Jason Wingard’s EdTech Griftopia
By Matt SeyboldFebruary 23, 2023
In the days immediately preceding the strike, which remains ongoing at the time of writing, Wingard traveled to Virginia to visit the headquarters of Ellucian, an EdTech company co-owned by two prominent venture capital firms, Blackstone and Vista. Wingard was there to address Ellucian’s employee book club about his 2022 Stanford Business Books release, The College Devaluation Crisis: Market Disruption, Diminishing ROI, and an Alternative Future of Learning, a prophecy of US higher education’s imminent collapse under the weight of its allegedly outdated and overpriced system of instruction. The event was publicized on social media by both Ellucian and Temple University, the latter’s posts coming after the TUGSA strike had begun.
It is the recurrence of a message that echoes across Wingard’s tenure as Temple’s president: his loyalties are to EdTech entrepreneurs and investors. Academic workers — tenured, tenure-track, contingent, and graduate — are an inconvenient impediment to EdTech’s capture of an ever-larger share of the hundreds of billions of dollars that flow through US higher education institutions annually. To Wingard and the EdTech coalition he represents, graduate students are not a constituency essential to the functioning of the university who must be bargained with and brought back to work; rather, they are “human capital” that needs be written off, the sunk costs of an obsolescent model, and their strike a welcome opportunity for a “market disruption” in “people management.”
The day after the TUGSA strike began, Temple took aggressive strikebreaking measures, withdrawing not only salary but also healthcare benefits from striking workers, billing them for remitted tuition, and threatening late fees if bills were not paid in full within a month. If allowed to accrue over a prolonged strike, tuition and fines will create insurmountable financial obstacles for many striking workers. A few days after taking these steps, Temple administrators, having still failed to return to the bargaining table, accused striking instructors of harassing students, a textbook strikebreaking strategy intended to plant the seed for police intervention.
Though there have been dozens of strikes by academic workers during the past two years, including the largest ever by University of California graduate students, Temple’s strikebreaking tactics are unprecedented. They bring into focus a startling reality: the most formidable threat to academic workers may not be the austerity regimes from within their institutions or the political reactionaries from without, but rather the Frankensteinian mollusk of private equity. Equal parts vampire squid and silicon octopus, private equity is an avaricious power, prevailing upon but independent of partisan education policymaking, for which Wingard has long been a spokesperson and is now a well-placed sentinel.
For decades, private equity has fed on quantitative easing, regulatory arbitrage, and techno-utopian grift. It has stoked Silicon Valley’s zeal for if-you’re-not-growing-you’re-dying economic rationality. Now, the mollusk faces rising interest rates, New Brandeisian antitrust enforcement, a rejuvenated labor movement, countless founder scandals, and the negative amortization of some of the most ballyhooed brands in streaming and social media.
In short, the mollusk has no choice but to stray from its accustomed hunting grounds. And it is well prepared to do so. For nearly a decade, it has been dreaming up UberSchools, FacultyForces, and DormDashes, looking for any opportunity to apply the platform model to EdWork. The mollusk seeks the deskilling, the gigification, and, whenever possible, the automation of academic work. And it wants to achieve this without significantly cutting tuition or jeopardizing public subsidies, so that all the pay (over)due to academic workers can flow into the reservoirs of private equity, commingling with wages stolen from journalists, drivers, restaurateurs, and other service- and knowledge-sector workers.
Until this past November, Jason Wingard’s role in the potential hostile takeover of higher education was that of doom merchant. In order for the mollusk to seize control of public education funds, it has to persuade a cross-section of well-placed stakeholders, especially in government, that the existing system is hopelessly inefficient and its professionalized workforce antiquated, indolent, or corrupt. In order for the exorbitant profits, exploitative practices, and legal exemptions demanded by EdTech enterprises to be accepted, the prevailing wisdom must be that US education is not just broken but also a danger to other sectors of the economy, and thus the terms of the lawyered-up envoys from Silicon Valley and Wall Street must be accepted as the lesser of two evils.
Last summer, Jason Wingard authored what he called his “‘burning platform’ memo” for Inside Higher Ed, intended for “every university and college president and administrator, across the country.” “The value of the college degree, in my analysis, has reached its peak and is on the wane,” he warned. Wingard’s proposal: “[L]everage our industry and corporate partnerships” and “pursue entrepreneurial investments that seek to incubate alternative ventures.” In the typical fashion of crisis-mongers, he was not seeking counterproposals. “This is nonnegotiable,” he wrote. “[T]his is our only path forward.”
