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The New University

While the public has been napping, the American university has been busily reinventing itself. In barely a generation, the familiar ethic of scholarship–baldly put, that the central mission of universities is to advance and transmit knowledge–has been largely ousted by the just-in-time, immediate-gratification values of the marketplace. The Age of Money has reshaped the terrain of higher education.

That theme is taken up, though in antithetical ways, in Stanley Aronowitz’s The Knowledge Factory and James Duderstadt’s A University for the 21st Century. Gone, except in the rosy reminiscences of retired university presidents, is any commitment to maintaining a community of scholars, an intellectual city on a hill free to engage critically with the conventional wisdom of the day.

The hoary call for a “marketplace of ideas” has turned into a double-entendre, as the language of excellence, borrowed from management gurus, dominates in the higher-education “industry.” Trustees, administrators, faculty, students, business, government–everyone involved in higher education is a “stakeholder” in this multibillion-dollar enterprise.

University administrators used to play Robin Hood, redistributing pots of money, much of it overhead generated by federal military contracts, to support liberal arts programs. But in the name of “responsibility-based management,”programs that raise money from outside sources get to keep it.

As pointed out in Harvard magazine, disciplines tied to money–either because their subject is wealth, or because they are in close proximity to the wealthy, or because they generate wealth for the university through the transfer of their technology to industry–are handsomely rewarded. Superstars are pursued as ardently as (if with somewhat more modest offers than) Ken Griffey Jr.

When Columbia University offered Harvard economist Robert Barro $300,000 plus a raft of perks and the authority to rebuild the department, the story appeared on the front page of the New York Times business section. Less famously but more commonly, universities are investing millions to recruit leading scientists. Columbia was able to hold on to a prizewinning chemist only by promising to buy a piece of property and build a new lab to house a multimillion-dollar piece of equipment. Meanwhile, less lucrative academic pursuits are maintained as museums of the outmoded, and their curatorial faculty is paid a comparative pittance. As recently as a quarter-century ago, approximate parity in salaries was the norm, but today a full professor of English earns no more than a starting assistant professor of accounting.

The dining hall, the bookstore, the infirmary, the dormitory, even the library–more and more, every part of the university that can potentially make money (or, like the library, hemorrhage money) is being “outsourced.” So too with teaching: Nearly half of all higher-education faculty, twice as many as in 1970, are part-timers. They are literally “adjunct”–marginal–to the enterprise. As well, half of all new full-time faculty are now hired on short-term contracts, with no chance for tenure, marking a deep change in academic culture. Except at top-tier universities, tenure is vanishing, by stealth rather than by decree, as professors’ claims that lifetime employment is essential to maintaining academic freedom lose out to the needs of the “knowledge industry” for a flexible academic work force.

Students, who used to be regarded as acolytes and learners, have morphed into consumers who can be “marketized”–that is, pitched. They are customers whose preferences are to be satisfied, not challenged by intellectual heresies. Students are less idealistic, more vocationally oriented, than ever.

A quarter of all undergraduates now major in business, up from just 4 percent in 1970, while enrollment in the social sciences and humanities plummets. Universities woo prospective students by pitching the quality of undergraduate life as if they were selling time shares, promising apartments rather than dorm rooms, high-tech gadgetry and state-of-the-art gyms. Faculty at some schools feel the pressure to keep grade-point averages high to keep the customers happy. The most academically talented students are avidly recruited by universities anxious for a loftier perch in the academic pecking order. Money is a major talking point, as merit-based scholarships are, more and more, replacing financial aid based on need–a reminder that the market, whether for widgets or higher education, is no respecter of equity.

II. Some higher-education initiatives, undertaken in the name of market responsiveness, plainly cross this line. Michigan Virtual Automotive College, the offspring of the University of Michigan and Michigan State, is a good example. Its raison d’être is to produce courses that satisfy the demands of the Big Three car manufacturers. Perhaps what’s good for General Motors is, after all, good for the nation, but it’s not necessarily good for higher education. MVAC courses are open only to employees of the sponsoring firm–so much for the “community” in community college. The curriculum can incorporate proprietary information that instructors are forbidden from using in their other courses–so much for academic freedom. Decisions about what courses to offer are made without any sort of faculty vetting–so much for academic autonomy.

