Students, Campuses and Dominant Corporate Power

By Ralph Nader
July 16, 2022

When it comes to corporate power and control over their lives, now and into the future, today’s college students are perilously dormant. When it comes to putting pressure on Congress to counter the various dictates of corporatism, there is little activity other than some stalwarts contacting their lawmakers on climate violence.

Much of campus activity these days focuses on diversity, tuition, student loans, “politically correct” speech demands and conforming conduct.

This campus environment is strangely oblivious to the corporate abuses of our economy, culture and government. This indifference extends to the endless grip of corporate power over the educational institutions that the students attend.

Companies see universities and colleges as profit centers.

Corporate vendors influence or control the food students eat on campus, down to the junk in vending machines, along with their credit cards, iPhones, very expensive textbooks and, of course, student debt.

College Boards of Trustees are dominated by corporate executives or corporate affiliated people. Corporate science is – as from drug companies, biotech, military weapons and fossil fuel companies – co-opting, corrupting or displacing academic science which is peer-reviewed and unencumbered by corporate profiteering (See Professor Sheldon Krimsky’s books: https://sites.tufts.edu/sheldonkrimsky/books/).

Corporate law firms dominate law schools, with few exceptions, seriously distorting the curriculum away from courses on corporate crimes and immunities and courses that show how corporations have shaped public institutions such as Congress, state legislatures, and the Pentagon along with state and federal regulatory agencies.

Business schools, except for a few free-thinking professors, are finishing schools for Wall Street and other businesses. They operate in an empirically starved environment regarding what is really going on in the world of global corporate machinations, while feeding their student’s dogmatic free-market fundamentalism.

Engineering departments narrowly orient their students toward corporate missions, without educating them about the engineering professions’ ethical and whistleblowing rights and duties. (See, Ethics, Politics, and Whistleblowing in Engineering by Nicholas Sakellariou and Rania Milleron, CRC Press, 2018).

Social science courses are largely remiss as well. There are very few courses on plutocratic rule and uncontrolled big-business ways of getting commercial values to override civic values. Teachers may be wary of raising such taboo topics, but the enthusiastic student response to Professor Laura Nader’s course on “Controlling Processes” at UC Berkeley over the years might indicate deep student interest in courses on top-down power structures.

Active students in the nineteen sixties and seventies took their environmental, civil rights and anti-war concerns directly to Congress. They, with other citizen groups, pushed Congress and got important legislation enacted.

Students in about twenty states created lasting full-time student advocacy groups called Public Interest Research Groups or PIRGs (See: studentpirgs.org).

Today the PIRGs are still making change happen in the country (See, Right to Repair Project: https://uspirg.org/feature/usp/right-repair). However, few new PIRGs have been established since 1980. Students need to embrace how important, achievable and enduring such nonprofit independent PIRGs can be. With skilled advocates continuing to train students in civic skills and provide students with extracurricular experiences for a lifetime of citizen engagement, the PIRGs create a vibrant reservoir for a more functioning democracy.

As a leading European statesman Jean Monnet said decades ago – “Without people nothing is possible, but without institutions nothing is lasting.”

Students need to think about the civic part of their years ahead and focus on building the pillars of a democratic society that dissolve the concentrated power of giant corporations and empower the citizenry as befits the “We the People” vision in our Constitution.

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