The following excerpt is from Larry Hussman’s recently published memoir, Acanemia: A Memoir of Life in the Halls of the Higher Learning. The book is available in a Kindle edition or in a paperback version from Amazon.com.
If Veblen were around today, he’d certainly bemoan the blatant intrusion of business interests at America’s colleges and universities. During President Number Three’s Wright State reign, the local raid advanced with a vengeance. Thanks to his misguided management, the campus began to look like a suburban shopping mall. Just outside the basketball arena, for starters, a huge, gaudy, green electric sign took root. It soon began ballyhooing the latest mud wrestling or like commercial happening—a tractor pull fit Three’s idea of a classy cultural event. One instance illustrating his level of urbanity involved a peeved response to a professor’s complaint. She’d been stewing over the recent record of the administration when it came to booking important speakers. To make her point to the president, she noted that the University of Dayton had recently scored a lecture appearance by the distinguished Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes. Three’s vexed comeback reminded her that we’d recently hosted a talk by Bryant Gumbel. No surprise then that a few weeks after that green sign sprang to life, its messages became less indirectly indicative of the commercial cancer that was about to grow on campus, flashing news of the latest hot sale at Tim Hogan’s Georgia Carpet Outlet. At another point, a carnival complete with Ferris wheels and teacup rides sprouted near the arena. Next, a horse-drawn wagon began providing to the citizenry, for a fee, rustic academic slumming experiences. Then, a truck showroom emerged under a large tent during an Airstream trailer convention on campus. A schedule of events a little later heralded the US Hot Rod Thunder Nationals; “Sunday Night Heat,” sponsored by the World Wrestling Federation; and “Discover Stars on Ice.”
To top off the appalling tackiness that Three embraced, a business-backed bungee jump appeared near the classroom buildings, inviting customers to take a flying leap of a 150 feet over an artificial lake, with the university tapping 10 percent of the sixty-nine-dollar-per-plunge charge. And the business brain behind the bungee scam just happened to be the son of the chair of the university board of trustees. Toward the end of the operation, the jump’s owners took to sending their employees up the scaffold for dives aimed at inducing reluctant spectators to spring for their own. Thankfully, the concession closed after a few months, allegedly because of the disappointing bottom line rather than the bountiful blushing called for. Why the board of trustees hadn’t scotched the bungee boondoggle before it began operation probably owed to the dominance of corporate types among its members, guys and a gal or two who saw no downside to zoning the campus commercial. And apparently they gave no thought to the fact that bungee businesses across the country had inflicted some injuries and even a death here and there. The Wright State venture inspired a remarkably restrained rebuke in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the gold standard publication in the field. Future academic executives would have to go some to outdo Wright State’s bungee bad taste. But evidence abounds that there exists a deep pool of academic administrators across America quite capable of sinking to the challenge.
One of our deans during the eighties signaled a trend related to, but far more worrisome than, the invasion of the campus by small businesses. He proudly announced that each classroom in a new engineering building would boast a different corporate logo to express gratitude to syndicate sponsors. This marked one of the first instances of Wright State’s involvement in the national corporate takeover of higher education, a power grab that’s been just about completed by now. The university campus ought to be a hermetically sealed territory where ideas and values can be debated free of societal context, as Veblen insisted. At Ohio State, to cite just one of many infamous instances of the trend toward the corporate and the tasteless in the eighties, their new basketball facility got christened the Value City Arena, named for a discount furniture outfit. Sadly, corporate influence pollutes nearly every campus today, and no sign of abatement has surfaced. Don’t be surprised if a university near you soon has a Chick-fil-A Institute of Religious Studies or a Chock full o’ Nuts School of Psychiatry. A Burger King chair in American Enterprise and a Federal Express professorship of Excellence in Communications Technology already sullies the campus at the University of Miami, and scores of other “academic” institutions have similar arrangements. Is there any doubt that some view higher education as a corporate adjunct? But the public and even professors may already be beyond shock. After all, as early as 1979, Pope John Paul II’s trips to Mexico and the US had their corporate sponsors. Eventually, a pontiff will surely be blessing crowds in St. Peter’s Square while wearing a logo-emblazoned Microsoft maniple and an AT&T tiara.