My Dysfunctional University
How corporations turned education into wealth extraction.
It started the day after my job offer.
My department chair called me. "They want you to sign a new contract," he said. The first one offered me too much money.
It was already signed, in the mail.
That didn't matter.
You're right, I probably could've sued them. I probably should've found another job. Before we go any further, you have to understand something. Universities do a lot of unethical, illegal stuff. They get away with it for one simple reason. The vast majority of us who work for universities start out as naive idealists. We enter academic professions seeking refuge from the soul-crushing cultures of the corporate world. It takes us a while to realize that corporations have gotten their fingers into universities, ruining most of them.
So, I signed the new contract.
It offered me about two thousand dollars less. It felt like a small concession for my dream job, a tenure-track position at a fairly major university. In reality, they were already testing me to see what I'd put up with.
When I arrived, my department chair had a job for me. Since I was going to be teaching and running a program, he wanted me to introduce myself to every single class. "Get to know the students," he said. So every day for two weeks, I stopped what I was doing every hour to give a little speech. Then I went home and did my real work, preparing lesson plans and writing articles.
My university promised me a laptop and a desktop computer. They lost my order twice. Six months later, they gave me a refurbished laptop. Around the end of the year, my desktop finally came.
By then, I'd already bought my own.
They wouldn't reimburse me.
They also promised to reimburse me for a conference and lost the paperwork twice.
"Could you do me a favor?" the department chair said. "I need you to fill in for me for a little while."
"How long?" I asked.
That's how much vacation time my department chair had accrued over a decade of service. The university told him one day that it was going to expire. They weren't going to pay him for it, either. So he quit. I wound up running the department until his permanent replacement came on board.
That's when I learned...
Every single day, offices on campus sent forms back unprocessed because they didn't like how they were filled out. They made our graduate students write thank you letters before releasing their fellowships and assistantships. They sent those back to us, too. Someone in the financial aid office was marking them up for grammatical mistakes.
She was always wrong.
Some of our graduate students didn't get their funds until halfway through the semester. They had to take out loans just to pay their bills.
We were buying their groceries.
They started doing the same thing to our freshmen. Students started showing up at our offices, in tears. Turns out, it wasn't just about the financial aid, either. "I've been walking around campus all day," one of them said. "Nobody will tell me how to sign up for classes."
"They just hand me more forms."
"I have no idea what to do."
One year, the university didn't process federal financial aid on time. Then they dropped hundreds of students from their classes in the middle of the night. Then they made us write each of them a letter asking for them to be reinstated. Then they sent the letters back to us.
"They aren't formatted right," someone said.
"There's no instructions on how to format them!" I screamed.
I finally browbeat them into accepting the letters.
That was fun.
One year, the head of our university scheduled two meetings to talk about our budget crisis. One professor asked, "What's our actual budget?"
Our head of finance said, "We don't know."
A week later, the university passed a new set of policies. You had to get university approval to order paper. You had to get university approval to order projector bulbs. You had to get university approval to order pens. Each approval required a form. It had to be signed by five people.
Meanwhile, the head of our university erected a brick wall around his mansion. He was tired of seeing students outside his window. He started sending his wife to meetings to represent him while he held fundraisers.
They were actually wine tastings.
One day the head of our university took a six-week vacation. Then he came back and announced he was taking a sabbatical for a year. He was going to earn his full salary, at roughly $400,000 a year.
Then he retired.
One day my university announced they were moving my entire department to another building. "We're bringing in Starbucks," they said.
I said, "Can our students even afford Starbucks?"
"It's actually for us," they said.
I'm just kidding. They didn't say that. But that's what they meant. As soon as the Starbucks was done, all of our deans and vice chancellors started lining up for lattes every morning, on their way to their meetings. Sure enough, all of them were drinking Starbucks all day long. Here's what you need to know about our upper administration:
They have a lot of meetings.
I've been to these meetings. Not much ever happens. They love coming up with plans. They love making things complicated. They love hiring consultants, but they hate doing things. One time, they said they wanted consultants to write a report telling them how many classrooms they had. They write a lot of reports. They write a lot of memos. They draft a lot of policies.
We have a food bank on campus. It was originally designed for students. Guess who uses it most?
I've worked at this university for about seven years now. We've never gotten a raise, not even for cost of living. Our deans and vice chancellors give themselves raises. They recently passed a policy saying we can't work second jobs.
We can't have side hustles, either.
As you can imagine, faculty have been leaving. My university won't approve new hires. Someone proposed the deans and vice chancellors start teaching classes to help us with the shortages. One of them said, "I'm overqualified to teach." Another said, "I'm too smart."
