By the end of April, and just over a month after the COVID-19 pandemic compelled most American universities to close their campuses, college students across the country had filed more than 50 class action lawsuits against their schools. All of them allege that, with classes moved online, they and their peers are due a partial tuition refund. In legalese, each suit alleges “breach of contract” and “unjust enrichment.”
Although Stanford’s administration has so far been spared, tuition is clearly on the minds of many students. If they find administrators entirely unresponsive, some may even try to force the university’s hand in court.
But the class action approach is fundamentally misguided. Not only is it unlikely that such a suit will benefit students in the long-run, it also concedes that the university is nearer to a corporation than an institution of higher learning.
When it comes to efficacy, in the majority of class action suits it is rare for a large number of class members to receive substantial payouts from settlements—and rarer still for them to settle quickly enough to provide any immediate financial relief.
But even if the overwhelming majority of students do succeed in collecting refunds, theirs will be a pyrrhic victory. For legal action succeeds only at extracting money, leaving untouched the core issues that led students to bring the suit in the first place—namely the misplaced financial priorities of their universities, which value endowment growth over the accessibility of higher education. In this sense, the tuition class action suit is little better than the corporate sexual harassment suit, which in awarding damages to the plaintiff fails to change the workplace culture that enabled harassment to begin with.
Which is all to say, if students collect settlement checks now, they will in the future place the very same universities that already misprioritize student needs under even greater financial strain. Already hit hard, universities are certain then to extend austerity measures by prolonging hiring freezes, expanding budget cuts, and increasing tuition.
So would you rather a few thousand dollars in one or two years, or working air conditioning, staffed cafes, modern lounges, updated research equipment, top-tier faculty, happy teaching assistants, and exciting electives for the next two to three?
Even if lawsuits could change university culture, it is dangerous to think of institutions of higher education as corporations. Unlike the relationship between clients and corporations—between the customers who buy their goods and services, and the retailers, financial institutions, and the like that provide them—the relationship between students and their universities should exist outside of a market framework.
Yes, students pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and expect that doing so will be their ticket to financial security. As Stanford’s own David Labaree has argued at length, many think about their and their children’s degrees in terms of exchange value, signaling employability. But universities exist neither to generate profit nor to prepare individuals for the job market—at least not primarily. Rather, they exist to generate knowledge, be it monetizable or not.
To accomplish this task, universities have developed a unique and elaborate internal governance structure, one designed to isolate them from market pressures and to center the priorities of students and faculty, to ensure that they can do their best work.
Unfortunately for students and professors—though happily for high-paid administrators and free-market efficiency enthusiasts—two decades of corporatization have eroded these delicate structures. Having yielded significant ground to the market, universities now care more about the economic value of the degrees they grant and of the research they support than about the quality of the education they provide or the breadth of research they protect.
Many of the austerity measures we are seeing from universities now are arguably the product exactly of this corporate mindset. We can just as easily trace their unwillingness to negotiate with students on tuition or with graduate workers over union rights to this same reality.
While taking them to court may help hold universities accountable, it has the effect also of cementing their status as corporations and our status as nothing more than paying customers. A world in which it makes sense to sue universities is one in which, strictly speaking, none remain. In this sense, the pandemic-inspired class action suit is but one more nail in the coffin of (American) higher education.
Of course, this is not to extol quietism. Rather, it is to say that, if you’re going to take action, Stanford students, set a noble example: take it against Stanford University, not Stanford, Inc. Organize against an institution of higher learning, not against its corporate shadow. Write to administrators and attend committee meetings, stage protests, raise your concerns with faculty and staff, publish opinion pieces, and create collective action campaigns. To use a literary analogy, take your inspiration from Shakespeare’s Petruchio, in The Taming of the Shrew. If he, simply by calling the quarrelsome Kate “sweet,” can transform her, then maybe you, by treating the corporatized university as an institution of higher learning, will transform it.
While yours is the harder road to travel it is also the more virtuous one. For although the short-term returns are likely to be minimal, in question is much more than a quarter’s worth of tuition. At stake here is the future of higher education and of the university as we know it.