Progressive author/lecturer preaches to the choir at CSU teach-in
Speaking on the campus Free Speech Area, progressive activist Michael Parenti told a collection of Chico State faculty, staff and students that the nation’s university system has been co-opted by corporate America and that “higher learning” has taken a back seat to “higher earning” for the powers that be.
“We think of the university as a democratic community of scholars and students,” Parenti said. “But in fact it is a top-down structure, a system of ideological control, a repression as old as the nation itself.”
Parenti, who resides in Berkeley, was the guest speaker for Chico’s version of a California State University system-wide “teach-in” that took place Tuesday, Oct. 16. Organized by the California Faculty Association, the events were designed to highlight the currently stalled contract negotiations between the CFA and university administration and troubling trends within the system that include increasing enrollment but declining instructional budgets.
Chico CFA President Beau Grosscup introduced Parenti, who has a doctorate from Yale, as a lecturer and author “better known abroad than he is in his own country.”
Parenti’s speech was entitled “The Corporatization of the University” and quickly made it clear the process was long completed. Early in this country’s history, Parenti said, universities were connected to and controlled by the churches.
“We’ve come a long way and have had some democratic victories,” he said, “but the church elders and clergymen have been replaced by robber barons—the leaders of industry and finance, those who now make up the boards of trustees.”
And those board members, he added, who “are not just doing it for the fun of it,” have total control.
“Every university is a corporation,” Parenti said. “When I get my newsletter from Yale, it says right on it, ‘Report of the Yale Corporation.’
“The board of trustees is the management, and the members are drawn overwhelmingly from corporate America, and they have no experience in education and in fact haven’t been on campus in many years.”
The trustees, he said, have final say on budgets, enrollments, contract renewals, course content and structure of the departments.
The trustees even make the final decision over the name of the sports teams, he said, referencing Stanford University students’ efforts in the 1960s to name their teams the Robber Barons. They were overruled by the trustees, who chose “The Cardinal.”
“That’s when students were really with it,” Parenti said.
But then he paused, looked up at what had swollen by then into a considerable turnout of faculty (wearing black T-shirts to show solidarity), staff and students—both those seated and those showing more than a passing interest as they migrated between classes.
“And,” Parenti said, with a nod of appreciation, “they are becoming so again.”
The members of the boards, he protested, are accountable to no one. He argued that the schools are heavily invested in corporate stocks and bonds, and thus “higher learning is very much wedded to the institutes of higher earnings.”
“On most college campuses, and I’ve been on a lot, the most elaborated, most impressive edifice is the administration building,” he said.
Parenti made accusations of campus corruption, where contracts are awarded without competitive bidding and research contracts are corporatized on things like new weapons delivery systems. Napalm, he said, the inextinguishable gel used and made famous in Vietnam, was invented at Harvard.
Parenti suggested boards of trustees should be elected and include students, faculty and staff representatives.
“There is no reason why trustees have to be from the Ford Corporation or Exxon,” he said.
Chico State President Manual Esteban was in Long Beach on the day of the teach-in, for a bi-monthly meeting with other CSU presidents. He said he had called Chico for an update and was told that at any given time there were about 100 people in attendance and that he hoped the speakers maintained some degree of objectivity in their speeches.
As for Parenti’s accusations that the same folks who sit on the boards of America’s corporations also sit on the boards of trustees for the California State University system: “I don’t know that he knows who the members of that board are,” Esteban said. “Some, maybe one person is from Pacific Bell or something like that. But there are people with Ph.D.s, representatives of the Chamber of Commerce or people who have given a significant amount of money to help elect either a Republican or Democratic governor. That’s how you get in.”
Even so, he said, there is no evidence that the trustees—no matter which party was in power when they were appointed—function in any way other than what is best for the students.
Prior to Parenti’s talk, Butte County Supervisor and former Associated Students President Jane Dolan lamented the sagging CSU structure.
“Chico is a great community,” she said. “A big part of why we are is because of the university.”
She recalled that when she was a child, former California Gov. Pat Brown promised to build the best educational system in the country, a promise he eventually fulfilled.
“Today one out of 10 people in the state workforce is a graduate of the state university system," she said. "The state university system is our future."