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AIG and Ethics: The Corporatization of Public Higher Education

Big corporations are pumping ill-earned money into public education across the U.S., threatening academic freedom and free speech.
 
 
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The new Center for Ethics, Law, and Society at Sonoma State University in Northern California caused quite a stir among colleagues, students and community members during the first week of classes in 2013. Of central concern was its funding, and the further corporatization of public higher education.

The notorious insurance monolith AIG gave 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.

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 our schools.”

Corporations are pumping an increasing amount of their 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. But self-censorship can be even worse: when one holds back communicating what one really believes out of fear of repercussions. Humanities faculty 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 -- who was instrumental in helping to dismantle the Glass-Steagall Act that separated commercial from investment banking -- gave $12 million to SSU’s controversial 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 which other millionaires and corporations might already, or will soon, be 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 was “Director of new venture opts not to weigh in on donor AIG’s role in economic crisis.”