The New U | The Nation


The New U

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About the Author

David L. Kirp
David L. Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of The Sandbox...

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Are MOOCs—massive open online courses—the utopia of affordable higher education, or just the latest fad?

Resistance is growing, and with good reason—test mania delivers few benefits and often harms the students it’s meant to help. 

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.

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