Volume 29 - Number 17 - Thursday, May 29, 1997

The role of the university in a corporatist society

by Eric Smith
John Ralston Saul


John Ralston Saul, the recipient of an honorary degree (D.Litt.) at this year's spring convocation, is a Toronto writer best known for his works of social criticism.

Saul argues that Western society has, in this century, lost its commitment to democracy and individualism. Instead, all Western countries have structured their societies around an ideology he calls "corporatism."

Under corporatism, all action taken by the society comes as a result of negotiation between interest groups. These groups, which may be corporations, industries, professional associations, academic disciplines, or government bureaucracies, work in their own interest.

And being identified with an interest group prevents people from acting individually as citizens in a disinterested manner towards the public good. The result is a society that operates on rational and utilitarian principles, principles which work against democracy and the individual.

Saul finds evidence of corporatist ideology throughout the elite institutions of Western society, in government bureaucracies with the technocratic language of mandarins, in the defence of corporate interests through lobbying and private funding, the language of management and marketing, and a distorted mythology of the virtues of capitalism. And according to Saul, corporatism's profound and socially dislocating effects are acutely felt in universities as well.

With increasing specialization, academic disciplines withdraw into a scholastic language which makes their work impenetrable to the larger society. If there is a crisis in the relationship between the university and society, it is because many academic disciplines neglect to engage a citizen society in a dialogue on the public good.

Again, Saul blames the way we have structured our institutions more than the individuals working within them. "It's not simply what you do," he says. "It's what society expects of you. If you go into a particular discipline and it's clear that if you write in a certain language you will be admired by your colleagues and if you don't write in the scholastic language of your specialization then you will not be admired by your colleagues, [...] it creates a kind of conformity, particularly among people in the first part of their careers, if they want to continue advancing.

McGill's marvelous Montreal moment

Universities are not spared in Saul's critique of corporatism but he has fond memories of his days as an undergraduate at McGill.

"I was very lucky because I was there between '66 to '69 which was a period of enormous feverishness at the university," he says. "We seemed to be on strike all the time and constantly running battles with the police which were more comic than anything else, and we were constantly being called out to public meetings."

"It was a great time," he adds. "It was a marvelous time to be in Montreal. Montreal was very alive and everybody was asking questions and everyone was reading and talking. I think it was a great moment for McGill."

Saul, who graduated with an Honours BA in Political Science, History and Economics, remembers a visit by his mother while he was a student here.

"I remember her taking me off to lunch at some nice comfortable place and I put on a tie and all the rest of it," says Saul. "She wanted to see the University a bit and so I brought her back to the Leacock building and got in the elevator and went up to the Political Science floor and the door opened and in front of me were all my friends sort of lying on the floor on strike blocking the elevator. So I pushed the button and took her back downstairs."

"I think it's too facile just to say, 'Well, what are these people doing?' You have to say, 'What is the system pushing them to do or asking them to do, and to what extent does it require courage not to do those things?'"

But Saul adds that there is recent evidence of some retreat from corporatism in some medical and scientific disciplines. Doctors, he believes, have discovered that "people no longer perceive them in the way they had once perceived them and that was in part as friends of society. They were suddenly perceiving them as people who were trying to make money and people who were caught in a very narrow specialization and didn't really understand the patient."

It is the structure of academic funding in a corporatist society that is causing some questions to be raised in scientific disciplines. "One aspect of corporatism and universities is of course that money has disappeared from the public purse, from the public interest," he says. "So we've seen a return to the old idea that we must go begging for money. [...] What will these people expect from us? They're expecting more and more."

According to Saul, there is agreement between government, business and the universities that the applications of research, how industry will use it, must be clear from the beginning. "Well, of course it's important how industry will use research but if you're doing basic research you have no idea.

"And I hear continually now from scientists who are at the stage where they have no idea what the purpose of what they're doing is and who are being asked to provide purposes. Which means they have to lie. And they're actually finding themselves in negotiations with people from corporations who are saying, 'Couldn't you use copper instead of iron, because that would be more useful to us.' And they're saying, 'But I'm doing basic research here.'"

Saul adds that scientists "are finding that they got themselves into trouble, for example, through the acceptance of the idea that scientists were [reduced to] precisely their area of specialization. They found themselves locked into funding systems which were making it impossible for them to do their work freely and intelligently. So they're saying, 'My God! How did we get locked into this corner? Where are our allies? Where are our friends?' And they suddenly realized that in corporatism there aren't any allies and friends. It's all interest-based."

