Opinion | The Canon

Mario, money, and Marx

In December 1964, an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley made a name for himself. Mario Savio and a crowd of his fellows were publicly protesting a decision made by the Berkeley administration to limit political advocacy on campus. Enraged, Mario uttered his most famous words: “If this [university] is a firm, and if the board of regents are the board of directors ... then I’ll tell you something. The faculty are a bunch of employees, and we’re the raw material! But we ... don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the university, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings!” Though it was given nearly 50 years ago, Mario’s speech still raises the important question: Are we, as Columbia students, simply the raw materials of a corporation?

For the moment, let’s set Mario’s fiery rhetoric aside and explore the following questions: Is Columbia a corporation? Is Columbia making a profit? If so, should we care?

First: Is Columbia like a firm—a business? According to our Trustees, Columbia is a “private, nonsectarian, nonprofit institution of higher education.” In other words, we’re a university. Great, but let’s dig a little deeper. Some think that labeling Columbia a corporation instead of a university would besmirch our name as a place of knowledge and higher ideals. These people tolerate, but cannot venerate, corporations. To them, the world of business and exchange is one of cold, calculating competition—no more than a money grab. Such individuals are well versed in Doublespeak and refer to Columbia as a “global university,” an “institution” of “intellectual stimulation.”

But behind all the fluff is reality, because students are customers paying for a service. This service means different things to different students. Some consider it a liberal arts education, some think of it as an opportunity to acquire certain skills, and others see it as a four-year obstacle course with a piece of paper and a ticket to employment at the end. Each of these is perhaps more or less admirable, but they are the reasons why Columbia exists. Is Columbia a corporation? Yes, because it is meeting a market need.

On to the second question: Does Columbia make a profit from its behavior as a corporation? Like businesses, universities have revenues. Columbia’s largest revenue stream is tuition, to the tune of $830 million a year. As I’ve argued, tuition is but the purchase of a service. They also receive significant sums in the form of government grants and alumni gifts. Columbia cultivates a significant store of accumulated funds for new projects, expansions and the like. Our endowment of $8.2 billion (which posted a whopping 11.5 percent return in 2013) is hardly distinguishable from the massive stores of profit that Apple, Google, and other companies hold for similar purposes. Columbia does indeed make a profit from its business as a university.

Finally, should we care about all of this? Now we return to our friend Mario. Mario’s neo-Marxist critique of Berkeley is straightforward: Capitalism has corrupted the university. In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx discusses what he views as the inevitable exploitation of labor under capitalism. He deplores “the miserable character of this [system], under which the labourer lives merely to increase capital, and is allowed to live only in so far as the interest of the ruling class requires it.” Mario’s argument that students are being systematically oppressed by a ruling class echoes Marx’s description of the class dynamics between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

This Marxist world seems most real here at Columbia when career fairs come around. The false enthusiasm, pressed clothing, and general tension are certainly reminiscent of a commodity market of students. And to be forthright: I acknowledge that by accepting Columbia’s status as a corporation I accept my status as raw material to be shaped by professors and school administrators. I just don’t find it a problem.

My reasoning goes something like this: I believe that Columbia students spend about as much time hammering out their own identities as they are hammered on. The former process is the ideal of the Doublespeakers. They claim self-realization and fulfillment mark a great education. The latter process is the one which Mario objects to: the callous, materialist view that professors, administrators, and clients of the university take advantage of students for personal gain. We need to recognize that both processes exist, both are unavoidable, and yet both fail to capture the whole truth.

What we are really paying for as students at Columbia is the chance to learn from some of the most accomplished minds alive about the most influential ideas of the past alongside many of brightest leaders of the future. Such an experience necessarily encompasses wonderful highs and fearsome lows, times of control and moments of manipulation. 

This is what the Columbia corporation provides: a roaring forge in which the soul, mind, and body are tempered. Such a privilege is worth paying for.

The author is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in economics and mathematics. He is an artist for Spectator’s opinion section.

To respond to this piece, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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