Saturday, May 07, 2005

Lunacy of the "wholly non-political" - A Reply to Ramachandra Guha

As students, something that we are taught in our University is to always support our arguments and ideas with verifiable and reliable facts, and restrain from reducing our writing to some cheap variety of journalism. We wonder if Ramachandra Guha was also taught the same rule when he went to the University because his article, “Where the left meets the right” that came in The Telegraph of April 30 [Click here to see the article] represents nothing more than a despicable piece of journalism.

While there are many sweeping generalizations that he makes and hopes to get away with, the specific generalization that we are concerned with is regarding his reference to the student campaign against Nestle outlet in Jawaharlal Nehru University. It is very clear from his article that his knowledge about the campaign is based solely on some conversation he had with his “wholly non-political” friends. Well, it is a shame that someone like Mr. Guha who claims to be a ‘historian’ depends solely on a conversation to write his thesis, especially in a public newspaper, thus misinforming the larger public. When an ‘academic’ like him writes for a public, it is not enough that he knows how to write good English but he also needs to convey reliable information. May be he should come back to the University and once again get familiar with his ‘academic’ skills.

It is a well known fact that the campaign against Nestle outlet in JNU campus was not a campaign initiated by any of the mainstream left student organizations, especially the Students Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of the CPI(M). Although, it should be said that certain other left student organizations actively joined in at a later stage of the campaign. May be Mr. Guha’s “wholly non-political” friends forgot to tell him that. The campaign was initiated by a group of students, most of who had no affiliation to any of the student organizations. This group of students initiated the campaign not because they passionately held some skewed idea of “nationalism” or some “irrational fear of the foreigner”, but because of the sincere moral outrage they felt over a corporation with a bad criminal record like Nestle being given a home in their campus. It was not big ‘foreign’ corporations like Nestle alone that this group of students felt a moral outrage towards but also big ‘indigenous’ corporations like the notorious Reliance and the Tata’s who are also making efforts to enter the University through funding of research programmes and projects. It was fortunate that there were at least some people in an academic campus like JNU who felt a certain moral responsibility to question and challenge the politics involved in the corporatisation of educational institutions. Now, it would be irresponsible on the part of an ‘academic’ like Mr. Guha if he reduces the efforts of these students to transcend the cynicisms of their times and question that which is taken for granted into some sort of “irrational fear of the foreigner”. The students who campaigned against the Nestle outlet in JNU are not some guinea pigs for the likes of Mr. Guha to develop their thesis on the Indian left

Another aspect that Mr. Guha’s “wholly non-political” never told him was the specific context in which the campaign against the Nestle coffee outlet was happening. They never told him about that because after all they are “non-political” and would not want their brahmin middle class hands to get all ‘dirty’ in politics. The campaign against Nestle was happening within the context of increasing corporatisation of campus spaces across the country and world, whereby large corporations, both ‘indigenous’ and ‘foreign’, were displacing small time local dhaba and canteen owners. Over the last few years, the campus development agenda of the JNU administration had changed. Earlier the policy was to lease out campus space to those who were from economically and socially disempowered backgrounds. But now the policy is to lease out campus space to the highest bidder, which of course can be none other than large corporations. The University authorities have also been increasing the rent of the existing dhabas and canteens in the campus. The increasing rents would slowly ease the existing dhabas and canteens out of the campus and clear the ground for big corporations to come and run their business.

Corporatisation is not a phenomenon that is happening in JNU alone but in each and every campus around the world. Whether it is through the establishment of outlets where corporations can exclusively sell their products, sponsoring of events and programmes, funding of research projects, starting of new courses and contracting out of work. It is gradually eroding the free and democratic nature of educational institutions and turning them into factories that produce the capital and labour required to meet the greed of the profit hungry rich. The struggle against corporatisation can’t be reduced to some anti-foreign xenophobia. May be it will help to let Mr. Guha know that several student groups fighting corporatisation in campuses around the world had expressed their solidarity to the struggle against the Nestle outlet in JNU.

As for the CPI(M) and its economists, it is not our responsibility to give an answer to what their party cadres or academicians do and say. But if Mr. Guha still insists on branding those who campaigned against the Nestle outlet in JNU as members of the CPI(M), then he is actually giving credits to the CPI(M) for a campaign they were not part of.

Earlier this year, when Mr. Guha visited the JNU campus to give his after-dinner talk, a few students who had nothing to do with the CPI(M) or its student wing SFI questioned some of the sweeping statements he made on the campaign against Nestle outlet with little or no knowledge about the reality of the issue. He immediately threw up a temper tantrum and branded these students as “agents of the CPI(M)”. He was too obsessed with linking the campaign against Nestle with the politics of CPI(M) that he didn’t even give a fair hearing to what those students were saying. Although later he apologized to them for his emotional outburst and hasty judgments on the issue, it is now clear that his apology was a sham since he has once again committed the same blunder. May be he is also a victim of the “larger epidemic of xenophobia” and if it is such xenophobia that is going to inform his writing rather than real facts, then he is no different from the Sudharshans, Advanis and Gurumurthys of our times.

