Trinity’s Provost, Dr Patrick Prendergast, told the Irish Independent that he wanted to build a €70m business school and have students from all disciplines take classes in entrepreneurship.
His plan is out of touch on many levels.
For one thing, it is jarringly self-referential. Prendergast’s ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ is supposedly based around responding to consumer demands – and Trinity’s consumers (i.e. students) have largely demanded that Prendergast stop pursuing his commercialisation drive. His business philosophy, as preached, would involve redirecting funds from the measures students don’t tend to support (the rebranding, the multi-million business school exploits) into the measures students do tend to support (library hours, health services, grants). His business philosophy, as practiced, involves trying and failing to convince students of the merits of his business philosophy, then ploughing on regardless.
This is particularly unfortunate when Trinity’s massive surge in business investment was announced within a year of unprecedented cuts to student services and within a week of arbitrary increases to student levies. The university’s Finance Committee offered only one justification for the levies: ‘raising revenue’. Towards a €70m business school announced the next week, perhaps?
Wasteful spending is bad in itself, but consider the issues alongside one another (since the timing seems to prompt it). Prendergast proposes to teach entrepreneurial verve at the cost of student services.
One of the ways he’ll fund this educational journey is by charging students €250 to sit supplemental exams. Assuming a student in that position has someone funding their accommodation, food and transport and can save every cent of the minimum wage they’re likely to earn if they can find a job (and that’s a precarious assumption), they’ll have to work around 27 hours over the summer to purchase their place in the exam hall – more hours than they’ll spend doing the exams. But if they pass this time around, they can take business classes come September.
Let’s consider another situation: that of a student whose grant has been cut and who has to micromanage every euro. Common sense (as well, incidentally, as mainstream economic thought) tells us that navigating financial scarcity saps up focus and emotional energy. That leaves less of either to pump into your actual degree, let alone extramural entrepreneurial lessons.
Or let’s take a sick student who can’t afford to spend the highest GP fees in the country, who has to wait two weeks for an appointment at the understaffed Trinity student clinic, and whose condition keeps getting worse in the interim. They sound like a prime candidate for lessons in how to be a commercial mover, a capitalistic shaker.
So let’s get one thing very clear. When Prendergast describes his plan as being geared towards ‘all students’, he means that it could benefit students of any academic discipline. We’ll get to why that’s dubious in a little bit – but it certainly won’t benefit students of ‘all’ income brackets.
Assuming Prendergast hadn’t made these cuts to fund his business gambit, the plan would still be flawed. In positioning business as the discipline from which all other schools should learn, he reverses the priorities of the top American social science departments he wishes to emulate (even assuming this aim is a worthy one).
Even Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has introduced a mandatory class in power and privilege in recognition that model-driven social sciences often fail to account for systems of oppression that cannot be readily explained by identity-blind incentive/disincentive structures. Our studies of human behaviour have been narrow; the business sector Prendergast values would be more valuable if it broadened its outreach. (And yes, if we must, it would also be more profitable; non-white-men remain a lucrative and relatively untapped consumer base across a range of industries, film being one searing example).
Race, class, sex, sexual orientation, gender – all these axes, and many more, are explored markedly more richly and markedly more sensitively in other fields from which business academia is increasingly borrowing. And it often needs to borrow – because it remains dominated by white men who have no direct experience of racial or gendered oppression.
Take Prendergast’s stated exemplar, the Stanford Business school. The first page of their faculty shows only one black person and eight women out of 36 in total.
In a country where racism and misogyny remain rampant, it is unsurprising that diverse faculties remain a work-in-progress – but it is also very odd indeed for Prendergast to invite us to uncritically imitate them, especially when the fields he feels would be improved with a sprinkle of business know-how have historically been quicker and more thorough at analysing oppression.
For example, in the study of literature, intersectional critiques of privilege have been mainstream academic fare for decades. In this area, Harvard’s Government School have lagged decidedly behind their English department by only introducing a module addressing these issues now.
In this context, it is peculiar for Prendergast to imply the exact opposite: that the humanities need to learn from ‘entrepreneurial thinking’. Peculiar, but unsurprising: if he genuinely valued the consumer-driven insights his Ivy League models offer, he would not have taken these measures in the first place.