My University Plans to Reopen This Summer, Based on Advice From McKinsey. That’s Terrifying.

McKinsey & Company is pushing a military-style, corporate response to the Covid-19 crisis in public higher education. What we need is an anti-racist approach.

Jeffrey Helgeson July 2, 2020

McKinsey’s approach to school reform is precisely not what we need right now. (Don & Melinda Crawford/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The infa­mous 1970s bus­ing cri­sis” in Boston may seem far-flung from efforts by uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors to con­front the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic in 2020. The con­nec­tion, how­ev­er, came home to me recent­ly when I learned that the admin­is­tra­tors of the Texas State Uni­ver­si­ty Sys­tem — where I have worked for a decade — are plan­ning a return to cam­pus this sum­mer, fol­low­ing the advice of the con­tro­ver­sial cor­po­rate con­sult­ing firm, McK­in­sey & Company.

McKinsey appears to be using the emergency of the pandemic to undermine what is left of faculty governance and student voice in higher education.

Just as cor­po­rate lead­ers came togeth­er to help over­see deseg­re­ga­tion of Boston’s pub­lic schools near­ly 50 years ago, today, busi­ness inter­ests are again at the table, this time guid­ing school admin­is­tra­tors on how to reopen in the midst of a dead­ly outbreak.

McKinsey’s advice has already under­mined effec­tive respons­es to the pan­dem­ic in oth­er sec­tors than high­er edu­ca­tion. Vol­un­teers from the firm have been cen­tral to the Trump administration’s botched efforts to pro­cure per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment (PPE) for hos­pi­tals. Mean­while, the firm has prof­it­ed from state-lev­el offi­cials look­ing for a veneer of legit­i­ma­cy in their efforts to lim­it the dis­tri­b­u­tion of unem­ploy­ment and food aid to those now in pover­ty. There is no rea­son to believe McKinsey’s advice for pub­lic high­er edu­ca­tion will be any more promising.

The admin­is­tra­tors I work with in the Texas State Uni­ver­si­ty Sys­tem (TSUS), nonethe­less, have called on mes­sag­ing from McK­in­sey & Com­pa­ny to sell our fac­ul­ty and staff on the plan to return to face-to-face instruc­tion — orig­i­nal­ly on July 6, now August 24—and to do so while absorb­ing the impact of severe bud­get reduc­tions dur­ing an ongo­ing spike in Covid-19 infec­tions in Texas. (In a state­ment, TSUS denied hav­ing a for­mal con­nec­tion to McK­in­sey, say­ing the admin­is­tra­tion is not con­sult­ing with McK­in­sey & Com­pa­ny to devel­op plans or respons­es to COVID-19.”)

To facil­i­tate this reen­try into on-cam­pus work and study, McK­in­sey is sell­ing a top-down, closed process. They have laid out a mil­i­tary-style cri­sis response that includes no sys­tem­at­ic efforts to col­lect the views of fac­ul­ty, staff or stu­dents. Instead, they’re call­ing on the peo­ple most at risk upon return­ing to cam­pus to embrace both pos­si­ble infec­tion and a post-pan­dem­ic new nor­mal” — defined by austerity.

A his­to­ry of privatization

McK­in­sey & Com­pa­ny is not new to the busi­ness of restruc­tur­ing pub­lic edu­ca­tion. The firm has been a key play­er in the effort to exert pri­vate-sec­tor con­trol over Boston’s pub­lic schools since at least the 1980s.

The his­to­ry of the 1970s bus­ing cri­sis” in Boston is well-known. Images of white Bosto­ni­ans ston­ing school bus­es trans­port­ing Black chil­dren to pre­vi­ous­ly all-white schools, and of dem­a­gogues tear­ing the city apart with appeals to white pride,” have been seared into our col­lec­tive his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ry. Yet few­er are famil­iar with what is per­haps that period’s most last­ing lega­cy: the insid­i­ous way cor­po­rate and finance lead­ers exploit­ed deseg­re­ga­tion to pri­va­tize pub­lic education.

