What American Universities Can Learn From The Cooperative Mondragon University

This unique college in the Spanish countryside has cut out the middlemen–career administrators–and gives the faculty more dignity than they usually have at U.S. schools today.

What American Universities Can Learn From The Cooperative Mondragon University
[Image: Notebook via Shutterstock]

For American college students, the biggest problem with higher education is how much it costs. But the faculty who spend their whole lives in academia also have their own complaints. Davydd Greenwood, an anthropologist at Cornell puts it this way:


What is being done now is to collapse education into vocational training, teaching into a fee-for-service form of employment, and research only as a profit generator. The faculty are being put on term contracts and administration is now a career with big salaries and great distance from the places where value is actually being produced. The overall result is the consolidation of a two class system: elite education for economic and political elites and vocational education for the masses.

There’s another way, according to Greenwood, and you can find it in the Spanish countryside. The University of Mondragon doesn’t have career administrators; the faculty are the administrators, and the university’s owners. Instead of vast pay discrepancies (hello football coaches), the highest-paid staff make only three times the lowest-paid.

“It shows that the disastrous changes we have experienced, that are justified by pseudo-economic rationality, are neither necessary nor competitively meaningful,” says Greenwood. “The case of Mondragón shows that another way is quite possible.”

Possible, though not necessarily likely. Greenwood points out that administrators at existing institutions are unlikely to be convinced to switch over to an institution where they have far less power (and pay). The University of Mondragon has been able to do it, because they arise not from the traditional world of higher education, but from an existing, massive network of worker cooperatives called the Mondragon Corporation. There have been efforts in the U.S. to replicate the worker-owned approach, but these are still in their infancy.

Nor is the cooperative university model a solution to all education’s ills. It’s private and charges tuition (a little more than $7,000 a year), and it’s also dependent on making money from faculty research. Approximately one-third of the university’s income comes from technology license and transfer fees, according to Times Higher Education, and when those fall, so do the salaries of the faculty. Ownership has its downsides:

The faculty will make a loss this year, and workers have had their salaries cut–to 80 per cent of their normal pay–partly because, says Martin, “it’s impossible to fire people” from the co-op. “This year we are really suffering from the [economic] crisis in the Basque Country.”

Still, Greenwood thinks the challenges could be worth it. “No one’s social role would be left unchanged,” he admits. “But it is either that or continuing the Hobbesian war of administrators, faculty, and students, each climbing their meritocratic ladders and using each other as instruments in their climb.”

About the author

Stan Alcorn is a print, radio and video journalist, regularly reporting for WNYC and NPR. He grew up in New Mexico.