The neoliberal university faces a crisis: This generation could change everything

College administrators have shown who they really work for: Wall Street. It's a moment when change is possible

By Henry A. Giroux

Contributing Writer

Published June 8, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

Pro Palestinian protesters stand off with police during a rally on the campus of UCLA in Los Angeles on Thursday, May 23, 2024. (Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)
Pro Palestinian protesters stand off with police during a rally on the campus of UCLA in Los Angeles on Thursday, May 23, 2024. (Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

There can be little doubt that neoliberalism has undermined, if not crippled, the notion of higher education as a democratic public sphere — a protective and courageous space where students can speak, write and act from a position of agency and informed judgment. This should be a space where education does the bridging work of connecting schools to the wider society, connects the self to others, and addresses important social and political issues. It should also provide conditions for students to develop a heightened sense of social responsibility, coupled with a passion for equality, justice and freedom. Instead, as Chris Hedges notes, universities increasingly have become “a playground for corporate administrators [who] demand, like all who manage corporate systems of power, total obedience. Dissent. Freedom of expression. Critical thought. Moral outrage. These have no place in our corporate-indentured universities.” 

In the spirit of ruthless equity firms and asset-stripping hedge fund managers that dominates the financial realm, pedagogies of conformity, silencing and ethical abandonment now proliferate, either under the guise of budget cuts or as overt attempts to transform higher education into white nationalist indoctrination centers. Universities are now viewed as businesses, students as clients and faculty as a serf-like, casual labor force. Furthermore, administrative leadership has regressed, embracing a market-driven ideology that clings to the irrational belief that the market can solve all problems and should control not only the economy but all aspects of social life.

Central to this hedge-fund neoliberal ideology is a moral vacuity that separates economic activity from social costs. Fundamental to this educational/ideological mantra is the notion that  historical consciousness, critical thinking, informed faculty, social responsibility and critical pedagogy are at odds with the market. Consequently, it posits that government and institutions such as higher education only exist to further market interests and avoid holding the power of markets and the financial elite accountable. At its worse, it embraces a larger principle of authoritarian societies — what Evan Osnos in The New Yorker (writing about China) calls “governance by repression.”  

Pedagogies of repression now take place in the name of financial cuts, a politics of precarity and hollow appeals to efficiency or, as in the politics of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, outright calls for turning higher education into indoctrination centers. Moreover, this approach to administrative leadership embodies and legitimizes a reactionary ideological stance that mirrors the practices of hedge fund managers and the ruthless values of gangster capitalism. This model of leadership prioritizes the accumulation of capital over ethics, human needs and basic human rights. By shutting down freedom of speech on campuses and using the police to enforce such restrictions, it fuels a culture of unaccountability that  enables the Republican Party to prioritize threats of revenge and violence as part of its ruthless drive to amass political power. This is leadership in the service of authoritarianism.

University leaders now follow policies that resemble the suffocating profit-driven values of Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, rather than the democratic values of John Dewey. At the same time, billionaires such as Bill Ackman, Leslie Wexner, Jon Huntsman and Robert Kraft now exercise extraordinary influence over higher education policy, particularly at the elite universities. They wield accusations of antisemitism and leverage the power of their wealth to silence criticism of the right-wing Israeli government, call for the firing of professors deemed too critical and outspoken regarding genocidal crimes, and dox and punish students for their criticism of scorched-earth Israeli attacks on Palestinians in Gaza.

Furthermore, they advocate for silencing protests on campuses by calling in the police, effectively transforming higher education into a precinct of the police state. Certainly, Donald Trump echoes this authoritarian view, indicating his willingness to use military force to suppress student dissent if he is elected in 2024. He has referred to the protesters setting up encampments on college campuses as "radical-left lunatics" who must be vanquished, adding that "they've got to be stopped now." 

For a criminal defendant recently convicted of felonies, Trump's hardline stance on "law and order" is decidedly ironic, especially since he described the large-scale arrests of Columbia University students by New York police as "a beautiful thing to watch." In essence, what Trump and his followers are endorsing in these attacks on students is a broader view of policing as a vanguard of suppression and white supremacy. What we are witnessing here is the weaponization of authoritarianism: The punishing state has become the organizing force shaping a range of institutions, extending from university campuses to the Supreme Court and the House of Representatives. 

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Refusing to acknowledge any moral responsibility for their investments in weapons of war and death, university administrators align with far-right political figures and the mainstream media. They divert the narrative away from the immense suffering and death inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza, focusing instead on the weaponization of antisemitism and alleged widespread threats against Jewish students, marginalizing those Jewish protesters advocating for Palestinian freedom.

What has become clear is that elite universities value big-money donors over students and are more than willing to clamp down on free speech and academic freedom, and to summon police to do the bidding of the billionaire class.

At the same time, when democracy is scorned and some political leaders call for illiberal alternatives — a society in which difference is feared and equality is disparaged — it is often forgotten that without informed and knowledgeable citizens, democracies die. Even more crucial is the recognition that democracy demands more than informed citizens; it also needs institutions fostering a “richly textured democratic culture," in the words of Eddie S. Glaude Jr., and that cultivates the “habits and dispositions necessary for its flourishing.” Amid mass conformity, standardization and repression, the conditions necessary to combat white supremacy, patriarchy and staggering levels of inequality are dwindling, and by suppressing dissent and freedom of expression, many powerful university administrators are contributing to the rise of authoritarianism.   

