Cooperative Business and the State of Higher Education

Cooperative business models are increasingly recognized as an essential element for transforming our economy. But where can you go to learn about them?

In a recent article in the Chronicle Review (Curricular Cop-out on Coops), Nathan Schneider offers a somewhat dispiriting picture of the higher education landscape for cooperative economics. He writes:

Education has been a basic feature of the modern cooperative movement since a group of textile workers established its now-canonical Rochdale Principles in 1844; promoting education is still part of how the International Co-operative Alliance defines cooperative identity.

And yet, MBA and other business-focused programs, while they appear to move increasingly away from profit-only models, mostly avoid mention of anything cooperative. For example, “At Harvard Business School […] Rebecca M. Henderson has written the latest in a decades-long series of Harvard case studies on Mondragon, and she teaches it in her “Reimagining Capitalism” course. As far as she knows, though, that’s the extent of exposure to co-ops available at the school.”

Instead, Schneider notes, cooperatives are mostly taught elsewhere, “in the less glamorous discipline of agricultural economics”:

Producer cooperatives are part of American farmers’ essential infrastructure, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has long supported university research on co-ops, especially at land-grant campuses. Agriculture-oriented co-op centers can be found at Kansas State, North Dakota State, and Texas A&M Universities, the University of Missouri at Columbia, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. At Cornell University, in addition to its agriculture-oriented Cooperative Enterprise Program, the School of Industrial and Labor Relations has produced Ph.D. dissertations on co-ops every few years since its founding, in the 1940s.

Among the most prolific of these centers is the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s Center for Cooperatives, established with federal assistance in 1962, whose very existence is required by state law. Yet when the center was running the search for its current faculty director, it had trouble finding qualified candidates. Brent Hueth, the agricultural economist who ended up getting the job, had been studying co-ops largely in isolation. “I pretty much stumbled into it on my own,” he says.

He continues:

Keeping the Madison center open and funded hasn’t been easy; the co-op sector doesn’t have access to the kinds of wealthy benefactors that furnish M.B.A. programs with names and fortunes. “Cooperatives create a lot of wealth, but it doesn’t get concentrated in a small number of people,” Hueth says. Persuading a democratic co-op to fund university programs can be trickier than luring individual donors with the prospect of leaving a legacy.

Despite this seemingly bleak state of affairs, Schneider observes that there are new spaces emerging as training grounds for the next generation of cooperative leaders — the Murphy Institute among them:

There are early signs that the study of cooperatives may have a ready constituency in American universities. Pinchot University, a Seattle-based institution that pioneered sustainability-focused business education, began offering a cooperative-management certificate in January 2016; the program continues under the aegis of Presidio Graduate School, which has since acquired Pinchot. Jill Bamburg, who was Pinchot’s president, says that as far as cooperative business goes, “there’s this huge hole in the market.”

The City University of New York, meanwhile, has piloted a course on worker cooperatives at its labor-oriented Murphy Institute to see if there’s enough interest for a certificate or even a full degree program. CUNY’s School of Law is collaborating with Mondragon to support co-op development, giving students hands-on experience in the field. Just a few years ago, UMass-Amherst established an undergraduate certificate in applied economic research on cooperative enterprises. And at Laney College, a community college in Oakland, Calif., several local organizations are developing an academy on worker cooperatives. Since 2014 two cohorts have completed the 16-week course; once the program achieves accreditation, it will be able to award credits transferable, at minimum, to any community college in the state.

For more on the current — and possible future — state of cooperative teaching in higher education, visit the Chronicle Review.

Photo by MONDRAGON-Corporation via flickr (CC-BY)