This “‘burning platform’ memo” is a subgenre of corporate jeremiad that, tellingly, draws its inspiration from petrocapitalist extraction, a fable about an oil worker who can save himself from an oil rig fire only by jumping into the icy North Sea. For Wingard, it was also a sales pitch for his College Devaluation Crisis book, in which the euphemisms of leverage and incubation give way to the explicit claim that VC-funded EdTech is all that stands between the failing “traditional model” of higher education and a blood-moon-lighted Ragnarök for American capitalism. The book is written in a corporate newspeak that modulates between liberal tautology and the day-trader jargon most of us only encounter on r/WallStreetBets or CNBC (if at all). Wingard’s twin precepts — market disruption and return on investment (ROI) — are unexamined totems, tumescent lures beckoning readers toward that familiar underpants-gnome griftopia where larceny is magically transfigured into profit.
Wingard has put in some time creating a thin veneer of academic credibility at institutions like the Wharton School of Business. However, the first time he headed a “university,” years before joining Temple, it was Goldman Sachs University (GSU). GSU is the lower rung in the two-tiered managerial training program administered by the original vampire squid. This system trains analysts and low-level managers, while the Pine Street Learning Program (PSLP) trains managing directors and other personnel being considered for positions as Goldman executives.
Both of Goldman’s training programs originated during the period when the firm was being led by Henry “Hank” Paulson Jr., the Goldman CEO turned George W. Bush treasury secretary. Paulson presided over the subprime-mortgage-backed securities boom, at Goldman, and then over the bust, at Treasury. He was heavily involved in launching and recruiting for Pine Street in particular. He regarded these programs as imperative for sustaining Goldman’s vaunted culture during the period of rapid growth following the bank’s IPO in May 1999. As Paulson’s successor Lloyd Blankfein characterizes it, that culture consists of “an inbred insecurity that drives people to keep working and producing long after they need to,” as well as Stockholm syndrome–like identification with Goldman Sachs, even from employees “long after they have left the firm.”
The tenets of Goldman culture that Blankfein articulates were integrated into GSU and PSLP from the start, but they seem to have been further prioritized with each revision over the coming decades. The programs leaned ever harder on what they called “internal faculty” — that is, experienced Goldman managers and executives. The idea that only Goldman people know what they’re doing feeds recruits’ existing sense of superiority as survivors of the bank’s famously cutthroat recruiting and promotion processes. “Even outstanding professors didn’t necessarily have enough understanding of the Goldman Sachs experience,” recalls Mark Schwartz, one of the original architects of Pine Street. They could “legitimize the programs internally” if trainees could concretely see how coursework was going to help them climb the corporate ladder at Goldman, so by 2005, over 80 percent of PSLP courses were taught by other Goldman employees.
This was, of course, convenient for creating what Blankfein calls the “inbred insecurity” that normalizes workaholism and other ills at Goldman. The pedagogical model at GSU and PSLP trained recruits to keep looking over their shoulders, to become needful of approval and fearful of failure, and to willfully submit to constant surveillance and evaluation, however harsh and invasive, in the name of “continuous learning.” “They want a gold star, to get an A on the test,” Paulson says. One graduate of Pine Street, Greg Smith, saw it a little differently. As he describes in Why I Left Goldman Sachs: A Wall Street Story, he saw new recruits being turned into “little piggies” in need of “instant gratification,” further intensifying the toxic “bonus culture” that took Goldman further away from what Smith considered its pre-IPO philosophy: “long-term greedy.”
Part of the launch of GSU and PSLP was the creation of a new executive position, Chief Learning Officer (CLO), within the division of Human Capital Management. Those who hold the job of CLO continuously administer, assess, and revise Goldman’s training programs. Jason Wingard served as Goldman’s CLO for two years.
A version of Wingard’s proposal for revitalizing GSU and Pine Street, Learning to Succeed: Rethinking Corporate Education in a World of Unrelenting Change, was published by the American Management Association in 2015, not long before Wingard left Goldman to become a dean at Columbia University.
