Social Legitimacy and The University of Westfield Online

I have said before that there is something about a cultural object when it crosses over into parody. It can either signal that the object’s legitimacy is so established that it’s ripe for poking a few holes. Think about a comedy sketch about bloviating Harvard professors, for instance. No one thinks the joke undermines Harvard’s prestige. In a weird way, the joke being rooted in privilege, no matter how annoying or out-of-touch, mostly reaffirms the cultural belief that Harvard is elite. That’s a net win for a place in Harvard’s position.

But, let’s say your product hasn’t quite achieved the golden ticket that is “taken-for-grantedness” in our culture. That’s the idea that something is seen as so natural and “right”, that challenging it’s rightness would be a social violation. For example, few people question anymore that college is a “good” thing. Sure, we ask if it should be so expensive, if it should look the way it does, etc. But the idea that college is a right, normal thing to aspire to and to achieve is pretty well established…for some colleges.

I have argued that part of the reason for-profit colleges must work so hard to defend their political right to exist — Senate hearings, legal cases, regulation — is because they are not fully ensconced in the cultural rightness of “real” college in the social imaginary. Something about them seems “off” to people. That leaves for-profit colleges vulnerable to attacks that traditional colleges do not face. For example, when for-profit leaders say that there are traditional colleges with graduation rates as bad or worse than theirs? They’re not lying. But those colleges benefit from the taken-for-grantedness of being considered a “real” college so you’re unlikely to see them in front of the Senate any time soon.

I say all that to say that when the joke is on you and you do not have the cover of rightness, you might need to worry. The joke could become taken for granted before you are and turning the tide against “rightness” is an uphill battle.

With that I give you SNL’s “The University of Westfield Online”, which I assume conflates online with for-profit like most people who aren’t higher education wonks usually do.

[hulu id=9yexslw_efv5f-tl47v-ba width=512]

6 thoughts on “Social Legitimacy and The University of Westfield Online

  1. I feel really bad that I laughed at the SNL skit because ultimately, if a for-profit degree is still looked down upon and an online part of a “legitimate” school is conflated with a for-profit online school, then people might actually be getting looked over for jobs, even if they have the skills needed.

    Amazing…how even among the privilege associated with literacy + formal education, there are layers of hierarchy. Even among the “legitimate” schools there are layers. Nobody thinks I’m as smart with my state school and private school PWI undergrad and grad education, respectively, in the way they would an Ivy League school or one of the top 10 HBCUs graduate.

    Great post; I always look forward to your writing on education and organizational theory.

    1. Thanks Trudy! Yeah, so the layers of hierarchy are just being “ratcheted up”, as we’d say. It’s not new. It’s just never been quite so EXPENSIVE, which is a whole ‘nother thing.

  2. I think the lack of comments is telling.
    Painting the rejection of for profit colleges as somehow exhibiting a bias based on (fill in the blank) and then suggesting that this bias is unreasonable or based in a more pernicious prejudice is bemusing at best.
    “For profits” distinguish themselves from traditional institutions for one, primary, and driving reason: regardless of whatever bland mission statement they may claim gives them motivation, they in fact act according to a single, and legally mandated purpose, to make a profit for their shareholders. And like any profit making company this is their sole reason for existence.
    Let’s not pretend they are engaged in some noble act of service.

    1. What are you talking about? Who said a bias is unreasonable? Did you read the actual words as they are written? Who said anything about a noble act of service? This post is about legitimacy – some schools have it and some don’t. There’s no value judgement anywhere in there.

      1. “Accreditation is an interesting regulatory function. It doesn’t have the government oversight we seem to think it has. Most are small, non-profit entities. Through the years they’ve been sensitive to the same ideological tradewinds that have impacted all public policy. From being passive rubberstampers during neo-liberal re-imaginings of education to enacting regional differences in racialized higher education policy, accreditation bodies have undergone a lot of change. Indeed, HBCUs once had similar issues with accreditation to those being faced by for-profits today.”

        Your words. To me the last sentence implies a correspondence between the two types of institutions. I read the words in the context of your earlier post. There is a “legitimacy” issue. I’m not certain what the phrase “social imaginary” means but by including the video from SNL, you seem to be the one conflating online and for profits and then suggest that those who make hierarchical judgements are engaged in some kind of cultural bias (although to be fair you use the phrase cultural rightness). The tone of advocacy that attaches to most of your essays led me to believe that you were implying that this belief was in fact a bias.

        So I can draw two opposite conclusions: 1. That I completely misunderstood your article which was written simply as an objective observation discrete from all of your previous writings, or
        2. That there are clarity issues in the essay due to language choices.

        I did read your “actual word”. I guess I just attached more intention to them than you intended. Sorry.

        1. Yes, I think it is both one and two. When I appeal to sociological constructs like “social imaginary” it is usually a signal that I’m situating the argument in sociology. And I still don’t understand how an observation about the transformation of accreditation agencies signals equivalency of institutional type or advocacy.

          This post has one observation: when your product or cultural object is socially understand as somehow not “right” then a parody that defines your product or cultural object as a joke should warrant some attention. Harvard can take the punch, online/for-profits less so.

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