If there is some evidence of retreat from corporatism in some academic disciplines, others are, in Saul's estimation, intricately wedded to corporatist ideology. "Social sciences in particular," he says, "are not struggling with it at all or are struggling with their isolation from society as a whole."

In his 1995 Massey Lectures, published under the title The Unconscious Civilization, Saul talks about what he calls dialects. "The social science dialects, the medical dialects, the science dialects, the linguist dialects, the artist dialects. Thousands and thousands of them--purposely impenetrable to the non-expert, with thick defensive walls that protect each corporation's sense of importance."

And he adds that "the core of the disease is perhaps to be found in the social sciences." According to Saul, "Economists, political scientists and sociologists have attempted to imitate scientific analysis through the accumulation of circumstantial evidence, but, above all, through the parodies of the worst of the scientific dialects."

And if others within the disciplines of liberal arts, who are applying the assumptions of deconstructionism, work at revealing the self-interest in language, their efforts won't help, according to Saul. "If language is always self-interest," he argues in The Unconscious Civilization, "then there is no possibility of disinterest and therefore no possibility of the public good. The net effect has been to reinforce the corporatist point of view that we all exist as functions within our corporations."

Yet for Saul, if some liberal arts disciplines have been most given over to corporatist language, it is nonetheless the humanities that should form the core of a university education. If the university is responsible for producing citizens, it owes students a humanist education.

Saul is concerned that through corporatist negotiation too much educational endeavour is going to training. "The model of people like machines going fast into the workforce and then out of it just before they become inoperable and die no longer really applies," he says, citing the large increases in life expectancy this century.

"What we should be doing at this point," he argues, "is thinking about the fact that we haven't adjusted for that large space at the end [of life]. In fact we're retiring people younger, which is an extremely stupid, and unfundable, idea. What we need to be thinking about is taking some of the years off the end and putting them at the beginning."

So Saul wants to see universities spend more time with young people and provide them with a much broader education as well as specific professional training.

"When you're in a period of fast and unchartable change, as we obviously are, the last thing you want to do is lock yourself into utilitarian education, because what you want to give people in that kind of atmosphere is agility of thought, the ability to think, the ability to consider, the ability to understand."

There is one discipline, according to Saul, that does not belong in a university at all. Of MBA programs, he says, "I think they're essentially trade schools-, which is fine, nothing wrong with that. I think that they would probably do a better job if they were treated as trade schools and tied to apprenticeship programs and were completely funded by business and were independent. I think it would ground them more in reality. I think we'd have seen less of the problems of the case study method, the abstraction produced by the business schools, if they had been more grounded in the reality of what they're supposed to be doing. We would have had less the religion of management, less the idea that managing was doing."

In Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, his major 1992 work on the distortion of the Enlightenment's rationalism into the corporatist ideology of contemporary society, Saul targets business schools for developing "not a talent for solving problems but a method for recognizing the solutions which will satisfy the system."

But in McGill's own management program, Henry Mintzberg actually echoes many of Saul's ideas, discouraging the pursuit of an MBA by those who have not already taken on the role of managers in organizations.

Montreal, Saul says, is well served by some of its management professors. He cites Mintzberg and Alain Chanlat, director of HÉC's Groupe humanisme et gestion. "It may be," says Saul, "that what universities should have is a much smaller area which thinks about these things, as opposed to training large numbers of people. That should take place outside.

"The problem is that by having these business schools inside the universities, it's now reaching the stage where it's actually playing a major role in diverting the universities from their role as a place where you train people to think, to get through that long haul as a human being and a citizen in society. And I suppose the leader of the pack in distracting the university or hijacking the university from its real course is the business school."

For universities to return to their function of educating a democratic citizenry in the pursuit of the public good, much broader changes are required than just at the institutional level. There will always need to be corporatism, according to Saul, but the balance of legitimacy needs to shift away from it and back to democracy.

"If society is clear about what it wants to do with universities," he says, "then it's much less likely that interest groups are going to come to the universities and say we'll only give you money in these circumstances, because they know this is not what society will admire. But if you slip, as we have slipped today, into a stage where society actually believes that the corporatist argument is the right argument, then of course they're free to ask whatever they want from the universities. And then it's up to the universities to acquiesce or resist."

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