The New U | The Nation


The New U

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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.

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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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.

Responsiveness to new student demands, the emergence of for-profit competition from multisite schools like DeVry Institute and the University of Phoenix, as well as from schools like Jones International University, which exist only virtually--taken together, these developments have made "any time, any place" higher education a near reality. This is the market functioning at its best. But at the same time, the gap between elite universities and mass institutions is widening. As scores of new institutions compete for MBA students, the value of a Stanford or Wharton degree rises. Because of their greater scarcity, these "brands" are worth more.

Struggling liberal arts colleges hire firms to make cold calls for freshman recruits and reinvent themselves as vocational schools in order to survive. Second-tier public universities are obliged to make do with less funding. Meanwhile, the richest institutions grow richer, as money begets money. Endowments soar along with the Dow Jones average, and technology transfer deals grow more lucrative as the leaders in the pack secure nearly $100 million a year in fees and royalties. The higher a college's U.S. News & World Report ranking, the easier it is to attract good students. Even as financially hard-pressed colleges rely on tuition hikes to pay the bills, Williams College, awash in endowment, announces--noblesse oblige--that it is freezing tuition levels.

It's Canute's folly to wish or will away these developments. There's no returning to Cardinal Newman's classic Idea of a University, where "useful knowledge" is a "deal of trash"--no returning, either, to the world envisioned eighty years ago in Thorstein Veblen's The Higher Learning in America, where pure research is the only legitimate pursuit of scholars and "vocationalism" is banished from academe. In reality, such a university never existed in the United States, where the "practical arts" have been a central part of higher education's mission since the launching of land-grant universities in the mid-nineteenth century. What is new and troubling is the power that money directly exerts over every aspect of higher education. There is surely a place for the market in academic life, but the market needs to be kept in its place. The critical question is how to draw, and how to maintain, this line.

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