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Are We Commodities?

Karl Marx.jpgNewly hired Assistant Professor of History Russell Rickford gives us a bracing shot of that ol’ time religion in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Are We Commodities? (See: pdf) His thesis seems to be that a school like Dartmouth would be betraying its higher values if it succumbs to the prevailing market ethos by paying its employees the local wage and, heaven forfend, actually outsourcing any of its functions to contractors who might accomplish tasks better/cheaper/both than its in-house employees.

Of course, the piece makes no mention of the College’s ballooning labor force (up from 2,408 employees in 1998 to 3,417 employees ten years later with nary a change in the student population), nor does Professor Rickford compare the wages, benefits, vacations or productivity of the College’s staff with employees of well run companies in the private sector. And somehow our empathetic and well paid Professor has no issue with a $50,000+ annual college bill for middle class families — as long as much of it goes to supporting the local staff in their lifetime employment sinecures. Noblesse oblige, I guess.

Normally I would not spend much time on this kind of un-researched whining, but Rickford’s prose brought back nostalgic memories of my undergraduate seminar in Marxism with Professor Marlene Fried. Who writes like this any more?

At the very least, colleges and universities in the West have long played a critical role in rationalizing and legitimizing the expropriation of the world’s human and mineral wealth for the private profit of the elites who sponsor such institutions in the first place. The Western university has always relied upon bureaucratic management to fulfill its bourgeois aims…

In a move that set adrift some of the most financially vulnerable employees on campus, Dartmouth officials recently completed several round of layoffs, mostly of hourly staff members… [Emphasis added]

You can count up for yourself the number of silly, unsupported generalizations in the first paragraph above; however, let’s think for a moment about the phrase set adrift that I have bolded in the second para. Does Professor Rickford know anything about the Upper Valley job market, the strongest in the State of New Hampshire? Does he know how many different employers the average person has over a lifetime as companies shrink and grow, and as people job hop to earn better wages in more interesting positions? The basic assumption in Rickford’s piece seems to be that outside the embrace of Mother Dartmouth, the hapless proletarians laid off from their College jobs will be forever doomed. What nonsense. Someone should pop his Dartmouth bubble.

Such an admixture of extreme left wing politics and social condescension is a telling one. As Russell Baker once wrote, the minute you hear a word like proletarian used seriously — or in this case, expropriation and bourgeois — you know that you are dealing with a mind that has ceased to function independently. Let’s hope that the College’s undergraduates are equipped to see knee-jerk boilerplate for what it is.

Note: The question of outsourcing is a fluid one: why does the College outsource the work of growing the food that students eat at Thayer, or the production of the paper that students and faculty use, or the construction of desks and chairs (or copiers and scanners!), etc.? Is it Rickford’s view that Dartmouth should be an autarky (like Nazi Germany and North Korea), or is he just a reactionary who cannot abide any kind of change in the status quo?


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