The Corporatization of Public Higher Education

The Case of Sonoma State University

The new Center for Ethics, Law, and Society at Sonoma State University in Northern California has caused quite a stir among our academic community during the first week of classes, as well as from those outside SSU. Its funding and the further corporatization of public higher education have been questioned.

The notorious insurance monolith AIG provided two-thirds of the Ethics Center’s $16,000 first year budget. What might AIG’s intentions have been for funding the Center? AIG has not been known for its ethics. In fact, the insurer’s risky bets on derivatives were central to the 2008 economic crash. They received a $182 billion bailout. Yes, billion, with a big B.

Retired SSU Professor Robert Plantz reminded the university community on the faculty email list that AIG is “talking about suing our government for what they think is a lousy deal in the bailout.”  So much for gratitude and ethics. AIG is one more mega-corporation jumping on the bandwagon to further privatize SSU and influence the education it offers students.

“If we allow economic entities to control our culture, to create the assumptions that underlie our lives, there can be no possibility of individual human freedom,” according to Abraham Entin of Move to Amend Sonoma County.  “Economic entities need orderly access to resources and markets. They need docile workers and striving consumers. The last thing they desire are free human individuals.  When they ‘support’ education it is for these ends and no others. We are fools when we allow them access to our children and schools.”

Corporations are pumping an increasing amount of ill-earned big money into public education throughout the United States, trying to bend it to meet their corporate goals. This threatens academic freedom and free speech.

It is bad enough when one is censored. Self-censorship can be even worse, where one holds back communicating what they really believe. Humanities faculty, such as this reporter, are supposed to teach critical thinking. Instead, when corporations and millionaires buy their way into universities, receive unearned honorary doctorates, and fund research, their biases prevail and dissent is diminished.  Students tend to fear challenging corporate power and policies and become obedient, partly so they can get jobs in an employment-scarce climate.

Former Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill gave $12 million to SSU’s controversial for-profit Green Music Center last year, for which he was rewarded with an honorary doctorate. Time magazine describes Weill as one of the “25 people to blame for the financial crisis.”

MasterCard then gave a few more million dollars to the GMC, in exchange for special access to students to sell its products. One wonders what other millionaires and corporations might be already or soon knocking on SSU’s door to help direct education at the public university.

“The funding of SSU’s Ethics Center is one more example of the privatization of education,” said SSU alumnus Susan Lamont of the Peace and Justice Center and a key organizer of the ShameOnSSU protest against Weill’s honorary doctorate at last year’s graduation.

“The wealthy and corporations make sure they pay little or no taxes, public institutions become financially stressed, bonds are sold and the wealthy profit at both ends of the deal,” said Lamont. “‘Philanthropists’ or corporations come in as saviors with wads of cash, the public is grateful, and academic freedoms are chipped away slowly, but surely.”

The public first heard about the Ethics Center in an article headlined “Some Topics Too Close to Home for SSU Ethics Center.” The sub-head of the Jan. 17 article in the daily Press Democrat by Jeremy Hay was “Director of new venture opts not to weigh in on donor AIG’s role in economic crisis.” Since the article appeared, numerous letters to the editor have questioned SSU’s ethics.

When asked by PD reporter Hay if the Center would deal with the controversy of financier Sandy Weill receiving an honorary doctorate, the Center’s director, philosophy lecturer Joshua Glasgow, responded, “I don’t think I can comment.” What happened to free speech and academic freedom at SSU?

“I’ve learned to zip it here,” a long-time SSU staff member commented, drawing her fingers across her lips, when asked about the Ethics Center. Such fear of reprisal for having an opinion is not conducive to educating students to be good citizens, which is allegedly part of SSU’s mission.

Many have expressed ethical reservations about the AIG funding, but not Professor Glasgow. “That’s just the way it flows,” he said.  This contention “has no standing as a moral argument; witness slavery, smoking, nuclear arms, human trafficking, etc.” writes retired Professor Philip Beard, who now works for GoLocal. He asserts that such a “shoulder shrug should itself be the target of an ethical investigation.”

