“PC” and Privatization

This short text was my contribution to a one-day symposium, Finding Our Way: A Public Forum on Universities, Corporate Influence, and the Future of Post-Secondary Education, that was held at the University of Guelph on 22 October 1993. It has not previously been published.

I had the bad luck to be elected to the national executive of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers in the spring of 1991, at just the moment when the “Political Correctness” furore—which had been building up in the United States ever since the collapse of the Soviet empire deprived American conservatives of their favourite demonized Other—burst upon the Canadian scene. As Cathy Davidson observed at the time, academics in the humanities, whom only a few years ago it had been fashionable to dismiss “as silly and irrelevant,” were suddenly being denounced as though, “like Godzilla rising from the muck,” they “threaten[ed] the very existence of Western civilization.”

Does anyone remember the Maclean's issue of May 1991 which informed us that “A New Wave of Repression is Sweeping Through the Universities”? This was not a response to the murder of fourteen young women at the École Polytechnique de Montréal just over a year previously, or to the death threats made that same spring to the editors of feminist journals associated with Queen's University and Dalhousie: from the perspective of Maclean's magazine, those events were invisible.

The “wave of repression” consisted rather of a number of scare-mongering quotations from academic neoconservatives, and of four actual cases. One of these was the genuinely disturbing harassment of Jeanne Cannizzo, an anthropologist who curated what became a controversial Royal Ontario Museum exhibition, by anti-racist activists. Another, the case of University of Western Ontario psychologist Philippe Rushton, was scandalous in a quite different sense: the racialist pseudo-science of Rushton's publications raised the very serious question of how it was possible for a major Canadian university to provide institutional support for work of this kind. The remaining cases were incidents in which it was suggested that unnamed feminists had been rude to two great artists—to William Shakespeare, who gave no sign of having resented his treatment, and to Alex Colville, who as Chancellor of the university at which an objection was raised to the reproduction of one of his paintings on the cover of the university's Calendar can hardly be said to have been “repressed” by whatever was said.

Such a wave, as I wrote at the time, would scarcely fill a teacup. But Maclean's was not interested in reporting on any actual events within our universities. The object, rather, was to pass on to Canadians an alarming sense of the dangers posed by the politically correct “storm-troopers,” “moral vigilantes,” and “new McCarthyists” whom the American press was already vigorously denouncing.

Let's consider for a moment the last of these terms: “new McCarthyism.” This is a brilliant rhetorical inversion. As a matter of readily ascertainable fact, the people who have been most active in claiming that North American universities have been “taken over” by humourless and authoritarian women, minority groups, and radicals themselves form part of a very interesting alliance of government agencies, corporate foundations, and the corporate news media—an alliance that bears an uncanny resemblance to the constellation of forces responsible for the original McCarthyist Red Scare of the late 1940s and early '50s. Appropriating the one term—neo-McCarthyism—which best describes their own agenda, and applying it to the objects of their attack, was a stroke of genius on the part of the Reagan-Bush cultural revolutionaries. Their story was out and accepted long before anyone could object that no U.S. Senator had stood up before the television cameras waving a list of supposed racists and sexists in the universities.

I'd like to make a couple of suggestions—one outlining a possible research agenda, and the other proposing a principle of caution.

Here's the research agenda—for anyone who remembers how hundreds of billions of dollars were looted from the U.S. treasury by American elites during the Savings and Loan scandal of the 1980s (which was directly enabled by the deregulation policies of the Reagan-Bush administration). The PC scare has a clear structural articulation, in terms of the recently burgeoning networks of right-wing think-tanks and foundations that fund political correctness polemicists and their publications. It might be interesting to see whether Savings-and-Loan loot is being recycled into ideological structures whose principal function is to close down any space from which a critique of the Reagan-Bush era might be launched. You know the proverb: “Follow the money!”

And here's the principle of caution. I tell my students to be sceptical of everything they read and hear—especially when it comes from someone who has an axe to grind (present company not excluded). One way of exercising caution is to check out whether writers say the same kind of thing when they're trying to persuade you and when they're letting their hair down among like-minded people. Here's an instructive example, from Dinesh D'Souza, author of the polemical book Illiberal Education (1991), and a young man whose whole adult life has been funded by the right-wing foundation gravy train. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly for a liberal audience, D'Souza represents himself as a troubled and scrupulous occupier of the “middle ground” who finds that “It is not always possible in such disputes for a reasonable person, in good conscience, to take any side....” Sounds decent, doesn't it? But writing at the same time and on the same subject for a corporate readership in Forbes magazine, he bares his teeth. Claiming that “the propaganda of the new barbarians” threatens “to do us in,” D'Souza urges a defunding of the universities. “Resistance on campus to the academic revolution is outgunned,” he adds, “and sorely needs outside reinforcements.” How genuine do you think his concern for academic scruples—and academic freedom—might be?

I'll conclude with some thoughts on privatization. A recent article in Taipan blamed the inadequacies of American secondary and university education upon a “rewriting of history by 'politically correct' academics” which “threatens to have a negative effect” on the “progress-oriented work ethic” of the U.S., and could even “result in the redistribution of property rather than the creation of new wealth.” The solution proposed is a continued privatizing of the educational system: “If just 15% of the government's education budget ends up in private hands by the year 2010, it will mean billions of profits for the savvy entrepreneurs who act now.”

So what's it really all about: some notion of improving 'quality,' or a simple looting by “savvy entrepreneurs” of institutions paid for by public money?

Don't make the mistake of thinking that the “PC” furore is mainly just a problem of noise from south of the border, or that “privatization” is a matter of speculative corporate buccaneers casting greedy eyes on a public system they see, from the outside, as offering possibilities for large private profits.

They're inside already, as well as outside; and the process of privatization is well underway. One of the theorists of this process, John Pannabaker, is a past CEO of the Mutual Life Assurance Company of Canada and former Chancellor of McMaster University. In a 1992 address to the Canadian Corporate-Higher Education Forum, he claimed that the government bureaucracies, the “hierarchical corporations,” and the “educational, health and social service systems” which absorbed most of the graduates of Canadian universities during what he called the “golden age” of “mass tertiary education” between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s are now visibly contracting, and argued that Canadian universities must accept the challenge of developing a “new paradigm” which will respond to current needs.

The shape of this paradigm is hinted at by his advocacy of “alternative privately-financed and customer-driven institutions,” and his scouting of “possibilities, perhaps at the moment unthinkable, but ultimately the likely way out,” which “probably involve decentralization and 'spin-offs'—even privatization of individual programmes and functions.” It would not, he thinks, be “possible to 'privatize' a major Canadian university”—but the next best thing, it seems, would be to dismember the universities as a group, putting into corporate hands those functions which are most attractive to corporate interests.

What's missing here?

Any notion of a common good, any notion that higher education might have a critical as well as instrumental function, and any recognition that the critical intellectual work carried on within institutions of higher education makes an essential contribution to the self-understanding and capacity for creative and just self-transformation of a democratic society.