Corporation of Learning

10 Jan

It is important not to romanticize academe, not to slip into nostalgia for a time that really never was. Dollars have always greased the wheels of both American public and private higher education — were it otherwise, the term “legacy” would not have a meaning specific to universities. There is no returning to Cardinal Newman’s nineteenth century Idea of a University, where “useful knowledge” is a “deal of trash” — no returning either to the world envisioned more than eighty years ago in Thorsten Veblen’s conception of The Higher Learning in America, where pure research is the only proper activity of the university and developing usable applications (as well as educating undergraduates) is the business of lesser places . Ever, like noted here, since Harvard College and the College of William and Mary opened their doors more than three centuries ago, money has been a pressing concern; and the need for a useful and usable education has been a recurring theme at least since the launching of the land grant universities nearly a century and a half ago. At the turn of the twentieth century, the University of Chicago stripped Clark University of its best professors by offering them outsized salaries; USC was starting a real estate school; Columbia and Chicago ran factory-like correspondence schools; and at MIT, General Electric was opening a corporate-sponsored laboratory on the campus.

What is new, and troubling, is the raw power that money — and an ethic that gives pride of place to the things that money can buy — directly exerts over so many aspects of higher education. As recently as a quarter-century ago, the forces of commercialism were mainly confined to the periphery of the university, in places like extension schools and athletic programs . No longer. Entrepreneurial ambition, which used to be regarded in academe as a hold-the-nose necessity, has become a virtue. The proud boast of the president of the University of California system, which includes some of the nation’s finest public institutions, is that “the University of California means business,” a catchy phrase that captures what is by now the conventional wisdom.

Priorities in higher education are determined less by an institution’s leaders than by its multiple “constituencies” — students, donors, corporations, politicians — each promoting its vision of the “responsive” (really the obeisant) institution. Strong leadership used to be regarded as crucial in the making of great universities, but now presidents, consumed with the never-ending task of raising money and the concomitant need not to offend donors, rarely venture beyond endorsing bland notions like “excellence.” Meanwhile at many universities the idea of faculty governance of academic affairs is rapidly slipping into irrelevance, a casualty of the perceived necessity to act more quickly and decisively than professors are wont to do.

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