The Corporatization of the University: Part III — Guest Post By Agnes Larson

Agnes Larson is a long-time university insider. This article is Part III of a three-part series. Read Part I, Part II.

Prevalence of Differential Wage

Corporations are frequently under fire for introducing or adhering to a differential wage that splits the workforce. The famous example is Henry Ford’s “$5 a day”, but if a worker happened to be a minority, the high wage did not apply. Universities are well-know for fragmenting their teaching workforce by relying on graduate students and adjunct faculty to carry the heavy load of teaching. The dependence on graduate students fits in nicely with the Babbage principle of never paying more for skill or force needed to do the job. Diverting precious time from a high-wage, productive researcher into the classroom is not cost effective.

Often at universities there is a wage differential, but since we are gentlemen and gentlewomen, it is not discussed. There are faculty, of various ranks and experience, some who carry extra administrative duties, and some who don’t. There are lecturers and instructors. There are grad students who have a TA or RA stipend. There are staff, again, various ranks and years in service. Largely, universities are not unionized, but sometimes faculty are, and sometimes staff are. Universities have different views of equipment, such as computers, and what fund pays the bills. All faculty members are not created equal, and some seem to attract many more resources than others.

The Entrepreneurial Spirit

In corporations, entrepreneurship is code for having workers fend for themselves. For instance, the reliance on temporary or contract workers is a suitable illustration of the entrepreneurial workforce. Some minor faculty members without a tenured appointment need to cover not only their own salary, but that of their staff, are classic entrepreneurs. The university only acts as their banker, as a place where the checks can be routed, tax-free. But in reality, it is the employee who is covering the entire cost of his wages, his health insurance and other benefits.

The Profit-Driven Enterprise

Corporations have customers. Universities have students, who are regarded by administrators as consumers, instead of willing vessels to be filled with knowledge. The consumer model changes the dynamic in the classroom. One professor told me that it used to be that students were afraid of not doing the work and disappointing the professor, and perhaps, even failing the class. Today, this professor is afraid not to pass his student-consumers, regardless of knowledge attained or material mastered. Another feature that the university shares with its corporate counterpart is the encouragement of its student-consumers to take on debt in order to buy their product.


Another earmark of the corporation is the adoption of Taylorism, that is, the insistence of the separation of the “brain from the hand.”1 At first blush, it seemed that Taylor’s principles would not find a home in an academic environment. With e-learning, management can easily take what is “under the cap of the worker into the hands of management.”2 And often, the “taking” is done with the worker’s full knowledge and cooperation.

One e-learning enterprise approached a number of faculty with the idea that they would develop on-line courses based on their teaching material. In step with Taylor’s First Principle, faculty, flattered, turn over their material. The worker-knowledge that management used to have to deliberately observe, collect, and root out of workers is freely given by academics. Taylor’s Second Principle is that all “brain work should be removed from the shop and centered in the planning or laying out department…”3 This is also quick work, with the material safely in the hands of e-learning development team. Taylor’s Third Principle has to do with the monopoly of management knowledge and management’s control over each step of the labor process. Once the course materials have been developed into an interactive web-based learning tool, management plans when the classes are. Management hires instructors, who are not the faculty members who developed the material. Faculty may make recommendations of who should teach the courses based on his material, but the decision to hire freelance instructors is with the e-learning enterprise. What used to be the faculty’s skill and trade—teaching—has been effectively debased, and to a degree, outsourced. The web courses are delivered on the student’s own time, on the student’s schedule, but there are occasional allowances made for groups to log on at the same time and discuss the material. While the student seems to make some choices, the e-learning organization is in control of the entire learning process.


The university as an entity as at a crossroads. The introduction and improvement of the online technology brings with it fundamental questions. What is learning? What is education? What is the role of the university? What is the role of faculty? If a student can cruise through 120 credits online, is the residential institution a necessity? Will the big schools become more like the for-profits? Many colleges have the ability to offer or accept some online credits. The wall, for undergraduate education, has been breached.

The implications for graduate education is heavier, as the mentoring relationship between faculty and student serves as some kind of quality control. Will universities be graduating Ph.D. candidates who have never had a face-to-face encounter with their professor? Will new professors be necessary if the old guard has already prepared canned presentations of the sum of human knowledge? Will knowledge acquisition slow down?

These are very serious questions, and the trouble is that they can be dealt with in a frivolous manner, or in an attempt to maximize the bottom line, that can cause harm to us all.

Update All those who are incensed that Agnes’s lament did not include concrete solutions are welcome to submit guest posts of their own outlining their own ideas of How To Fix Higher Education.