Learning to Succeed lays out the basic formula that The College Devaluation Crisis follows, though the latter is more eschatological. Wingard proposed a “process shift” from the “classic” model of corporate learning in response to “market forces disruption” and “increased ROI pressure.” Wingard’s proposed model, in this case, has a name: Continuous Integration of Learning and Strategy (CILS). But Learning to Succeed is, fundamentally, a case for intensifying Blankfein’s tenets through the use of EdTech. Remote instructional platforms meant it was no longer necessary to compress all GSU and PSLP content into seminars, retreats, and other formats for face-to-face instruction, always presumed by Goldman to be inefficient. Recruits could be “continuously trained” at their desks. Top-down adjustments to the firm’s market strategy could be programmed in real time, so employees never have a chance to lose sight of either their supervisor’s expectations or their company’s acculturated state of exception.
While it has been eight years since Wingard left Goldman, the vocabulary, writing style, and evidentiary standards of The College Devaluation Crisis make much more sense when one considers it a sequel to Learning to Succeed. It’s a how-to manual for turning universities into corporate training sequences. The overwhelming majority of the people Wingard describes as “experts,” including all those he lists in his acknowledgments, are EdTech executives or professional investors. His “research,” such as it is, comes from business schools, think tanks, investment advisories, consulting firms, and tech start-ups. His so-called “case studies” are populated by “learners” who are pure works of fiction, the textual equivalent of actors in HR orientation videos. Likely no real student could be found who would sufficiently express the passion for precarity, tedium, isolation, and surveillance necessary to make Wingard’s “alternative model” coherent.
The College Devaluation Crisis is a book no professional educator can take seriously. But it isn’t intended for educators. Like most eschatologies, it preaches to the elect. The EdTech employee book club is its exemplary audience. It reassures people whose income depends on the next round of venture funding that they belong to a cadre of rescuing angels, preparing to save learning from education. This indoctrination is particularly important because the next phase of EdTech disruption will require cruelties most people are only capable of if they have been programmed to regard those they intend to disenfranchise as entitled Luddites, obstructing student access to “the future of work.”
As the TUGSA strike entered its 10th day, Wingard gave the keynote address at the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACBS), an event sponsored by, among others, EdTech companies like Coursera, Everspring, Knack, and Riipen. It was here that, according to a tweet from the audience, he wondered aloud, “Do we pivot? Do we adapt? Do we blow it up?”
It is, of course, no surprise that Wingard would field-test his most destructive impulses at a gathering of business school administrators. As Steven Conn outlines in Nothing Succeeds Like Failure: The Sad History of American Business Schools (2019), “business schools serve as the handmaids to corporate capitalism in the United States in a way that no other campus enterprise does.” They hoover up an ever-larger share of university resources even though “they have consistently disappointed even their most enthusiastic boosters […] to an extent simply not true of any other academic pursuit.”
If Wingard were to say merely of business schools what he says of all higher education, he would not be so far wrong. But Wingard needs business schools to continue to play their dual roles as saboteurs of the traditional model and fences for the EdTech alternative. The AACBS’s sponsors were no doubt satisfied to hear that Wingard’s “solutions,” as outlined in his book, include “lobby[ing] for disruptions in education funding” and diverting financial support for public education to “technological innovation,” including, presumably, the subjects of his “case studies”: Coursera (which raised over $400 million in venture funding before going public in March 2021), Udemy (which raised over $300 million before going public in October 2021), Noodle (which raised $50 million through BlackRock in October 2021), and the Open Skills Network (whose backers include Walmart and the US Chamber of Commerce).
Wingard’s “alternative model” is a fantasy of public education’s complete and permanent escape from both accreditation and labor law. It combines mostly automated and “self-guided” remote asynchronous coursework with “applied assessments” that require “learners” to pay for the opportunity to donate their labor to businesses who rebrand entry-level drudgery as cutting-edge training. It is the NCAA’s student-athlete myth but for everybody, and without any promise of escaping amateur status in five years or less.
Wingard succeeds in reinvigorating the phrase “lifelong learner.” In his book, this liberal-arts cliché morphs into a nightmarish figure trapped in a never-ending Udemy slideshow. Imagine enrolling in courses that become obsolete before they can be completed. Courses in anything, from computer programming to communications to cosplay, created by anybody, from televangelists to social media influencers to PR shills. An updated “skillset” is appended, after the quiz, along with a revised fee. If you choose to exit the lockdown browser, your progress is erased, and your tuition forfeited. “[R]eenter the Discover part of the learning process,” as Wingard puts it. Welcome to “lifelong learning made real.”
