Corporatocracy and the McDonaldization of Work in Higher Education

In the fifth segment of the fantastic book Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell paints a picture of a future in “Corprocratic” (and post-apocalyptic) Neo Seoul, where its bored, spoiled citizens thrive on gallerias and franchises and are legally required to consume products. In Mitchell’s rationalized future, a surplus of deskilled “fabricants” perform the grunt labor of everyday low-wage work. Except for one, Somni-451.

After escaping the drudgery of her job as part of a disposable workforce at “Papa Song’s” (a McDonald’s stand-in), Somni goes on a journey. In the process of gaining her freedom from her fabricant existence, she begins a clandestine education available only to “pureblood’s” who are enrolled in university and have access to “upstrata corpocracy schooling,” which “the upper-class use to teach themselves anything and everything.”

I don’t want to spoil the story, the main reason I mention it is because Mitchell’s fictional “corpocracy” provides a glimpse into a post-modern corporatocracy like here in the U.S. A corporatocracy is a political and economic system that is run by corporations and corporate interests. In this view, inequality is a product of several things but especially globalization (and its weakening of worker rights) and big money in politics. In our “corpocracy,” the problem is corporations more than capitalism. C. Wright Mills talked about rule by the Power Elite, he was right, corporations, and their people are who rule the United States, politicians are part of it, but corporatocracy is more about money and big business. If you want, you can connect those dots and see who the power elite are currently by clicking on the link for They Rule here.

Banksy McDonalds
Banksy McDonalds

I’ve spent the last several weeks on the road, busy giving diversity trainings, and doing other work but I’ve been thinking about workers and how the corporatization of work—McDonaldization—affects them. Giving diversity trainings is rational after all, it allows a human resource employee to check off a box and efficiently and predictably fulfill some state requirement.

Back in January, Marianne Paiva wrote about Ritzer’s theory and the McDonaldization of higher education. About how President Obama’s initiative to provide 2 years free community college would only serve to increase the rationalization of higher education. Kiss liberal arts and critical thinking goodbye, and say hello to more assessment, obsession with student learning outcomes over analysis, and quickie degrees that serve the bottom line of the higher ed corpocracy. McDonaldization makes a degree of sense if you’re an entrepreneur selling a product, not so much if your product is an intangible and abstract service, such as education.

I saw the McDonaldization problem in higher ed about a year into adjuncting at Butte Community College in Oroville, CA. Being the go-getter that I was (and coming from private industry where that is expected), I volunteered for committees and other tasks and didn’t worry about being paid for my service, I was certain it would pay off. And in a way, it did. I blended in and observed and that afforded me a glimpse into how the full-time employees perceived adjunct teachers, student interns, and staff. It also showed me how administrators and tenured profs benefit from low wage adjuncts while at the same time, bad-mouthing and blaming these same teachers for “poor student learning outcomes” (e.g., grades, retention, and persistence to graduation or transfer to four-year schools).

In 2011 I wrote, “How Working at a Community College is Like Working Retail.” Since then, other writers have jumped on board and compared adjuncting to fast food work, working at Wal-Mart, and even slavery (which it is not). What’s really happened is that work in higher education has been McDonaldized from the student/intern level all the way up to administration. If McDonaldization hurts students and compromises learning what about workers in higher education, what does it do to them?

One of the main similarities between adjuncting and low wage service work (fast food, retail) is the precarious nature of the job (at-will employment) and the fact that workers, once employed, are stuck in the work-debt cycle of corpocratocracy. That is, not making quite enough money to live on and going into debt or getting behind financially in other ways in order to fill the gaps between paychecks. The same is true for temporary or contract-based staff positions; some of these folk might make a living wage ($15 an hr) but they work part-time and many end up having to reapply for their jobs when the contract ends. The “good jobs” in higher ed, the one’s with security, higher wages, and benefits are scarcer than ever these days, those are the full-time permanent staff positions, the tenure track, and administrative work. Administrators are often at-will but the pay is astronomical and it’s rare for admins to be de-throned, when they are, they are usually shipped off to another institution and another sweet deal.