No questions would be asked if Ford Motor Company University offered such courses, but the auto manufacturers have farmed out their corporate training, complete with corporate secrets, to a public institution. James Duderstadt was instrumental in launching MVAC in the mid-nineties, when he was president of the University of Michigan. But you have to read A University for the 21st Century with obsessive care to realize this, and nothing in the text hints at the troubling implications of this venture. As well, Duderstadt made “responsibility-centered management” the watchword in allocating campus funds.

Yet the problems with this management strategy, the bare-knuckles competition among campus units, with colleges developing duplicate cash-cow courses like freshman writing, go unmentioned, despite the fact that those unintended consequences prompted his administration to back off from this management strategy.

A University for the 21st Century contains an assortment of inconsistent claims, presented in the soothing, Pepto-Bismol prose usually associated with commencement speeches. When Harvard raids other universities for its senior faculty, Duderstadt complains, it’s bad–but when Michigan does precisely the same thing in the name of diversity, it’s good. When students press for more vocationally oriented courses, that’s good–unless this undermines the liberal arts, in which case it’s bad. When society makes demands on the university, that’s good–unless they interfere with teaching and research–but when state legislators, the elected representatives of that society, introduce politics into the mix, that’s bad. When faculty members pursue their own intellectual agendas, that’s good. But when the faculty resist the central administration’s agenda–which in Duderstadt’s case included cross-disciplinary programs without clear rationale, quantifiable measures of productivity, anything to shake things up–that’s bad.

“Change” is the mantra of A University for the 21st Century–the word is used more than thirty times in the Introduction alone–but such language abuse spells meaninglessness. Sometimes change is presented as good and sometimes as inevitable; often what’s inevitable is taken to mean what’s good. This can be an effective administrative tactic–“we must change or else”–but it loses a lot when committed to paper.

What Duderstadt desires in the name of “change” is an institution that more closely resembles a business, with clear lines of authority–the president as the CEO, the faculty one of multiple constituencies, and trustees the corporate board. While Duderstadt’s New U would not abandon its commitment to scholarship or its episodic concern for social justice, it would be mainly a creature of the market. The best moments in A University for the 21st Century represent acts of bravery. For instance, Duderstadt proposes to cut college football and basketball down to Ivy League size or else to get big-time sports out of the university. That’s heresy in sports-mad Michigan. The rationale is a riff on the gentleman athlete, Dink Stover at Yale: pro-style entertainment doesn’t belong in a university. Fair enough–but what’s the difference between sponsoring a money-generating partnership between the university and the Disney Corporation, which Duderstadt embraces, and sponsoring those money-generating gridiron Wolverines?

What makes A University for the 21st Century worth paying attention to is not the quality of its insights but its rarity. Visionary university presidents–even articulate university presidents–are a nearly extinct breed: There is no time to contemplate the mission of the institution while constantly raising buckets of money. Among higher education’s leaders, only a few–Harvard’s former president Derek Bok and Princeton’s ex-president William Bowen are the best examples–write intelligently about these matters.

Clark Kerr’s The Uses of the University, first published in 1963 and now in its fourth edition, remains the clearest statement of the purposes of a modern university–the multiversity, as Kerr called it, a “city of intellect.” Though Kerr’s argument is too obeisant to the practical and insufficiently attentive to pure scholarship and teaching, no one has made the contrary case convincingly.

In the final chapters of A University for the 21st Century, Duderstadt argues that universities lack the power to chart their own course. The real drivers are Internet technology, government research support and student aid, the demands of society and, above all, the tsunami of market forces. Instead of trying to emulate the old statesmen of higher education, Duderstadt contends, university presidents can only seize the opportunities of the moment–they must be foxes, not hedgehogs. If carpe diem means MVAC and responsibility-centered management, though, we are far better off with no leadership at all.

* * * Duderstadt–Not! would make a fine title for Stanley Aronowitz’s The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning. Like Duderstadt, Aronowitz has spent much of his career in universities, but he sees himself as situated outside the mainstream–in, but not of, the academy. The book reflects this critical distance. It is a tirade against all the changes in higher education that have been wrought in the name of efficiency.