1Class notes.


3Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital. Monthly Review Press, 1998.


  1. What used to be the faculty’s skill and trade—teaching—has been effectively debased, and to a degree, outsourced.

    If it has truly been “debased”, then the market will let you know.

    The web courses are delivered on the student’s own time, on the student’s schedule, but there are occasional allowances made for groups to log on at the same time and discuss the material.

    The horror! Being responsive to your customer’s needs.

  2. The job of the university is to … what? Educate students. To what end? So that they may be accepted to graduate school? So that they may be accepted to a very good graduate school? So that they may be accepted to and be paid to attend (assistantship) a very good graduate school? Get a job? Get a good job? Get a very good high paying job with excellent potential for advancement?

    The minimum level of success for a university requires that students learn (master) some minimum amount of stuff – knowledge and skills. The greatest success comes from both teaching students a lot of very good, useful and marketable knowledge and skills and attaching an outstanding reputation (brand) to the diploma.

    It helps if the university brand attracts the best students — students that are smart, disciplined, experienced, interesting, outgoing, good looking, connected, dress well, have good manners, obey their elders and are willing to pay real money (no freebies) to attend. Better yet if they will fight to get in and their parents will make a large donation.

    A university education can be a wonderful, fulfilling, memorable, useful and magical experience. Just like Disneyland, the machines that make it possible are evolving, expensive, complex and hidden.

  3. Speed, jstults,

    College isn’t a marketplace, it is not a business. The “customers”, i.e. students, do not know what they are buying. If they did, they wouldn’t need to buy it.

    If college, as Speed tacitly suggests, is merely a place to “learn a skill”, then it can be replaced by a technical school, in which “customers” can buy just what they need and no more. This will be cheaper and faster than traditional college. Admittedly, this is the appropriate model for the majority of people. Not everybody can learn what a college should be teaching.

    College should be reserved for our best and brightest, those will someday become leaders, and not just in politics. College should be a place reserved, as Cardinal Newman said, for teaching wisdom, and not just a place which parcels out knowledge, or, even worse, a repository for information. Let technical schools and entertainment colleges (those that emphasize, for example, football) dish out information.

    As brother Eliot asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

    College is a place where the customer is not always right. Marketplace forsooth!

  4. “College should be reserved for our best and brightest, those will someday become leaders, … Let technical schools and entertainment colleges (those that emphasize, for example, football) dish out information. ”

    So, even you admit it’s to learn a skill (leadership) or at least refine a native one. Should college be limited to just that one?

    In a way, sports are a form of leadership and teamwork training. I never understood the non-participating voyeuristic appeal though.

  5. DAV,

    In no way do I admit “leadership” is a skill. Can leadership—and I note you are narrowly defining it, in the sense of a business or political chief, whereas I mean it in a wider cultural sense—be taught in the same way that one teaches copying and pasting a column in a spreadsheet. No, sir.

    I speak of imparting wisdom. When I say “college” I mean a classical liberal education.

  6. Briggs,

    If leadership isn’t a skill then what is it? Perhaps we are wandering into what “teaching” is? I maintain that no one can really be “taught” anything but instead those who are truly capable eventually learn. I also maintain that a “classical” training is that which was taught in medieval universities to young potential warlords. Again, that “leadership” honing.

  7. From Wikipedia …

    Thomas Huxley,

    “That man, I think, has had a liberal education who has been so trained in youth that his body is the ready servant of his will, and does with ease and pleasure all the work that, as a mechanism, it is capable of; whose intellect is a clear, cold, logic engine, with all its parts of equal strength, and in smooth working order; ready, like a steam engine, to be turned to any kind of work, and spin the gossamers as well as forge the anchors of the mind; whose mind is stored with a knowledge of the great and fundamental truths of Nature and of the laws of her operations; one who, no stunted ascetic, is full of life and fire, but whose passions are trained to come to heel by a vigorous will, the servant of a tender conscience; who has learned to love all beauty, whether of Nature or of art, to hate all vileness, and to respect others as himself.

    Donald Knuth,

    I don’t know where I heard it first, but a liberal education is supposed to teach you something about everything and everything about something.

  8. Admittedly, this is the appropriate model for the majority of people.
    But aren’t today’s colleges and universities teaching the majority of people?

  9. I see the discussion has moved on and I think Matt has begun to crystallize a major point at issue, but I wanted to get my general reactions into the mix.