In 1974, Fed­er­al Judge W. Arthur Gar­ri­ty issued a land­mark deci­sion call­ing for the imme­di­ate deseg­re­ga­tion of Boston’s pub­lic schools. Local school offi­cials, how­ev­er, refused to enforce Garrity’s order. To meet this resis­tance, Gar­ri­ty per­son­al­ly over­saw the imple­men­ta­tion of deseg­re­ga­tion. Look­ing for help wher­ev­er he could get it, Gar­ri­ty invit­ed cor­po­rate lead­ers to part­ner in that process. Yet many Bosto­ni­ans were skep­ti­cal of this new cor­po­rate intervention.

McK­in­sey & Com­pa­ny stepped into the Boston school reform effort as advi­sors to the phil­an­thropic foun­da­tions that fund­ed pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships in edu­ca­tion dur­ing the 1970s and 1980s. By the 1990s, McK­in­sey advi­sors were help­ing to advance the cause of pub­licly-sub­si­dized, for-prof­it char­ter schools.

McK­in­sey has sought to pri­va­tize and close pub­lic schools even if it required skew­ing the facts. In June 2013, Boston Pub­lic Schools report­ed that the 128 build­ings in the sys­tem had total a capac­i­ty of 61,300 seats, with an enroll­ment of 56,400. But just two years lat­er, McK­in­sey report­ed to May­or Mar­ty Walsh that capac­i­ty had grown by near­ly 150%, to 93,000 seats. This surge in capac­i­ty would jus­ti­fy shut­ter­ing dozens of schools. But where did they find all this extra space? As a par­ents’ group dis­cov­ered through a Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act Request, McK­in­sey had count­ed hall­ways and bath­rooms as class­room space. McKinsey’s role was not to shape sound poli­cies to improve edu­ca­tion, but rather to jus­ti­fy a pre­de­ter­mined pol­i­cy goal: clos­ing 30 to 50 dis­trict schools, priv­i­leg­ing, as the par­ents con­clud­ed, short-sight­ed cost-sav­ings” over equi­table access to qual­i­ty schools for all children.”

McKinsey’s approach to school reform is pre­cise­ly not what we need right now. Mass school clo­sures have been found to hurt sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties and to con­sol­i­date pri­vate-sec­tor con­trol over urban schools. In the name of excel­lence” and choice,” pri­va­ti­za­tion schemes have actu­al­ly under­mined the com­mit­ment to equi­ty in edu­ca­tion as a pub­lic good. As his­to­ri­an Diane Rav­itch put it in her sur­vey of McKinsey’s record in edu­ca­tion reform: McK­in­sey is always there, although there is no evi­dence that they are edu­ca­tion experts… . Edu­ca­tion has been warped for the past 30 years by the inap­pro­pri­ate appli­ca­tion of cor­po­rate strat­e­gy to schools and class­rooms and children.”

Mil­i­tary-style response

McK­in­sey appears to be using the emer­gency of the pan­dem­ic to under­mine what is left of fac­ul­ty gov­er­nance and stu­dent voice in high­er edu­ca­tion. In a May 18 arti­cle pub­lished on McKinsey’s web­site, titled Lessons from the gen­er­als: Deci­sive action amid the chaos of cri­sis,” senior part­ners Yuval Atsmon, David Chinn, Mar­tin Hirt and Sven Smit lay out this mil­i­taris­tic strat­e­gy. Struc­tur­al changes will be dri­ven by pro­to­cols of cri­sis man­age­ment” defined by a mil­i­tary-com­mand struc­ture” that will plan across all time hori­zons,” while keep­ing focused on adopt­ing age-old prin­ci­ples of war.”

In 2016, an exas­per­at­ed Boston par­ent asked, Why hire a firm like McK­in­sey with a rep­u­ta­tion for clos­ing schools, if that was­n’t your end goal?” We should ask our uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors a sim­i­lar ques­tion. Why look to a firm like McK­in­sey, with its record of cor­po­ra­tiz­ing pub­lic insti­tu­tions, if that is not your end goal? Is the objec­tive mere­ly to jus­ti­fy ongo­ing bud­get cuts, increased inse­cu­ri­ty for fac­ul­ty and staff, attacks on tenure, and declines in the qual­i­ty of edu­ca­tion? It is dif­fi­cult to come to any oth­er conclusion.

