The Insidious Work of the University: From Nationalism to Excellence to Entrepreneurialism
by Don Mitchell

The business of universities is chasing money. This has not always been the case. From the founding of the "modern" university in Germany in the middle of the 19th century until - perhaps - the early to mid 1960s, the business of universities was nation-building. Universities were sites for the production not only of national culture (through the promotion of various humanities disciplines), but also in learning to regulate national populations (in the burgeoning social sciences), and in creating nationally-based sciences. Military science and instruction were, historically, a central part of this nation-building enterprise.

As Bill Readings (once an SU professor) detailed in his book, The University in Ruins, the "post-modern" university no longer had nation-building as its guiding ideology. Rather, in the wake of the global upheavals of the post-World War II period, colleges became what Readings called "universities of excellence:" they had no other raison d'etre than "excellence" itself. Of course "excellence" is an empty term, and Readings' point was that under this banner room was made for all kinds of things: corporate-led (or -controlled) science; radical social science; abstruse theory; you name it. All that mattered was that each university was more excellent than the other.

The true proof of excellence, of course, is cold, hard cash. The bigger the endowment, the more numerous the grants, the flashier the donations, the better the university. Money is not pursued so that scholarship may be advanced; rather scholarship is advanced so that money may be pursued. The most interesting fact of this state of affairs is this: it means that in universities there was now room for just about anything. Marxist geographers or anthropologists occupy offices next to professors committed to deepening the neoliberal destruction of social welfare; and military scientists share buildings with anti-nuke physicists. As long as each - in his or her own way - can prove excellence with publications, applications from aspiring grad students, but especially grants, gifts, or consulting contracts, then each is welcome. The only ground for exclusion is a failure to be excellent.

In such a circumstance, it becomes not just difficult, but in fact almost impossible, to fight against military money on campus, against ROTC, against defense contracts, against the use of university facilities to advance the killing machine of US military might, against programs like Syracuse's National Security Studies, or its Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, for there is no sound ideological basis upon which to do so. By inviting all these in - just so long as they bring their money with them - the university is doing not just as it should, but as it must. And besides, if a university were to get rid of this excellent program in (say) learning to be culturally sensitive occupiers of foreign lands, then what would keep it from getting rid of that excellent program in (say) the critical analysis of geopolitical power?

For those of us interested in struggling for a more just world, a world in which US military might and US imperialism are things of the past, our target cannot be - or cannot only be - specific programs (like Maxwell's National Security Studies program), but our target must also - and especially - be the university itself. We need to raise the question not of what the nationalist university, or the university of excellence was, but what the university of justice could and should be. And we must demand answers.

When we demand answers we cannot only train our eyes on particularly odious examples of military entanglement in university work and life, but we must note those seemingly more innocent and thus more insidious programs and projects of the university that promote the remaking of the world - and of our own lives - in a way more suitable to US-led capitalist hegemony.

In Syracuse, for example, those of us interested in the construction of a just world need to take a hard look at the growing cult of entrepreneurship. Universities are in the business of chasing money and one of SU's biggest catches in recent years was a $3 million dollar grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to establish a "Syracuse Campus-Community Entrepreneurship Initiative." Those of us who work and study in the university know, now, that each of us must become (for there is money to be had!) "entrepreneurial" professors, "entrepreneurial" students, "entrepreneurial" secretaries and janitors.

Chancellor Cantor says, "The Syracuse Campus-Community Entrepreneurship Initiative will allow us to embed an entrepreneurial mindset across our campus and throughout the region and leverage the educational, business and cultural capital in Central New York in ways that will truly transform our communities." Perhaps, but the whole language of entrepreneurialism actually works against exactly these goals. It is a language of narrow "accountability," of "personal responsibility," and, crucially, of exploitation. It is not a language of solidarity or of justice or even remotely of welfare. It is not a language of peace.
Graphic: Unknown

Indeed, it is the language of commonsense, which is to say the language of domination. As Syracuse University's ROTC program says, if you become a cadet, you will be "learning skills that are sure to give an edge over your peers when it comes time to look for a job." You will be trained for "Leadership, Excellence." While there is, apparently, a course in "Military Skills," both the SU and the National Army ROTC website neglect to mention that what one in these programs is being trained to do, at root, is kill: to be the very agents of the so-called legitimate use of violence around the world. According to the Army's national ROTC website, students are trained to be Officers, and "Being an Officer in the US Army means you're a leader, a counselor, a strategist and a motivator. It's similar to being a vital manager in a corporation." SU's Whitman School program on "Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises," notes that being an entrepreneurial leader "is about bringing a spirit of innovativeness, calculated risk-taking, and proactive behavior to everything you do." The parallel language is, I think, hardly accidental.

That is because at a global scale "entrepreneurialism" is a code word for the implementation of a certain kind of neoliberal capitalism, in which, as the geographer David Harvey has argued so forcefully, accumulation - that is the chasing of money - is always a function of dispossession. Such exploitation requires both the "calculated risk-taking" of the civilian entrepreneur, and military officers who are driven-to-success and who are mission-oriented. One is impossible without the other.

We rarely think of entrepreneurialism that way of course. Rather, those of us in the university salivate at the announcement of various "e-professor" grants, the winning of which will further prove our excellence and further cement our place in the academy. We figure that whatever exploitation might be necessary in our gaining and use of the grant, in our becoming truly entrepreneurial, will be slight and worth it.

But what we miss in that calculation is the transformative effect of the cult of entrepreneurship on what a university is and what it could be. When all are entrepreneurs, all "excellent" in this narrow and neoliberal way, there is little room for alternative visions of justice.

There is also - still - little basis for contesting the further entanglement of universities and imperial militaries, since they too are merely being entrepreneurial in their actions (for what institution is there that is better than the military at "organizing available resources in new and valuable ways" as entrepreneurship is often defined, and as the Army ROTC makes so clear). The growing cult of entrepreneurship is an increasingly important means by which US hegemony is projected, internally and around the world. The link between military power and entrepreneurship is neither new nor slight - a Google search on "military entrepreneurship" returns some 1,850,000 pages - but what is important here is the way in which the language of entrepreneurship becomes a neutralizing language, and the way it becomes the means by which imperial militaries are welcomed back into the university: Syracuse's ROTC, NSS, Institute for National Security and Counter Terrorism, and the like, are, in their public presentations, all grandly intellectual, and grandly entrepreneurial - that is, grandly American. As the Whitman School puts it, students become people who understand entrepreneurship as a "philosophy of life" (or as the National Security Studies program puts it, people who want to "grow [their] skills and competence"). The cult of entrepreneurialism, which changes us as social subjects, also changes the university: it gives the university a new raison d'etre: building skills and inculcating a highly constricted "philosophy of life." The university as a nation-building institution returns, but this time as a hideous, imperialist monster: it sets out to remake the world - and us - in the image of exploitative American - entrepreneurial - capitalism, the needs and desires of all those not interested in this "philosophy of life" be damned. The business of the university is chasing money.

The business of the university, that is, is now to be entrepreneurial. Universities are no longer incubators of the kind of citizenship and nationhood that marked the modern era; nor mere engines of an undefined excellence; now they are training grounds for entrepreneurs. As universities take on the role of making all of us better entrepreneurs, who can deny the importance of universities also taking on the role of better training the bureaucrats of empire to be efficient and creative imperial entrepreneurs? And who can deny that soldiers too must be trained to be more entrepreneurial - more creative, more reactive, more focused on the bottom line - killers?

Don Mitchell is Distinguished Professor of Geography at Syracuse University and Director of People's Geography Project.