Corporate interests are taking over the University of Tulsa with the goal of turning its students into meek, interchangeable cogs to serve the new knowledge economy, said Jacob A. Howland, professor of philosophy at the University of Tulsa. He gave his lecture “The Crisis of Liberal Education in America: Does it Have a Future?” on Feb. 4.
According to Howland, leaders at TU have one thing in common — a connection to billionaire George Kaiser, the controlling shareholder of the Bank of Oklahoma. Interestingly, the Bank of Oklahoma controls half of TU’s 1.2 billion endowment.
Howland said that this corporate takeover “was designed to extract value from TU for Kaiser, his trustees and administrators, and to promote Kaiser’s progressivist causes.”
A New York Times article that Howland cited said that Kaiser viewed TU as a place “to try out all sorts of progressive social programs.” Kaiser, however, is not idly curious. In fact, he has a direct stake in the outcome of these programs.
Howland said that the George Kaiser Family Foundation was the primary funder of a 2017 Social Impact Bond to keep women out of jail. According to Howland, the idea of a Social Impact Bond is that private investors “put up money to achieve specific goals.” If the goal is met, they could receive a significant return on their investment.
So what does all of this have to do with education? According to Howland, Kaiser is interested in tackling poverty, and that means getting people jobs. His vision for TU is to abandon the traditional four-year degree and instead institute short technical training programs, spanning a 3 – 18 month period, where students can earn certificates for learning a certain skill. The goal is to turn students into life-long customers, who have to return to school and be retrained again and again as their skills become outmoded.
The transformation began in the spring of 2018, when the TU administration pushed through a restructuring plan called “True Commitment.”
“True Commitment eliminated 40% of the university’s academic programs, dissolved all academic departments in favor of divisions — including one called ‘Humanities and Social Justice’ — and formed a ‘professional super-college,’” Howland said.
In place of traditional programs like history and philosophy, TU is focused on “growth areas” such as cybersecurity, industrial-organizational psychology, and petroleum engineering, among others. Howland said that the idea is to funnel the least-prepared students into low-level training programs in areas such as nursing and data management, and the best-prepared students into highly technical fields like cybersecurity.
No matter what training they choose, however, the greater goal is to turn students into a new kind of human capital.
“Education is, in many ways, the new oil,” Howland said. “The monetization and commodification of human capital requires a standardized product that will be pumped out in large quantities.”
Essentially, the goal behind the restructuring of TU is to transform students into this standardized product. According to Howland, the ideal future TU students will be “individuals ground down smooth into workers and managers who will fit interchangeably into a globalized and digitalized system of production. This endeavor requires new levels of behavioral conditioning, which is quite adequately supplied by the imperatives of progressive ideology.”
If this sounds dystopian, perhaps that’s because Gerard Clancy, former president of TU and a close associate of Kaiser, sought to emulate the University of Beijing’s branch campus in the city of Karamay, China. According to Howland, Clancy was particularly impressed by Karamay’s heavy investing in the “knowledge sector”— namely, technology information systems and information service industries from all over the world.
The city of Karamay has served as a testing ground for the newest security systems in China, including drones, wearable computing facial recognition, and predictive video that Clancy praises as “helping law enforcement fight crime and maintain public safety.”
According to a report Howland cited, “China’s Smart Cities represent the biggest and most intrusive surveillance architecture ever done by any single nation, according to experts and analysts.” TU plans to follow in Karamay’s footsteps. Howland said the university is already focusing on the production of drones, cyber techniques, and data surveillance systems.
Students are clearly just cogs in TU’s futuristic vision. Despite the use of buzzwords like “student-centered,” the projected outcomes for TU “customers” will not truly help them to grow and flourish, according to Benedict Whalen, assistant professor of English at Hillsdale, who attended the lecture.
“The idea of the human person that lies behind that sort of program is really impoverished and narrow. It essentially views human beings as made to do little functional or technical jobs, and that that’s the end and fulfillment of the human person,” Whalen said.
According to Whalen, TU’s dissolving of academic departments weakens the connection between students and faculty.
“A traditional understanding of the university is a partnership between the faculty among themselves, with the administration, and with the students. The partnership exists because we’re pursuing very high things together,” he said. “The division of education at TU is one where you’re not conversing, you’re imparting a certain point of knowledge or some technical job that you need to do.”
Sophomore Morgan Billingsley, who also attended the lecture, said that she thinks the restructuring of TU reflects broader cultural issues.
“As a society, we are completely falling off the track of what it means to be a human being,” she said. “Our jobs do not define us, and if we are educating ourselves for a job, we are educating ourselves for what will ultimately be a small fraction of our lives.”