Here at the University of Connecticut, we as students frequently find ourselves upset with the administration’s behavior and in opposition to many of its policies. We want a sustainable campus while the administration increases the use of fossil fuels. We want racial justice while the administration dislikes the negative press from acknowledging racial problems. We want a reasonable cost of education while the university increases the cost of textbooks, tuition, food and rent yearly.
Why? Shouldn’t we have the ability to participate in institutions like public universities which have our best interests at heart? Furthermore, aren’t we funding UConn through our tuition and tax dollars? In spite of these truths, the administration’s behavior is so often at odds with our interests because it responds to a set of structural incentives which have little to do with us.
One reason for their behavior is that UConn is a very large institution reliant upon many administrative staff. These bureaucrats, as is the case in many hierarchical organizations, are incentivized to demonstrate the largest possible purview. In business administration, compensation and prestige are strongly linked to the amount of one’s employees or subordinates and the overall amount of activity they oversee, all serving as data justifying continued employment or promotion. UConn administrators, to the extent that they can influence this, will opt to increase the total number of students and faculty here on campus. They aren’t bad people; they are simply responding to an established set of incentives as any human would.
What’s even more important than this hierarchy is that the administration responds to changing sources of revenue. Obviously, there is an extent to which the university relies on tuition from students whom it must satisfy. But demand for UConn’s product (education) is somewhat inelastic. In other words, we attend UConn because it’s a strong public research university offering in-state tuition, and we need a higher education to have a basic standard of living. There’s not much they could do to screw this up, and many of us continue attending UConn for these reasons despite the administration’s many policy failures which negatively impact our quality of life.
Other more mutable revenue sources help better to explain the university’s behavior. Private individual donors want to contribute to the most prestigious schools. Many of UConn’s corporate donors are interested in schools that promote a large and educated labor market in addition to technological development. The Connecticut State Legislature, a key source of funding for UConn, is very interested in the growth of the state’s GDP. These parties contribute to the school’s wealth in accordance with these goals, and the only way UConn has of meeting these expectations is through continual increases in size, prestige and accreditation.
So in addition to the administration’s bureaucratic structure, these essential funding sources necessitate that the university is continuously augmenting itself in one way or another with annual revenue increases. In a society focused upon growth, a stagnant university of any kind is fundamentally uninteresting to private and governmental contributors alike. All of this is to say that the university does not generate revenue in accordance with some set goal or important social function. The UConn administration must increase revenue perpetually without any clear purpose or end goal.
This imperative is demonstrated by perpetual construction on campus in order to beef up marketing and admissions. It’s demonstrated by perpetual increases of cost of living and education here. It’s demonstrated by the lack of funding for life-saving mental health services. It’s demonstrated by the presence of many corporations on campus, all of which have struck lucrative deals with the administration. It’s demonstrated by the fact that most mutual aid on campus is conducted not by the administration but with funds supplied to Tier III organizations through our fee bill or raised by student activists. The university must wring us out of money completely without wasting a drop of potential revenue.
The difference between maximizing revenue and maximizing profit is a semantic distinction. When an organization seeks to maximize the money in its control, it will behave in predictable ways. The board of trustees at UConn and the board of directors at PepsiCO are two groups of people with one equal duty: to generate as much money as possible. This is why UConn, despite being a public university funded by large amounts of federal grants, still frequently behaves like a private company.
This is why we constantly find ourselves treated by the administration not as human beings but as customers and employees. When the administration has the ultimate goal of revenue maximization, it applies this lens to everyone, including faculty and students. It is not a person with empathetic and other emotional capabilities, it is an algorithm incapable of distinguishing our human qualities and incapable of understanding the many concerns us humans have for each other on and off campus. This explains the profiteering, racism and environmental destruction in which the university is complicit or directly responsible.
The UConn administration’s incentive structure may sound like a tragic coincidence, but it is the result of specific economic conditions. UConn has adopted the goal of perpetual growth because it is central to an economy modeled with the exact same logic. Until we develop a humane, non-hierarchical economic plan, all of our public and private institutions will adopt equally harmful priorities. The UConn administration should not operate in the service of state or market interests. The UConn administration should be controlled and directed on behalf of its contributors: the students, faculty and staff who create everything of value here.
Harrison Raskin is campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.