McDonaldization and the corporatization of higher education have made it possible to educate more students than ever before but there has been a cost to its workers. Whereas working at a college was once a good job infused with moral value, it is now not much different from any other kind of service work that is guided by bureaucratic, pseudo-corporate values. We all used to make fun of dehumanized DMV workers but we might just have become them and here’s why:


As I’ve said before, labor is the big operational cost for any business, and colleges and universities are stream lining labor and saving money by hiring temporary staff, temporary faculty, and using non-unionized student labor. Though not entirely predictable (more on that in part two), employers count on these workers to provide efficient, rationalized labor and task completion. For a business, this is a matter of resource allocation; adjuncts, temporary staff, and student employees are cheap and provide additional funds for the ballooning of admin positions at inflated wages. If you’ve read Piketty’s Capital (I’m in the middle of it), it seems akin to the CEO phenomenon during the Reagan era. The more power admins got, the more they wanted and the more the institutions started looking to become efficient and focused on products they could sell.


Of course, colleges and universities don’t just provide education anymore. There are any number of services for students and their families to choose from when they are looking at where to get their education. When I was a student at CSU, Chico I thought it was a great deal to be able to pay fees and use the student health center, it actually saved me money and I received excellent healthcare. A look at the Chico State Student Services link today gets me a long menu of options and opportunities, a focus on quantity. What I see when I look at that menu is staffing. Who works in these jobs, are they permanent, do they pay well, and provide benefits? Does this affect faculty; has the increase in staff and admin positions increased the reliance on adjunct faculty and decreased tenure track positions? Are schools trying to offer too much so they can increase their customer base?


The intent of these measures is to increase the predictability of outcomes for the business. In higher education, this is where McDonaldization is actually failing. Unlike at Barnes and Noble (which sells way more stuff than books these days), being more efficient and calculable might be hurting colleges and universities or at the very least, doing nothing at all. After all the recreation and wellness centers, the vice-vice president positions, and every service you can imagine, the increased costs in overhead have not led to a predictable rise in graduation rates. U.S. Department of Education figures show that since 2002, the number of students who earn a Bachelor’s in six years time has gone up a paltry three percent, from 55%-58%. Meanwhile, student debt has reached the 1 trillion mark.  Higher ed’s investment in overhead has not concurrently led to an increase in its product, education.


One way that colleges and universities have tried to mediate the predictability gap is by increasing their reliance on non-human technology to do the work that people used to do. This has been through the automation of many different types of services they offer, including teaching. It’s hard to teach a classroom full of students without using some sort of learning management software and some schools require it; many of our customers expect it. Control is also through the deskilling (deprofesionalization) of its workforce, that’s where adjunct faculty comes in. I have heard many stories and have a few of my own of being hired to teach a class at the last-minute, once with only a few days to prepare for teaching a new course. It reminded me of the old days when I was working in other low wage work and saved my bosses ass by pulling a double shift or coming in on my day off. I can toot my own horn and say I pulled it off that semester and taught a good class, but it was only one of three and two that I was already prepped for; what if I’d been teaching 6 or 7 classes, surely quality would have suffered.

You get the picture now? McDonaldization is eating higher education alive. The system might even know that, at least I think that some do, but it seems hard pressed to do anything about it except build another building or hire another administrator. It was once a good job to work at a college or university, but it isn’t anymore. I can tell when I talk to people about their jobs, there’s a tension, a knowing that something is screwy and that it has a lot to do with how the business is running and what the bosses are up to. My step-dad used to say that you can tell everything about a business by its employees. Are they joking around with each other, do they seem to like being at work? Do they think the boss is fair?

What is the hyper-rationalization of higher education doing to its workers? How is acting like a business turning students into customers and learning into a product? In part two, I’ll share my experiences with academic bullying. In part three, I’ll be discussing the consequences of McDonaldization among workers and pondering who will have access to knowledge in the future corporatocracy.

2 thoughts on “Corporatocracy and the McDonaldization of Work in Higher Education

  1. As I’ve said before, labor is the big operational cost for any business, and colleges and universities are stream lining labor and saving money by hiring temporary staff, temporary faculty, and using non-unionized student labor.
    Great Observations about US Higher education.. I appreciate. Of course, it is becoming true across the globe. In India also, colleges and universities don’t just provide education any more. There are any number of services for students and their families to choose from when they are looking at where to get their education. I agree, reliance on non-human technology has pushed backward people’s commitment to do work themselves. Rightly pointed out, McDonaldization is eating higher education alive. The system focuses on to build another building or hire another administrator. Working at a college or university is no more thrilling anymore. b There is tension, a knowing that something is screwy and that it has a lot to do with how the business is running and what the bosses are up to. Quality has become the first victim of today’s higher education. Thanks to corporatocracy which thrives on values of business and profit earning.

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