“The Ethics Center has a basic challenge to speak to the ethics of taking money from AIG,” noted retired Political Science Professor John Kramer.  “The goal of conservatives is to so starve the public-caring institutions of funding that they are overwhelmingly beholden to private and corporate interests. Now they are often intimidated about speaking their truth.”

“Any entity designated an ‘Ethics Center’ has a special responsibility to scrutinize the moral and ethical correlates of its own supporting foundation, structure, and functioning, especially its filtering of acceptable and unacceptable issues,” noted Sociology Professor Noel Byrne. “Such filtering merits close scrutiny,” added Professor Byrne. “Hay’s story suggests that this issue is lost in the fog of myopic oversight.”

“The implications of sacrificing academic freedom in the name of ethics are mindboggling,” wrote Tim Nonn, who has a doctorate in ethics, in an unpublished letter to the PD. “What if a corporation based in the South had provided a grant to a university’s history department, but forbade teaching the history of slavery in America? Would the grant make the surrender of academic freedom acceptable?

“I had always assumed that a university existed to free, not enslave, minds. In this case, I was wrong. The popular motto on the walls of many universities throughout the world, veritas vos liberabit (the truth shall set you free), will never adorn the walls of SSU,” Nonn added.

“What good is an Ethics Center that won’t discuss it’s own ethics?” asked Thomas Morabito of Occupy Sebastopol. “They want to discuss your ethics, but not their own. They preach ‘do as I say, not as I do.’”

Prof. Beard challenges “the morality of accepting money from ethically questionable sources” and poses the question, “Is there such a thing as ‘dirty’ money?” Others describe it as “blood money,” since so many people lost their homes, jobs, and even lives because of the money-hording actions of AIG and Weill.

“Aren’t we morally obligated to work toward changing all aspects of our communal life that cause unnecessary suffering, injustice, environmental devastation, violence, and generally the degradation of life?” Prof. Beard asks. Those seem to be the larger philosophical questions and issues that a genuine Ethics Center should address.

The Ethics Center’s first event will be Feb. 6. May its presentations become forums to discuss controversial issues and encourage critical thinking. The talk is free, but this semester SSU doubled parking fees to $5. This doubling sends a message that the public is less welcome at SSU, though it is funded primarily by tax dollars.

One SSU student involved in leadership on campus, who requested anonymity, commented as follows: “Regardless of the politics that surround the funding of the Ethics Center, I hope that it can ethically work towards sparking student interest in the important and pressing issues of our time, as well as empower them to be more involved. I believe that is something that Sonoma State needs.”

Two of the 23 California State Universities may be sold and go fully private, according to inside sources. SSU seems to meet most of the criteria for such as sale, as does Cal Poly.

The Center plans to deal with issues such as immigration, water use, food ethics, clean technology, and income inequality, according to director Glasgow. “I look forward to many years of hard-nosed, sometimes gut-wrenching discussion of thorny issues,” Prof. Beard hopes. We shall see. “Regardless of the politics that surround the funding of the Ethics Center, I hope that it can ethically work towards sparking student interest in the important and pressing issues of our time as well as empower them to be more involved. I believe that is something that Sonoma State needs,” commented one SSU student leader, who requested anonymity.

SSU is not known as a champion of free speech. One wonders how long Glasgow will survive as a teacher, since he is not on a tenure track, unless he strictly follows the administration’s directives.

What corporation or millionaire might be next at SSU? Wal-Mart? Monsanto, which funds the University of California at Irvine’s agriculture department and green-washes by saying that it is committed to “sustainability”? Then Irvine professors support genetically engineered foods (GMOs). The take-over of public higher education by corporations is a serious threat to our freedoms.

Shepherd Bliss ( is a retired college teacher who has contributed to 24 books. Read other articles by Shepherd, or visit Shepherd's website.