"I'll confuse them."
Some of our teachers have stopped grading assignments. Others have stopped showing up to their classes.
One of our professors got sexually assaulted by one of her students, in her own classroom. The campus police said they weren't sure she was telling the truth.
Every year, my university lets a third of their adjuncts go half the semester without a paycheck. They forget to process their paperwork. Then they lose their paperwork. Then they decide the paperwork hasn't been filled out properly, and they wait until we ask them about it.
A few years ago, one of our faculty retired. I took over her work, and her courses. Instead of giving me a raise or a bonus, my dean gave me...
A chocolate bar.
All of this has consequences. My university can't find anyone who wants to teach anymore. We have instructors who barely know how to use the internet. They're trying to teach students who know how to use artificial intelligence. They're trying to teach students who know how to code. Our students figure out pretty quickly they aren't going to learn anything here.
Here's the interesting part. I'm not describing anything all that unusual in higher education. Dozens of universities operate this way. They run like corporations. Increasingly, they're run by corporations. Teachers don't make decisions. Deans don't even make decisions.
Boards of trustees do.
These boards comprise CEOs, bankers, and hedge fund managers. They treat universities like real estate investments. They consider them assets. And so they cut costs everywhere they can. They're turning education into a minimum viable product. They have no motivation to lower tuition or improve instruction. They don't care if students can find a good job after they graduate.
My university decided to raise tuition by 30 percent one year. They did it during the summer, when most of us weren't employed. Students started crying when they got their bill. Many of them had to drop their courses. They transferred if they could, or they got jobs.
They gave up.
The upper administration at many universities make anywhere from $150,000 to $400,000 a year. It's usually three or four times what we make.
Just like a corporation...
Universities invest most of their time fundraising to build athletic facilities. They pay coaches even more than they pay chancellors. People believe football and basketball programs bring money into universities.
I've watched universities go bankrupt trying to fund their athletic programs, based on the belief it would attract more students. My friend taught at a university that couldn't pay their electricity bill one year, because they sank it all into a football stadium. They had to liquidate three of their departments.
The people in charge don't listen.
Vice chancellors schedule meetings with us at 8 am, and then cancel at the last minute. They fill our inboxes with memos that don't make any sense. They tell us to write reports and proposals, and they don't read them. They hire consultants to tell us what we already know.
"You have to reach students," they say.
The public believes myths and stereotypes about professors. They think we get summers off. In reality, we aren't employed for three months. Most of us work summer jobs, like we did when we were teenagers. We work in retail. We drive for Uber. We deliver groceries. Some of us try our luck on OnlyFans.
So, why should you care?
Whether you realize it or not, whether you care or not, higher education is collapsing. More and more employers don't require a college degree anymore. I think they've figured out that a degree doesn't mean much. They're launching their own training and certificate programs. Now you can complete degrees online through Coursera. They're partnering with employers across industries to do what universities don't seem to have any interest in:
Of course, there's a problem here. These new programs teach skills, but they don't teach values. They don't teach civics. They don't teach history.
They don't teach critical thinking.
I would know, because I've been taking these courses. I'm planning to leave education. I have been for a while.
You don't learn much about ethics in certificate programs offered by major employers. It's not profitable. It often gets in the way of profits. It's not good for corporations when their employees understand socialism. They don't need their employees to know moral philosophy.
It doesn't matter if they learn about apartheid.
Anyway, elite universities will be fine.
The richest institutions will probably benefit from the larger collapse of higher education. In fact, they already are. When smaller universities like mine fail, the flagships see a boost in enrollment. Of course, that's not a problem for affluent students and their families. They can afford to go to bigger schools. What about everyone else? Well, they wind up in these online certificate programs, learning skills but not values.
Here's why it matters:
Elite universities produce elitists. They produce the next generation's corrupt politicians. They produce the next generation's CEOs, the next wave of influencers, the next wave of bankers and hedge fund managers. They perpetuate their own class values, with their own architects and engineers who serve their own interests.
Universities like mine produce nurses, social workers, and general practitioners. We produce the next generation of construction managers and civil engineers. We're the ones who keep society functioning.
We ensure an educated working class with a basic appreciation of art, history, ethics, and culture.
At least, we did.
Corporations have captured universities like mine. They turned them into dysfunctional hellscapes that extract wealth from society. They take tuition from students, and give nothing back but a piece of paper saying they might be qualified for a job that doesn't even exist anymore.
Hey, at least we have a Starbucks.
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