Hedge-fund politics and pedagogy exemplify gangster capitalism's destruction of institutions that champion free speech, social responsibility and strong democracy. This influence is pernicious, echoing fascist politics of the past, and undermines free speech and the critical role of higher education. What we are witnessing is a new form of McCarthyism, cloaked in the alleged wisdom of a ruthless billionaire elite. This ideology has been normalized, perceived by the public as a permanent social formation for which there is no alternative. The education promoted by the hedge-fund crowd aims to dismantle the university as a democratic public sphere and convert democracy itself into what one of their heroes, Viktor Orbán, calls "illiberal democracy" — one that, as he puts it, is free of mixed races and any vestige of liberal values.

What has become clear is that elite universities value big-money donors over students and are more than willing to clamp down on free speech and academic freedom, and to summon the police to do the bidding of the billionaire class. This display of cowardice is breathtaking. It symbolizes the death of the university as a democratic public sphere, as well as the willingness of its hedge-fund administrators to clamp down on student protesters in order to stay employed. Will Bunch observes that we are witnessing history repeat itself as tragedy:

The moral insanity of America's long war in Vietnam — protested by 1960s kids who were on the right side of history, even if the grown-ups didn't see it in real time. History doesn't repeat but it rhymes, gratingly. As a new generation of young people speaks out against attacks on women and children halfway around the world — this time in Gaza — college administrators from Boston to L.A. are racing to call in heavily armored riot cops to shut down protest encampments at campuses they'd sold to applicants as bastions of academic freedom, open expression, and historic demonstrations that had changed the world. They are destroying the American university in order to keep it "safe." In a week when decades happened, the lowest moments in what became a nationwide assault on college free speech by militarized police veered from shock to tragicomical irony.

We get a glimpse of what Trump’s not-entirely-accidental call for a “unified Reich” portends in his call “to crush pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses [and] expel student demonstrators from the United States.” Let me be clear in stating that the current war on campus protesters makes this fascist project all the easier to legitimize. In this self-cloning hedge-fund ideology, budget cuts become a cover for a discourse that reveals an astonishing vacancy of vision regarding the public and democratic purpose of education. Cuts are routinely made to valuable and critical educational programs in the name of economic expediency and fear of deficits, echoing the language of accountants in pencil factories. Under such circumstances, the liberal arts and humanities are disparaged either because they are labeled “woke”— an idiotic, self-serving label used to undermine the critical role of education — or because they do not serve the immediate interest  of creating depoliticized workers for a global economy marked by staggering inequities, increasing deregulation and exploitative working conditions. 

It is worth noting here that "punishment creep" has a long legacy in the U.S. and can be seen in the modeling of schools after prisons, the gradual hollowing-out of the welfare state, matched by an expansion of the state’s policing functions, and the increasing criminalization of social issues ranging from homelessness and truancy to poverty. The reach of the carceral state has now been expanded to include higher education.

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More is at risk in the current right-wing attacks on higher education, and potentially on dissent in general. While there has been considerable reporting on students' calls for a free Palestine, financial transparency and the severing of ties with industries that profit from and fuel Israel’s war and occupation, there has been little coverage of the plight of dissenting academics. As Natasha Lennard points out in The Intercept, professors and researchers in fields such as “politics, sociology, Japanese literature, public health, Latin American and Caribbean studies, Middle East and African studies, mathematics, education, and more have been fired, suspended, or removed from the classroom” for[expressing pro-Palestine speech. It would be wise to heed the words of Anita Levy, senior program officer with the American Association of University Professors, who states that “we are at the dawn of a new McCarthyism. This may be the tip of the iceberg.”

Today’s student protesters recognize that the military-industrial-academic complex, aligned with gangster capitalism, is writing them out of the script of democracy.

In an age when the landscape of tyranny casts a dark shadow across the globe, the weight of conscience carries both a burden and the potential for a profound moral and political awakening. This courageous generation of students exemplifies that when social responsibility is guided by the demands of moral witnessing, politics can effectively challenge the pervasive influence and grasp of an emerging authoritarianism. In such times, conscience emerges as an unwavering force, compelling individuals to stand firm and resist the rising tides of ultranationalism, racism, state violence and militarism. It urges them to resist the encroachment of oppression upon those individuals and groups who, in their struggle for freedom, are too often deemed disposable.   

Students across the country and indeed the globe are making it clear that if we wish to talk about democracy in the United States and other countries, we must confront the rise of authoritarianism. Only by awakening the stirrings of morality and embracing an emancipatory notion of politics can we envision a strong democracy that ignites, inspires and energizes the public imagination, galvanizing the burden of conscience to action. Today’s student protesters recognize that the military-industrial-academic complex, aligned with gangster capitalism, is writing them out of the script of democracy, while engaging in the slow cancelation of the future. Instead of vilifying campus protesters, as so many liberals and conservatives have done, we need to acknowledge that they represent the moral conscience of a new generation — one that is on the right side of history.  

The campus protesters exemplify the courage and moral conscience needed in times of crisis. By doing so, they direct their politics toward an imagined future where democracy is truly in the hands of the people. Their resistance to the genocide taking place in Gaza showcases the power of critical thought and analysis, as well as a commitment not only to think critically but also to transform consciousness and existing power structures. This protest represents both a courageous call to resistance and a crucial claim for justice.

By Henry A. Giroux

Henry A. Giroux holds the Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest at McMaster University and is the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy.

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