I work at a public university, and increasingly it feels like where I work also is what I study. In graduate school, I was taught the disciplinary distinctions between the field and the classroom, between religious subjects out there and academics who venture forth from university enclaves to visit them, observe them, listen to them, in order to understand the world their subjects make meaningful. For a few decades now, we have asked, “Who makes religion?” And we have assumed that someone else, not us, are the makers. Along the way, we have struggled to critique religion without denying the agency of our subjects. We recognize the institutional power of court systems and prison industries, for example, to define and make religion, while writing about our subjects as resisting, repurposing, and redefining religious structures through localized autonomy and purposeful piety. But in our search for moral agents, our quest for agentive subjects, out there, over there, anywhere but here, are we not, in the spirit of our intellectual ancestors, projecting proximate anxieties onto distant primitive worlds? Does this subjective search say something about who we are, not just as religious studies scholars, but as humanists who claim the liberal arts? Do we study our religious subjects in order to surface our discontent, to write out our concern that we have no agency, even as we inhabit universities that declare us self-determined researchers defining the subjects of our inquiry?
As a faculty researcher and teacher at the University of Texas at Austin, I am fascinated with how I am (and we are) complicit in an economic system of private giving that promises academic autonomy in the face of the institutional constraints of public defunding. By complicit, here, I don’t intend the moral measures of personal agency, of what I choose to do, but rather a societal possession, of how, in a Durkheimian sense, the institution moves through us and inhabits us, as a collective, beyond our individual free will. This isn’t an ethical question of whether I critique the system or try to resist it, because I’d like to think I do both. I’d like to think I’m on the good side of moral history. But what I believe, or whether I believe, as Durkheim instructs us concerning the study of religion, is secondary to what we collectively do, repetitiously, to produce the possibility of belief.
Somehow, we have come to believe that we can distinguish where we are from what we study, and where we are is in the institutional space of privatization and financialization—in higher education and beyond. Our belief in our ability to inhabit these spaces, to seek and accept private funds, thinking we can salvage our research, maintain our departments, and defend our disciplines, without being determined by outside influence, is a sign that we share the religious worlds we imagine for our subjects.
Administrators above us, at the college level, and among us, at the departmental level, tell us in meetings and through announcements to seek private funding. We ought to do this, we are told, because the legislators have cut funding. If we want to save the liberal arts, we have to find rich and ideally progressive people, and their foundations, people who believe in the liberal arts, and convince them to give their money to the university. In order to learn how to get the gifts, we are encouraged to go to workshops that teach us how to work with foundations.
It was in one of these workshops a few years ago, that I was struck by the realization that the sciences are the assumed model for funding throughout the university, that it is assumed we will seek out support from private funders like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. At the time, I was reading about how food aid—excess crop production from industrial agriculture in western nation states, primarily the United States, that is donated to foreign nation states for the stated purpose of hunger relief—was used as an interventionist political tool in Africa in order to increase the power of private corporations, like Monsanto, to control and possess the food system through property rights. Perhaps I was slow to the game, but I was amazed how at that meeting the foundations of the key philanthropic players in agricultural and education reform in Africa, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, were the primary targets for private giving to the university.
Regardless of what you think about the politics or the science of genetically modified foods, biotech is an industry built on private property rights. Through its patented seeds, a biotech company owns the modes of food production. To give away seeds is an attempt to eradicate local foods systems, devour farmer autonomy, create dependency, and control the system. That is why farmers in Haiti burned the seeds.
What struck me in particular about that workshop was how private gifts for academic research maintain this model of private control, as grants are given in the name of the public good, to cure a disease, for example, with the intended outcome that the gift giver—here, the institutionalized presence of Gates or Zuckerberg—maintain the right to commercialize any and all research findings made by way of this funding. Gift giving, whether seeds given to African farmers, seeds that carry inside them the private property contracts of a multinational corporation, or money given to a public university, money that comes with legal conditions of intellectual property rights, is a religious practice of corporate power. Religious because we have been persuaded to believe there is no other alternative, that to save ourselves, to save the university, and maybe the liberal arts, this is what we must do.
To see this religious pattern of private giving, take funding. In 1985, the state of Texas general revenue provided 47 percent of the UT Austin budget. In 2018, the state provided 12 percent of the budget. Over that time, the amount of funding from research grants, gifts, and endowments increased from 36 to 57 percent of the budget. The net effect is an increased reliance on private funding to keep the university running. Much is made of how much oil money flows into the UT system. The year 2018 was a boom year for oil prices, and the UT system endowment rose to $31 billion, which was the second highest in the United States behind Harvard University’s $39.2 billion. Beyond the fact that the UT system has ten times the number of students than Harvard, the bulk of that oil money goes to administrative and construction costs, capital-intensive projects that include, for example, paving a stretch of the UT Austin campus with bricks the color of burnt orange. Many of those bricks turned out faulty. They cracked and needed to be replaced, and because of that the project never seems to end. Construction persists, the money is used to pay private contractors, all while administrative costs in the UT system continue to rise, quadrupling since 2011, according to the Texas Tribune.
The privatization of the public system demands more management, both inside and outside the university, to oversee the projects that demonstrate progress, to measure efficiency by the metrics of the market, to fund the future through financial instruments, and to bring it all together—public and private—in the name of educational reform. And in a post-Reagan neoliberal world, reform is just another name for privatization, moral slang for civic service that ultimately prioritizes corporate profits over public goods.
For those familiar with changes in higher education since the 1980s, the UT system is just another example of private corporatization combined with public defunding. Students pay more, and there are more of them, while there are fewer permanent faculty and state employees overall, relative to adjunct faculty and contract workers. By contrast, in addition to the swell in administration, the university has added to its number of development officers, who forge university relationships with private foundations and meet with wealthy donors across the globe. While fundraising campaigns carry forth, hands out to the private sector, consider that on the public-facing student side, from 1998 to 2018, the cost of in-state tuition at UT Austin went up 237 percent. During the same time, the value of the Permanent University Fund grew 503 percent. And to put that in some perspective, over the same span, the median household income increased only 4.7 percent nationwide. As wealth grows, the majority public, those below the middle class, see less of it. To this point related to UT, in 2017, only 0.1 percent of the Permanent University Fund went to financial aid for students. As of 2019, the university continues to expand financial aid to a wider range of UT students. Are such efforts signs of progress, or are they the better option in what is sold as the best of possible worlds, when in fact there are other options, other worlds to imagine—worlds where college is free and access to public goods, including nutritious food, comprehensive healthcare, and permanent housing, is a human right?
I work at a public institution possessed by an education market engineered to siphon tax money and funnel it to private businesses. I am learning, we all are learning, to speak the new slang of private funding, because what else are we supposed to do? We can’t burn the gifts; we must bury them in a foundation and watch them grow. If, like our religious subjects, we can’t change the system, maybe we can learn something from how we imagine they resist it, through small acts of everyday living. We can attempt to fight biotech in how we relate to food systems, and how we organize cooperatives and collectives. There are paths out. No system is closed. Our subjects imagine a different way, and perhaps we should too. Perhaps we can learn from the study of religion how to resist the religion we make.