Lowry: On USM president’s pipeline of ‘human capital’

Posted on April 04, 2012 in Perspectives
By Jacob Lowry

Jacob Lowry
Chelsea Ellis | The Free Press
Jacob Lowry

President Selma Botman evoked a metaphor that made my stomach churn.

It was on the evening of March 7, at a public forum on unemployment sponsored by various Maine labor unions and USM’s Economics Department.

Possibly mistaking the gathering of elderly union organizers and young leftists as “job-creating” capitalists, her brief opening speech enthusiastically lauded USM’s commitment to connecting students with jobs. “USM is a pipeline, which delivers students to employers,” she said.

I was left picturing my friends and fellow classmates sucked up a slimy sewer pipe leading to an office cubicle in some drab, Wall Street firm.

As it turns out, the pipeline ideology goes deeper than Botman’s uninspiring speech. The imagery is actually borrowed from Mike Wing, USM director of external programs. Wing’s quote shows up in a Portland Press Herald op-ed piece written by Botman on Feb. 20.

“We are helping to build a pipeline of human capital for tomorrow’s high-skilled jobs,” he wrote. Although a seemingly innocuous piece of corporate jargon, the attitude underscores the problem with higher education in America, and at USM. There has been much conversation recently about the University of Maine System’s “budget shortfall.”  We have been told that revenues fail to match expenditures and are encouraged to accept the obvious economic antidote to the problem: the chopping block.

My concern here is that no one has examined the bigger picture or questioned the economic and political forces at work within the context of higher education in the United States. The recent system budget trouble is only a tiny sliver of a much bigger problem.

The truth is that public universities are gradually being destroyed in favor of corporatized, student debt factories with shiny buildings and highly paid CEOs who know how to market a particular image. The knowledge commons of the academy is quickly surrendering to neoliberal models that value profit margins over intellectual pursuits.

While administrators aim to transform students into “human capital” and intellectual commons into a “pipeline,” the reality is that students are graduating to low wage service sector jobs and a lifetime of debt.

Furthermore, decreased state and federal support for higher education erodes the college dream for lower income students with each passing year. We have little choice but to take on massive amounts of unsubsidized debt, keeping mega financial institutions smiling. What happened here?

In Bad Education, an essay in the communique “Generation of Debt,” Malcolm Harris explores the institutional priority shift in public and private universities alike. He notes the exponential increase in the amount of debt current students take on compared to the benefits of the degree they may attain. While tuition at American colleges has risen 900 percent since 1978, far outpacing the rate of inflation, wages for recent graduates have fallen and unemployment has skyrocketed. “The result,” Harris writes, “is that the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt.”

Now, for those of us who value the acquisition of knowledge over obsolete notions of career preparation, this might not be a large enough deterrent for us to opt-out of college. However, Harris goes on to note that the increase in tuition over the past several decades has little to do with the quality of education offered. In fact, the ratio of underpaid graduate adjunct professors to tenured professors now stands at three to one, a complete reversal from 40 years ago.

While the money going towards educators has diminished, head administrators are now pulling down large sums of money at many universities, due to market pressures demanding that they attract students, the consumers of university products and services. Within this corporatized view of education, administrators must focus on grandiose projects (second floor of the library, anyone?) to win those tuition dollars.

“If tuition has increased astronomically…[and] if the market value of a degree has dipped and the most students can no longer afford to enjoy college as a period of intellectual adventure,” Harris writes, “…higher education, for-profit or not, has increasingly become a scam.”

Fortunately, we are nowhere near the draconian tuition hikes of the University of California, where rates have gone up as high as 32 percent in the past three years alone. The tuition freeze is still in place at USM, but for how much longer? When tuition hikes do come, will we demand a more equitable model of higher education that creates critical thinkers instead of “human capital”? The choice is ours.

Jacob Lowry is a junior English major.