Nima Lamu Yolmo, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, JNU
John Thomas, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU
Santhosh M. R., Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, JNU
Kaustubh Kumar Deka, Centre for Political Studies, JNU
Jatinder Singh, Centre for Political Studies, JNUSerohi Nandan, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Degrees of Influence: The corporatization of higher education

Kristin Jensen

Large corporations hold more power than ever in our society, and the influence that they exert is obvious in many arenas: over the economy, our political system and what legislation is passed, over the media and what ideas and opinions are conveyed. What is less immediately obvious is the increasing influence that large corporations have on the educational system in the United States, especially on higher education. While some notice has been paid to the reach of corporations into public K-12 schools with ventures such as Channel One, less attention has been given to the increasing influence of corporations on universities, both public and private, throughout the country.

The unprecedented influence of corporations, and corporate values, on universities has led to a number of disturbing trends that challenge the integrity of higher education in the United States. Corporations are more visible and more powerful than ever on college campuses. The governing boards of universities, as well as their trustees and regents, are increasingly the executives of large corporations. Universities are contracting out for more and more of their basic services, from cafeterias run by fast food chains and exclusive beverage contracts with Coca-Cola or Pepsi to university bookstores run by large bookstore chains such as Barnes & Noble. Such arrangements effectively shut out smaller, local companies that benefit the local economy instead of corporate interests.

Increasingly, university education is becoming a corporate training ground as schools embrace not only the ideals of corporations but their practices as well. The corporatization of higher education has meant that decisions concerning academic planning and employment are determined by financial considerations. Like corporations, universities today evaluate particular departments and programs on their ability to pay for themselves and bring the university money. Many departments that do not bring in sufficient funds, especially in the liberal arts, are threatened with termination.

CORPORATIONS HAVE ALSO assumed a more direct and dangerous influence on higher education. Universities today are for-profit institutions, and in an era of scaled-back federal funding, corporations and their foundations are providing much of the needed money-with a heavy price attached. The influence of corporate money on many colleges has meant that corporations, instead of the universities themselves, frequently determine what receives funding. For example, instead of the sociology department of a university deciding that they want an endowed chair and then soliciting funds for it, a corporation provides funding for a chair in an area in which it wants research done. As Lawrence Soley, author of Leasing the Ivory Tower, documents, this leads to the Federal Express Chair of Excellence in Information Technology at the University of Memphis or the Reliance Corporation Professor of Free Enterprise at the University of Pennsylvania. In effect, this means that the corporation, instead of the university, determines which topics are looked at and which aren't.

Many university departments no longer exist to educate students but to do research and development for corporations. Corporate foundations give money to programs, courses, college newspapers, and student groups that further their ideology and opinions. Corporations also frequently donate money on the condition that it be used for a "research center" of their design, which provides them with valuable public relations outside of corporate headquarters. Soley notes that the professor who holds the Federal Express Chair at the University of Memphis also runs the Federal Express Center for Cycle Time Research, a research center devoted to studying overnight air delivery.

Large corporations will continue to seek influence in universities because they are a cheap source of labor for research. It costs the corporations less to conduct their research in university labs, which are built and funded with tuition and money from taxes, than to outfit and build comparable corporate labs. The real cost of such practices is high. Graduate students and research assistants are paid far less than their counterparts in the private sector and the costs of such research are absorbed by students in the form of higher tuition and by taxpayers. Additionally, some contracts that universities sign with corporations stipulate under what conditions (if at all) the research conducted can be made public.

For example, Soley documents a case at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) in which clinical pharmacist Betty Dong conducted research on Synthroid, a drug manufactured by the Boots Company, a British pharmaceutical corporation, which also paid for the research under a contract with UCSF. When the research failed to establish Synthroid's superiority, Boots blocked Dong's publishing her work and criticized her study publicly. Under the contract the company had the right to censor the study, and Dong, unable to make the study public, could not defend her work. This incident is an increasingly commonplace example of a corporation exerting undue influence over the research agenda of a university.

At the heart of the dialogue about growing corporate influence are fundamental questions concerning the aim of education. For what purpose do we as a society educate? Do we educate to develop citizens who are informed, active, and critical? To introduce as many people as possible to the joys of learning, to intellectual pursuits and the arts? Or is the sole purpose of a degree to get a job? What is the value that we as a society place on education?

How we as a society address the influx of corporate values and economic practices in our universities will not only determine the future of higher education in the next century but the quality and character of our communities as well.

Sojourners Magazine, January-February 1999 (Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 12-13).

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Resolution Passed...

The resolution to scrap the Nestle coffee outlet in the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus was passed with an overwhelming majority by the entire student body. Yesterday the Campus Development Committee decided that the contract with Nestle should not be renewed.