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A colleague of mine—a staunch Progressive—writes comments regularly in response to articles published in The New York Times. The comments—on the political scene in Washington and elsewhere—are about her disdain for hypocrisy and injustice. She always has something important to say.

Corporatist Progressive

What strikes me about her—and so many other colleagues I’ve known over the years—is this: They are “Corporatist By Day, Progressive After Hours.”

They point out injustices and organize for causes external to the organizations for which they work, but they rarely do anything to call out or change practices in the organizations for which they work. And as the situation inside their work organizations gets worse, so does the gap between what they do for a living and where they stand personally.

They point out injustices and organize for causes external to the organizations for which they work, but they rarely do anything to call out or change practices in the organizations for which they work.

I thought about that the other day as I came across a story featured recently on CBS News, 60 Minutes. I wondered what I would have done if I had worked for this organization.

The University of California at San Francisco Medical Center is off-shoring technical jobs to save $30 million over 5 years by using the same strategy that corporations, like Walt Disney, have used. The savings come as American workers are replaced with lower paid workers, mostly from India, hired via H1-B visas—even though the enabling Federal legislation never intended the visa program to be used that way. The displaced UCSF employees were also asked to train their replacements. As one displaced worker asked: “How can they do this to us?

Places like UCSF do it because “for the public good” organizations have become corporatized. Make no mistake about it: a good share of the programs offered by these organizations are Progressive in both intent and outcome. But many of those same organizations are corporations in administration and culture. Just look at position titles, compensation levels, employment systems and protocol, the emphasis on fundraising, marketing, and branding, and—most importantly—policies enacted and decisions made. Those systems and practices are based largely on a corporate model.

That puts many Progressives in a bind. Many were drawn to public and nonprofit careers because they are Progressives. But now they find themselves working by rules and under metrics which, by any measure, are corporate. It’s about raising money, seeking organizational efficiencies, growing the donor base, expanding client reach, gaining market share vis-à-vis the competition, enhancing political influence, and increasing public standing.

How did this happen? One answer is that it’s an evolution of epoch proportions. “The corporation,” once an organizational model for the for-profit sector only, has become the generalized organizational model of choice. James Galbraith believes that America has become “a corporate republic, where methods, norms, and culture…/of organizational life/…have become those of the corporation.” It means that institutionalized work for the public good has become extensively corporatized.

The worst part—for Progressives, at least—is that this dynamic has become a normal feature of everyday American life. Many everyday people value running public and nonprofit organizations “like a business,” even though many people don’t have a clue what that involves or what implications it has for them.

Consider the move by The Trump Administration recently to address so-called “government stagnation” associated with claims of “The Deep State” and promises to “Drain the Swamp.” Trump created The White House Office of American Innovation to implement his “’ahead of schedule, under budget' mentality to the government" At issue, of course, is what values and priorities will be sacrificed in the transaction to impose a business-like mind-set on the running of public affairs.

What’s sacrificed? That’s where the episode at UCSF is revealing. Decisions are made primarily for the good of the organization, not necessarily for the good of the community or even the good of its employees. While framed for PR as “making tough decisions that will enable the organization to better serve the public,” another portrait is an uncaring enterprise that compromises its public character for self-serving reasons.

That proclivity is well-described in the title and sub-title of a report written by John Creighton and John Harwood: The Organization-First Approach: How Programs Crowd Out Community. In it the co-authors tell a sobering tale.

While public and nonprofit organizational leaders spoke expressively about community and community needs, they consistently framed specifics in an “organization-first” manner. In other words they consistently focused inwardly on the organization (e.g., talking first about the importance of the current capital campaign), rather than looking outwardly to the community (e.g., talking first about urban poverty).

Even when pushed, many respondents were incapable of framing organizational work otherwise. And the scary part is that they continued to put their organizations first—not the community—even when they thought they were doing the opposite.

Those with decade-spanning careers—like myself—have experienced the metamorphosis from the way things were to the way they are today. My career, spent in public university work, began in the late 1970’s and ended nearly four decades later. When people ask me to typify that experience, I always say this: “I began my career working in a social institution. I ended my career working for a corporation.”

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While a good share of university work is Progressive in nature, university administration has become increasingly corporatized in systems, structure, and overall operations. It has gotten to the point that the pejorative appellation, “Big”—heretofore reserved for mega-corporations, like Pharma, Agriculture, and Oil—applies equally well to the university sector. Today we have “Big U” or University, Inc., if you prefer. Either way, it helps explain what’s happening at UCSF.

There’s every reason to believe that the trend I’ve described here – corporatized organizations operating in the for-the-public-good domain—will continue, even deepen, without sufficient counter-response. That counter-response must include—as it always has—the work of The Fourth Estate, university researchers, and others. They’ve done an outstanding job of pointing out when corporate proclivities in the public and nonprofit sectors crowd out serving the public good.

But that work must also include people from within speaking up and acting out. It takes courage to speak and “balls” to act. But without one or both, we end up tacitly accepting policies and practices that just aren’t right.

It’s a matter of figuring out a shrewd and workable way to engage. A group of us did that recently. We talked things through, put together a plan, and acted—including reaching out to others who were so inclined. We then shared our concern—including an alternative recommendation—with colleagues and administrators. The press learned of our actions and did their job by reporting it extensively.

There’s nothing new in this. Consider the example. A university invited a graduation speaker who had written a column about sexual assault, saying that some victims seek “the coveted status of victimhood.” The university president defended the invitation saying that it “created a space for discourse.” What was the response? Thousands of people nationwide signed a petition urging the university to cancel the presentation (which it did not). So, immediately prior to the talk, about 100 people stood outside the arena protesting the decision and twenty or so graduating students stood with backs to the podium as the speaker talked. A faculty group oversaw an “alternative graduation ceremony” at another venue.

Actions like these are more important than ever. Today’s public and nonprofit institutions need to be challenged and kept accountable.

The routine for doing so is straightforward. Shine a spotlight on hypocrisy and injustice. Reveal the shadow side. Call it out. Then offer an alternative that serves the public (and greater) good. Make it clear, very clear, just which “people” you’re talking about and why (from a Progressive perspective) those people need to be the focus of attention. Repeat the practice over and over again.

And what we need, more than ever, are institutional leaders who are so inclined—inclined to speak critically and demand more from their own organizations. Although rare, it’s not without precedent.

That’s why I was so pleased to read The Washington Post piece entitled, “A University Takes On One Of Its Own, Alumna Kellyanne Conway.” Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, posted an essay on the school’s webpage entitled, “On Lies And Truths We Must Tell.” In it she wrote: “Presidential Counselor Kellyanne Conway, Trinity Class of 1989, has played a large role in facilitating the manipulation of facts and encouraging the grave injustice being perpetrated by the Trump Administration’s war on immigrants among many other issues.”

Bravo, Dr. McGuire! Better yet, if you look at her “President’s Blog,” you’ll will read essays on how she believes her university needs to respond to issues of the day.

I know there are many more examples. But standing in stark contrast are examples of public and nonprofit organizations that persist in engaging in corporatized practices that DO NOT serve the public’s good. Take this example. A public university made a presidential hire recently, a hire that included up to a $100,000 bonus after the trustees conduct the president’s annual review and—cough, cough—up to a $700,000 bonus in five years “depending on how well the board believes he has performed in carrying out the university’s strategic objectives.”

‘Bonuses’ for doing a job for which a person was hired…. Bullshit!

It’s yet another reason why America needs inside activists and outside agitators. More than anything we need Progressives who are one in the same. Ditch the bifurcated life.

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Game on!

Frank Fear

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