The Knowledge Factory is more dour and less pleasurable to read than Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt’s Academic Keywords: A Devil’s Dictionary for Higher Education, which covers similar ground with greater wit and juicier stories. While Aronowitz touches all the bases–the debasement of intellectual pursuit in favor of the useful, the growing influence of big business, the disappearance of faculty autonomy, the increasing vocationalism of students and so on–the thrust and logic of his argument is hard to pin down.

Clearly he’s mad as hell and doesn’t want to take it anymore, but just what is he mad at? Is faculty unionization, which he avocates, a strategy for reconstituting the university or just a way to preserve the privileges of tenure-ladder professors? Are students potential allies in a rebellion against career education or simply seekers after credentials? Does higher education enlighten students or domesticate them for inherently alienating jobs? Are administrators the true managers of the knowledge factory or the shills for big money? Much of the argument proceeds by anecdote, and anecdote of dubious generalizability at that. The fact that neither Theda Skocpol nor Paul Starr was given tenure by Harvard’s sociology department speaks volumes about the pathologies of that particular department but does not demonstrate that women and leftists have been kept out of elite universities en masse (Skocpol went to Michigan, Starr to Princeton–tony “exiles” indeed).

That Duke’s English department couldn’t hold on to all the stars it recruited does not mean that prestige-hungry universities shouldn’t go after star faculty. Oft-told tales about New York’s City College in the thirties, when Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol were young, really don’t speak to the present situation. If that was a moment when, as Aronowitz observes, working-class students could receive a liberal education, those students were few in number, and most of their peers went straight into the factory. Has the emergence of mass higher education made the world a worse place?

Although The Knowledge Factory is radical in its critique of the new “busni-versity,” it turns sharply to the right when it comes to prescription. Most critics of the market ethic want to set the clock back to higher education’s presumed glory days, the fifties and sixties, when money was easy to come by and liberal arts education was in fuller flower. The Knowledge Factory looks back to an earlier era, the days of the true core curriculum, as its model. The crucial question of how universities should be run is handled in just a few pages–an odd editorial choice in a book that focuses on the damage wrought by structural changes in how higher education is governed.

The barely sketched proposal to restore faculty hegemony over academic life invites the herd of cats called professors to run the show, without any reason to believe that they’d do a better job than the present crop of administrative mandarins.

The centerpiece of The Knowledge Factory is a richly detailed liberal arts curriculum–Stanley Aronowitz on one end of the log, the student on the other. In his desire to prescribe what students should learn, Aronowitz is just like scores of professors, Howard Roarks of the academy, each harboring a vision of intellectual utopia. What’s urged is wonderfully old-fashioned stuff. Down with relevance. Revive the Great Books curriculum, updated to include the perspectives of more than Dead White European Males–and teach it at all levels, from inner-city community colleges to Berkeley and Brown.

While Aronowitz and Allan (The Closing of the American Mind) Bloom differ about some essentials–the place of Freud and Marx in the canon, for instance–Bloom would feel at home teaching this two-year sequence of required courses, replete with detailed reading lists, laid out in Aronowitz’s text. Would students want to take such courses? They would have to be persuaded, says Aronowitz. Could faculty teach them? They would have to be “re-educated” (a term whose unhappy connotations go unremarked upon).

There is a persuasive case for universal liberal education (as laid out powerfully elsewhere, for example by Martha Nussbaum in Cultivating Humanity), but it is not advanced in The Knowledge Factory. The tacit assumption is that the benefits of this kind of learning are so obvious that they can be presumed–after all, who could argue against “the goal of human completeness”?

Many academics share this belief, which offers a comforting rationale for a life that entails spending only eight or ten hours a week in the classroom or even in the company of students. Yet the pressures of the marketplace point elsewhere, toward a world where “knowledge production and transmission must now justify itself in terms of its economic value.” Unless mainstream America can be convinced that a liberal arts education is something of intrinsic, not simply economic, value, there will be no slowing the drive to turn higher education into just another market sector. It’s not entirely farfetched to imagine that, a generation from now, shares of Yale Inc. and the Princeton Corporation will be bought and sold, just like stock in the University of Phoenix or IBM.

Author bio

David L. Kirp, professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, is author of the forthcoming Almost Home: America’s Love-Hate Relationship with Community (Princeton). He is currently at work on The University in the Age of Money (April 17, 2000 The Nation Magazine)