The Triangle - The Independent Student Newspaper at Drexel University

Massive monuments to mammon

I don’t recall anyone ever taking a poll of the faculty and staff who work in the MacAlister-Creese complex or the students who use it daily about whether they wanted the building to be permanently embalmed behind an academic version of the Twin Towers. I’ve taken my own private one, though, and have yet to find a single vote in its favor. Instead, I’ve heard universal frustration and a quiet, simmering resentment as light and air are hemmed in and space constricted.

Well, build we must for a better New York, as they used to say in the days of Robert Moses, the building czar who never saw a neighborhood he didn’t think could be improved by razing it. But at least Moses had a vision, imperial as it was. What, though, could they have been thinking when they decided to plant two overbearing structures on an already crowded Chestnut Street, pushing a new student population into the hub of the campus, and topping it off with an array of shops of dubious, if any, relevance to an institution, and certainly with no business in its very heart. And, by the way, who are “they”?

The last question is the most easily answered. When Drexel’s Board of Trustees chose John A. Fry to be the University’s president, they chose a leader whose background was not academics but academic gentrification — the expansion of urban universities into typically poor, usually minority neighborhoods whose residents would pay the freight in lost space and higher property costs. This was President Fry’s job at Penn, and no one could have been surprised when, in collaboration with a Texas “development” firm, he brought a similar vision to Drexel.

The big picture that’s to emerge is of a new West Philadelphia economy based on Penn and Drexel as two of the city’s biggest employers. The likelier reality is of a gated academic fortress, patrolled by an ever-more intrusive security apparatus, facing Center City but with its back to the poverty behind and around it. While Penn and Drexel students (well, Penn students, anyway) train themselves for entry into the professional and business elites, a trickle of low-wage service jobs will be the lagniappe for local residents.

This isn’t a new story, or one unique to West Philadelphia. Uptown, Temple’s expansion has brought it into sharp and repeated conflict with its surrounding neighborhoods. This, in turn, repeats the Big Apple story of Columbia University and New York University, both of which have encroached for decades on their neighbors. At stake is some of the most congested, contested and potentially valuable real estate in the world. The University of Chicago has had a similar experience. Nor are the land wars confined merely to inner-city corridors. Out my way in Merion, Saint Joseph’s University has been at daggers drawn with its more affluent suburban neighbors for as long as I can remember. Once conceived as a bucolic retreat, the modern university is an aggressively expanding, not to mention imperial, institution. Like capitalism itself, its motto seems to be grow or die.

The other big building project at Drexel is the addition to the LeBow College of Business, which will make it the largest structure on campus and, in effect, Drexel’s calling card to the world. When I came here, the College of Engineering was top dog, and justifiably so. But there was also a stated intention to make a full-service university out of what, despite its title, was still for all practical purposes an institute of technology, or so,  I was assured by the arts and sciences dean who recruited me. Hard times soon followed, and so did broken promises. Drexel has changed a good deal since then. Its engineers are still distinguished, but its flagship is apparently to be the business school, whose purpose, straightforwardly, is to prepare young men and women to make money. This was made obvious several years ago, when business was able to make off with 19 of the 40 new faculty lines set aside for the university as a whole.

Evidently, as former President Calvin Coolidge said long ago, “The business of America is business.” The question is whether it ought to be the principal business of education. Corporate values and a corporate-style bureaucracy have overtaken academia generally, with consequences devastating for universities and, I would suggest, for society as a whole. The study of economics has become so enmeshed with business practices and principles as to have largely blunted its capacity for critical perspective. The decline of sociology as an independent discipline, one of the more striking of the many blows endured by the social sciences and humanities in recent decades, has also undermined the capacity for critical social reflection. It’s almost impossible to imagine the career of a Thorstein Veblen, a John Dewey or a C. Wright Mills in academia today. This is a loss, not only to our national intellectual life but to what might be called our early-warning systems. Scholarships in business and economics failed, with a few honorable but largely disregarded exceptions, to alert us of the impending crash of 2008. Virtually no one foresaw its potential depth and destructiveness. This was not for lack of scholarly intelligence but a lack of critical distance. The patronage of business schools proved fatal in this regard. It has had a similarly retarding effect on the analysis of our continuing economic crisis and of the measures needed to avert a future one.
From Chestnut Street, I watch humanities departments become immured behind a commercial façade. From Market, I can see the business tower rising. Mortar and concrete aren’t the problem; the problem is a mindset that thinks our deepening social problems can be solved, or perhaps simply exploited, by a pair of magic wands called “entrepreneurship” and “technology.”

Drexel once promised itself to become a university. The question is whether it has any proper knowledge of what a university should be.

Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University. He can be contacted at op-ed@thetriangle.org