McKinsey’s advice makes no men­tion of fight­ing for more state or fed­er­al fund­ing for pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, which con­tin­ued to decrease after the Great Reces­sion of 2007 – 2009, even as state rev­enue and uni­ver­si­ty enroll­ment grew. In the absence of increased fund­ing we will see the exten­sion of ongo­ing trends that increase tuition while low­er­ing the qual­i­ty of edu­ca­tion. Stu­dents will pay more for an impov­er­ished uni­ver­si­ty expe­ri­ence. Tech­ni­cal train­ing will pre­vail over the broad explo­ration of the human­i­ties and social sci­ences. Grow­ing ranks of con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty and out­sourced staff will strug­gle to keep up, as admin­is­tra­tors increase their work­loads and cut their pay. All of this will hit low-income and first-gen­er­a­tion stu­dents the hardest.

The bot­tom line is that a McK­in­sey-style war­like response threat­ens to divert resources from stu­dents, par­tic­u­lar­ly our work­ing-class Black and Lat­inx stu­dents (the major­i­ty of stu­dents at Texas State), for whom high­er edu­ca­tion promis­es a path to the lives they strive to create.

Toward an anti-racist approach

Rather than cor­po­rate reform­ers like McK­in­sey & Com­pa­ny, we need to lis­ten to stu­dents, fac­ul­ty, staff and par­ents to recall the true pur­pose of pub­lic edu­ca­tion. In 1977, look­ing back on the fight for deseg­re­ga­tion in Boston, the leg­endary par­ent-activist and com­mu­ni­ty-based cri­sis coun­selor, Ruth Bat­son, spoke to the heart of the mat­ter: The the­o­ry that has pro­pelled Black peo­ple since slav­ery to edu­cate their chil­dren,” she declared, has been that edu­ca­tion is a sur­vival mech­a­nism, a way out—a way out of igno­rance, a way out of pover­ty—a way out of a bind­ing and non-ful­fill­ing job — a way out of exploita­tion.” The will­ing­ness of Black par­ents to endure bus­ing,” as Bat­son put it, reflect­ed their need to go through what they knew would be a painful process in order to secure a qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion for their children.

Nei­ther the attempt at deseg­re­ga­tion nor the cor­po­rate-dri­ven reform” of pub­lic schools secured the access to a qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion that Bat­son and her fel­low par­ents were seek­ing. Bat­son knew bus­ing” alone would not get the job done, but she was will­ing to endure it in the hope that it would be a step in the right direction.

What she could not have known is that social­ly respon­si­ble” cor­po­ra­tions would step into the process to prof­it off of school sys­tems, there­by cre­at­ing new bar­ri­ers to the equi­ty par­ents sought. One has only to look at the recent trend in pri­va­ti­za­tion of elder­ly care in the Unit­ed States, and its dis­as­trous con­se­quences for res­i­dents and staff dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, to see that pri­va­ti­za­tion and con­sol­i­da­tion is not a panacea.

We in the nation’s pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties are hav­ing to endure the chal­lenges of deal­ing with a pan­dem­ic. The appear­ance of McK­in­sey & Com­pa­ny rais­es the fear that the return to cam­pus will not only threat­en our lives, but force us to act in ways that will under­mine the kind of pub­lic edu­ca­tion that can be a way out” for our stu­dents. If that’s the case, we will have endured the pan­dem­ic to find that we’ve facil­i­tat­ed our pub­lic university’s tur­bocharged trans­for­ma­tion into the cor­po­rate university. 

Instead, in the midst of both a pan­dem­ic and the most wide­spread upris­ings against racism in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry, let us come togeth­er to demand an anti-racist state response to the Covid-19 cri­sis in high­er edu­ca­tion. The goal ought not to be main­tain­ing morale by con­vinc­ing fac­ul­ty and staff to make war­like sac­ri­fices in the inter­ests of aus­ter­i­ty. We must instead demand a demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly con­ceived project of rein­vest­ing in pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties — cement­ing high­er edu­ca­tion as the pub­lic good that it is. 

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