they make those institutions and the people working within them vulnerable to the advances of and pressures applied by not only the likes of the Koch Brothers, but anyone with an ideological axe to grind. Much work in the social sciences and humanities naturally has some kind of politics...people being people—with life experiences, viewpoints, etc—that’s only to be expected. But it’s very different from the pure propaganda that the Koch Brothers are funding.
Their subversion of our institutions of higher education—at a moment when we are being persuaded to withdraw our support from such institutions to allow the rich to renege on their social responsibilities—is but one part of the assault on our democracy being launched by wealthy and irresponsible interests today.