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.