Board Editorial: Corporate Language Betrays Whitman’s Purpose

This institution is being run like a business, not a college.

Corporate jargon has infiltrated the speech of Whitman’s administrators. Both the recent suspension of key Global Studies Initiative elements and a Pioneer investigation on Whitman’s financial inaccessibility reveals that this institution is being run like a business, not a college.

With Global Studies, professors involved in meetings with administrators said that the decision to eliminate course releases for professors to participate in a faculty seminar was framed repeatedly as a matter of ‘opportunity cost.’ This term obscures the true benefits and value of the seminar, the centerpiece of the program. The Global Studies Initiative provides essential diversity in the perspectives presented in Whitman’s classes. As Professor Jennifer Cohen described in an Op-Ed last week, the value of diversity cannot be reduced to a cost-benefit analysis.

Global Studies is a project led by women of color among the faculty and meets the urgent need to make Whitman’s education more inclusive. It is disappointing that administrators decided this program was the least valuable and the first to be cut. If there are different perspectives on what the Global Studies Initiative should be, the argument should be taken up as a discussion among the faculty, not decided behind closed doors and handed down by the administration. As much as administrators may wish to present their actions as the inevitable result of rational economics, what they did was a choice.

During interviews about Whitman’s financial aid policies, administrators repeatedly referred to Whitman as a ‘product’ which must compete on a ‘marketplace.’ Using this language, they suggested the vast majority of their actions have been nothing but reactions to market forces which cannot be debated or, to an extent, even discussed. This is another attempt to shut down political discussion on campus.

Over the last two decades, Whitman administrators have made a series of choices which privileged wealthy students. The college could have chosen to take risks to fight for college accessibility in a time of growing inequality. But instead, it cut its low-income Pell Grant students in half and hiked tuition for students from the middle class. Even within the elitist trends in higher education, Whitman has chosen policies which benefit the rich and its own finances far more than other schools.

Administrators use misleading terms to cover up ugly policies, hoping to deflect criticism and prevent discussion. Discriminating against applicants based on their family’s wealth is called being ‘need-sensitive.’ Financial aid which benefits only the wealthy is called ‘merit aid.’ These words are meant to confuse and discourage speech, obscuring the true consequences of these terms.

By presenting everything they do as a reaction to the market, administrators pretend that they have no choice in their actions. They use corporate language to shut down conversation. Supposedly there is nothing to discuss, let alone decide through democratic debate. In reality, it’s clear that Whitman administrators could have made very different choices in the end.

This week the Board of Trustees, a group of extremely wealthy donors to the college, will meet behind closed doors to decide policies that seriously impact Whitman’s future. Once decided, these policies will in all likelihood be presented as inevitable economics, beyond the understanding or discussion of Whitman’s students.

Whitman’s mission statement commits the college to promoting “character, and responsibility” and to helping students develop “capacities to analyze, interpret, criticize, communicate, and engage.”

President Kathy Murray and Chair of the Board of Trustees Brad McMurchie need to prove these words have meaning. If students aren’t trusted to even listen as the college’s political decisions are made by the Trustees–if responsibility, communication, and engagement are undermined by corporate language–Whitman is not meeting its own standards. Whitman’s leaders should be fulfilling the college’s most fundamental mission, not obsessing over markets and returns.