    I am still having difficulty following your argument. It still feels like an “ain’t it awful” whine.
    Prevalence of Differential Wage: Are you arguing for a more consistent way of determining pay? If so, then I absolutely agree. But you slip is a number of questionable assertions and seem to avoid the major issue of tying pay to actual value added or productivity. Do all high wage researchers deserve their high pay? Is not seniority or length of tenure a significant but largely unjustified driver of pay? How is pay tied to productivity and value? Does anyone ever receive a pay cut because they no longer carry a full load of teaching and/or research? Why not replace anachronistic and largely counter-productive tenure decisions with five or seven-year contracts, like professional athletes? Most well run and effective organizations systematize their pay-scales in order to reduce turnover due to feelings of inequity, align pay to the market and to avoid constant renegotiations with valuable contributors. Organizations that fail to develop systematic pay-scales tend to be poorly managed, highly politicized and largely ineffective.
    The Entrepreneurial Spirit: I do not have a clue what you are trying to say here.
    The Profit-Driven Enterprise: In the exchange that takes place at the university what are students if they are not buyers or consumers? You seem to be hinting at the notion that previously students acted more in the role of an apprentice or religious novice – someone who has agreed to suspend their judgment and autonomy – which is historically accurate for the great European Universities but now wildly anachronistic? That said your example of the professor feeling obliged to pass students regardless of their mastery of the subject matter, points to a failure of the professor and the administration not of the student.
    Taylorism: You seem to be assuming that the average quality of teaching under the old academic job shop or craft model is superior to that of the new scientifically managed model. Surely this is an empirical question? My experience with e-learning in management education at a very prestigious B School is that the development and maintenance costs of e-learning courses are huge and the costs of managing/moderating the electronic discussions are very significant and vastly under-estimated. The relative effectiveness of e-learning courses is a largely unanswered empirical question. The viability of this new pedagogic technique will emerge over time. Your lament is premature.
    Crossroads: I agree that “the university as an entity is at a crossroads”. Emerging technologies enables the use of new and potentially more cost effective pedagogies that have significant impact on the nature and structure of universities and colleges. But at one level, you are surely too pessimistic. The Open University in the UK has been around for many years – The University of London, Metropolitan College was a predecessor that my Dad took advantage of in the 1950s. The OU’s reputation is modest to say the least. Paradoxically, the pedagogy of on-line education is most appropriate to highly motivated students – exactly the ones who would be readily accepted at residential universities and colleges if they had the opportunity to attend. Few self-respecting students would give up the residential University experience in favor of the Open University – at least not until they had to pay something approaching the full cost of their education.
    But these alternative technologies are likely to magnify more significant challenges to residential Universities: the costs of residential degrees are out of line with their ROI and there is no generally accepted way to distinguish between the graduate of a good undergraduate education and those of a mediocre education. Employers, i.e., the marketplace (save the Government!), already generally discount 2nd and 3rd tier schools. They also discount the GPAs in soft majors. Universities and colleges are going to have to pay more attention to the various league tables and there will be undoubtedly a push to develop league tables that reflect the rigor of the education process at the various schools.
    Currently colleges and universities would have us believe they are all producing Rolls Royces and Porsches or, more modestly, reliable Hondas, when in fact they are producing far too many Yugos but are charging premium prices. This is not a sustainable business model. Or if the business analogy is discomforting, Universities and Colleges have no natural predators and are rapidly destroying their ecological habitat by over and indiscriminate pro-creation. Life is, and should be, getting much, much tougher for over-indulged and complacent universities and college.

  10. Agnes,

    Graduate students don’t come cheap; someone has to pay their education cost! As a graduate student, I thought it was fair that I was paid (though never enough) and also earned a degree. Honestly, we all try to offer the best financial packages to attract excellent students.

    Keep in mind that adjunct professors have no administrative duties, service obligations and research pressure. At a small university, regular faculty does have a heavy teaching load. Faculty’s wage also depends on the area of expertise and is also driven by the market demand. After all, this is not a communist country.

    My guess is that you are not a faculty. Otherwise, you probably would’ve pointed out the fact that the number and salaries of administrators have grown in a much faster rate than those of faculty.

    Online courses are not for all students, teachers, schools and subjects. And this kind of for-profit education is short-sighted. The time to make a profit by offering online courses might have passed due to steep competition.

  11. Mr. Briggs,

    College should be reserved for our best and brightest, those will someday become leaders, and not just in politics.

    I can’t disagree with you more. Well, I sure didn’t realize our previous President George Bush was admitted into Yale and Harvard because he was one of our best and brightest. And how do you decide who are our best and brightest?

    A wise curriculum can probably inject wisdom to our students, but how do we teach wisdom? Grandpa, home schooled during a turbulent time in my native country, was one of the wisest and kindest people I’ve ever known.

