Corporate Capture of Education

The “Corporate University” and Enclosure of Student Activism

Julia Hammond

February 18, 2024

Rebecca Dolhinow is a Professor in the Women and Gender Studies Department at California State University, Fullerton. Her research focuses on activism, education, youth social justice activism, and immigrant community organizing, among other topics. 

This conversation uses as its starting point Professor Dolhinow’s 2017 article titled “Activism on the Corporate Campus.” In the interview, we discuss the “corporatization” of American universities. University administrations work to “enclose” activist spaces in an effort to maintain their images and preserve their marketability as sellers of higher education. As a result of enclosure and bureaucratic management from university administration, student activism often takes on a less radical, more watered-down form.

Julia Hammond: We can start with talking about what the corporate university looks like, if that’s okay. What makes an organization or university corporate, and when did universities become “corporate?” 

Rebecca Dolhinow: It’s funny, when you ask what does a corporation look like—I’m not a business person. I’m not a law person. I understand a corporation is an entity of many people put together. And I think when we talk about a “corporation” in terms of anything that is not an actual corporation, we’re talking about it in a very theoretical way. We’re taking it and using it as a tool to understand something else. So I use the term in a social-theoretical manner. For me, that means taking into account hierarchical patterns of control and power. Being able to control the people that work for you, and make sure that they’re following what you want them to do. Profit, usually, is the goal behind that.

I’m also talking about the capitalist neoliberal corporation, right? And “image” is really important to a corporation. I think these are the key ideas for people who have thought about the corporate university.

When did universities become corporations? I don’t think that it happened overnight. And obviously they aren’t corporations, in the legal sense. But when did they start to act like corporations—when did people start to notice?

Everything has to be done for profit, that’s the end goal. You only do things to get to something. Nothing is ever done in and of itself. Which is why neoliberalism hates community so much. Because community is about helping each other, not yourself.

My job has changed, and the university experience is different for students. I think it’s worked its way along the same curve as so many things have been influenced by neoliberal capitalism. If you look at Wendy Brown’s book on neoliberalism, there’s a chapter on universities, and it’s taking the same path as everything else: this idea that everything is individual. Everything has to be done for profit, that’s the end goal. You only do things to get to something. Nothing is ever done in and of itself. Which is why neoliberalism hates community so much. Because community is about helping each other, not yourself. So I think it [the corporatization of the university] was a slow thing and it sort of paralleled the growth of neoliberalism.

This is not to say at all that universities were ever completely community-based, for-the-good-of-the-world institutions. Education in the United States is always served a purpose, and that is to create more little worker bees, right? That’s always what it’s been about.

And the university—well, the word “uni” comes from the idea of a universal education—has been in the past more about educating students in many different areas, getting a universal education so that a scholar can go out and talk about all kinds of different things and have, you know, “dinner table” conversations. They can be a good citizen who is able to discuss lots of different ideas and worldviews. That part of the university is stressed less now. 

I don’t think universities think they’re stressing it less, but as they cut down general education requirements, they are stressing that less. The more and more you make every class a student takes be in their major, you are shrinking their ability to talk about the world at “dinner table” conversations. Right. And certainly in my 17 years at this university, I have noticed that shift.

In describing the corporate university, I think of a pyramid. When we think about education in the university, we think of a pyramid: at the bottom, it’s faculty and students. You have lots of faculty and students and the top would be like the president, the provost, and administration.

But this [indicating an upside-down triangle] is the corporate university . The admin–that’s where the bulk is. That’s where we’re hiring now. And the smaller part at the bottom is where the faculty is. The students are that big chunk in the middle. More and more we find that budgets, the hiring, it’s all happening up in the admin.

Okay. And that’s one of the ways in which I think it mirrors a corporation too, is the growing importance of controlling and dictating how everything is done. When I first came on, we created our syllabi and curriculum all ourselves. Now, the idea that [faculty] would know what’s best to learn is not something they think about. And that really influences how the university works in terms of administrative bloat and how faculty relate to the university. 

JH: It’s interesting to hear about this from your perspective. I was in a program in college with a very broad focus, I had to learn philosophy and art and spend two years of college on things outside of my major. And it was not a perfect program, but it was a great experience. 

RD: Yeah. Like I tell my students, there’s this “finish in four” thing. There’s so much stress at our institution, all the Cal States and the UCs–get it done, get ’em out, move ’em on–and I tell my students, just ignore it. This is just once in a lifetime privilege. And it’s an amazing privilege that so many people in the world don’t have. Take all the extra classes you can, learn everything you can. You are never in your life going to get this time back.