As far as Wingard sees it, the only “weakness” of his “alternative model” is “that right now there is no roadmap to making it happen.” Enter creative destruction, private equity’s favorite silver lining. Wingard’s cereal-box history of American education since 1600 has four eras, the most recent of which he defines by disruptions: some obvious, like the 2008 meltdown and COVID-19 pandemic; some curious, like the launches of Udacity, AlphaGo, and SpaceX. As far as Wingard is concerned, higher education’s response to the era of polycrisis — to borrow Adam Tooze’s much more rigorous terminology — “will have profound implications for coming generations of students and for their lives as workers,” and it should “also suggest opportunities for new forms of talent development.”
This is textbook disaster capitalism. Way back in March 2020, Anna Kornbluh, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor of English and part of the bargaining team during the UIC faculty strike earlier this year, predicted that academic administrators would use the pandemic to implement shock doctrines, including “tremendous labor intensification,” that they would exploit emergency exigencies to justify permanent restructuring, and that “these reinventions [would] come at the expense of average workers.” The academic labor movement has been accelerating since early 2021, driven in part by the need, as Kornbluh says, “to anticipate and deflect the risks of coronavirus shock doctrine.”
For a doom merchant like Wingard, the perception of crisis must be sustained to get EdTech’s tentacles more firmly wrapped around Temple, thus creating a necessary precedent for them to extend, octopus-like, across US public education. The TUGSA strike could have easily been avoided. The union’s demands — primarily, a living wage — would cost less than 10 percent of the over $100 million that Wingard has reportedly raised every year since he came to Temple. But no effort was made to avoid the TUGSA strike. The strike is a disruption, and prolonging and exaggerating disruptions to the healthy functioning of Temple University helps to create “opportunities for new forms of talent development.”
Temple’s aggressive strikebreaking tactics have elicited extensive media coverage, far more extensive than what many academic strikes in recent years have received. Public expressions of support for TUGSA have come from constituencies within Temple and further afield. Coalitions of academics have signed pledges to boycott Temple until graduate student health insurance and tuition remission are restored. Tenured and tenure-track faculty at Temple have denounced the tactics and the substantive harm they are already doing to the university’s recruitment and reputation. On the afternoon of February 15, unionized graduate workers from other universities across the United States staged a walkout, withholding their labor in solidarity with their colleagues at Temple. At the same time, over a thousand Temple University undergrads joined the picket lines and shut down Broad Street, which runs through the center of the Temple campus.
The abundant nationwide coverage, the expressions of solidarity, and the pressures internal and external might normally be regarded, by both sides, as leverage favoring TUGSA. In due time, the conventional wisdom of labor organizing may prevail. The rest of the Temple administration, its board of trustees, and its faculty and staff may not have patience for Wingard’s experiments in disaster capitalism, designed to clear the way for EdTech “alternatives” to graduate instructors. But make no mistake, this is a crisis created by President Wingard, and his appetite for extending it will be considerable. All those things that might embarrass and punish Temple’s faculty, staff, and students … well … that’s just more disruption, a necessary precursor to “achieving global growth in the emerging world of work and for ensuring maximization of human capital.”
TUGSA members clearly recognize that Wingard has been positioning them as the first wave of necessary casualties standing in the way of EdTech disrupters. One was quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer telling his undergraduate students, “It’s shameful how Temple thinks its students and its workers are just pawns in another person’s corporate game.” For Verso’s blog, another TUGSA member, Mathias Fuelling, countered Wingard’s keynote speech by arguing that it is workers, in fact, who get to decide when to blow things up. These public statements make union members more susceptible to retaliation. They indicate that the strikers know that, as important as living wages and healthcare coverage might be to them, the stakes of their actions extend far beyond the Temple campus.
As University of Michigan labor historian Heather Ann Thompson implied in her recent editorial for CNN, this may prove to be the Homestead stand for the academic labor movement that has built so much momentum over the past two years. The US educational system has many problems to address, not least of them the revolving door between academic admin buildings and corporate executive suites. But what is really broken is not public education; it’s the devouring model of private equity. Better to let the mollusk die, with all the cataclysm that might entail, than to let universities become divisions for the continuous integration of learning and strategy.
Matt Seybold is associate professor of American literature and Mark Twain studies at Elmira College.
Featured image: Odilon Redon. Nasturtiums, 1905. Yale University Art Gallery, Bequest of Edith Malvina K. Wetmore. Photo: Yale University Art Gallery. Public Domain. Accessed February 1, 2023.
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