  12. Bernie has raised a number of interesting points.

    I want to address what I think is a false dichotomy between a “corporatized” university and education for education’s sake, or (more poetically, perhaps) education for the purpose of instilling the beginnings of wisdom in those who receive it.

    There is no reason that a corporatized (read “focused on delivering to students, as customers, a particular product with maximum efficiency”) university can’t focus on the traditional liberal arts and on helping students come to grips with the compiled insights of mankind – or at least I don’t think there is.

    But it is clear that the demand from consumers of “university education” is a degree as a signal of employability in a given field. I’ll point out that this is simply a realistic stance on the part of students – they need to be employable, and degree as signal really does help their chances. Given the demand, it is perhaps inevitable that the primary business of universities has become the provision of degrees as signals of employability. Bernie addresses the consequences of the watering down of degree requirements by some universities nicely.

    It seems to me that the real battle is in the culture at large, especially in the economy, not in the schools themselves. If universities are to refocus on liberal arts education and attract the best and brightest to that kind of education, the world has to shift so that the outcome for those “best and brightest” won’t be debt and un- or under-employment. Or, to put it another way, a “non-corporatized university” in the sense of one that doesn’t need to cover its costs by providing something that students value is a fiction – it’s just that there is less value placed on the things that used to be delivered.

  13. Gee, used to be that one could look forward to an entire career working for a single company, and over time now looking to keep a particular job for more than a few years is somewhat passe.’ As the internet & various software tools came along companies tended to simply “computerize” the existing processes…but over time then-seemingly radical/revolutionary approaches have been implemented to take full advantage of the powers of computers & software. Etc. Not to mention a number of broad-based cultural changes in US & European socieity that can be over-generalized as a decline in corporate loyalty, decline in morals, etc. Or, maybe, one person’s “decline” is another person’s change toward something else — but if all one focuses on is the apparent decline in one area they miss the forward motion in other directions.

    Much of that was well underway, or “old news” a decade or two ago; even more in some sectors.

    The cloistered “ivory towers” of academia are finally adapting to the society/ies they serve. Maybe its about time they attune themselves that/those society/ies. Because not doing so is to marginalize themselves.

    And maybe, just consider, that instead of wistful whine about how things in academia are changing, maybe those in academia would prosper more if they learned & applied the lessons their business schools have been teaching industry for the past couple of decades — its those business school lessons on how to adapt to & apply technology, findings from psychology (heavily tapped & applied by marketing firms & whopping huge numbers of management in numerous firms worldwide, large & small).

    I never cease to be amazed by how utterly isolated one college/university department can be from another. Here’s an unmistakable sign of that:

    “Another earmark of the corporation is the adoption of Taylorism, that is, the insistence of the separation of the “brain from the hand.””

    Taylorism as described in this blog entry is an approach adopted over a century ago!! Few corporations practice it in any form or on any scale. Its long been superceded, incrementally, by findings in a number of fields.

  14. Matt:
    The tiering of Universities and Colleges largely already exists. Nobody goes to MIT for a classical liberal education. At the same time, Magna and Summa Harvard graduates regardless of their majors can largely pick and choose what they want to do. In the public sector, colleges within colleges are emerging, e.g., Commonwealth College at UMass Amherst, where there is a presumption that gifted and dedicated students will benefit from dedicated teachers.

    I guess I am more doubtful as to the role of even the best schools in imparting “wisdom”. If my memory serves me correctly, you did 6 years military service before going to college? This probably put you in a different starting place from your peers and my guess is that you approached the opportunity somewhat differently than did kids straight from HS. Most students have so little real life experiences that it is hard for me to see how they really amass much wisdom. Cambridge and Oxford used to expect non-genius undergraduates to work or travel for a year before settling down to their studies. Again it was a useful though not always successful maturing process. The ground has to be prepared with real life experiences – otherwise William F Buckley’s aphorism about the telephone book comes into play.

    It would be interesting to hear from those with experience teaching or learning at West Point, Annapolis or Colorado Springs. At these institutions, there is no question as to the mission nor the expectation as to the general higher purpose of the education offered, even though the specific majors might vary as dramatically as at strong liberal arts colleges. Wisdom and leadership, I sincerely hope, are part of both the explicit and implicit curriculum.

  15. Briggs, I’ve got to challenge you:

    RE: “College isn’t a marketplace, it is not a business. The “customers”, i.e. students, do not know what they are buying. If they did, they wouldn’t need to buy it.”

    WHAT???? Anybody hiring any consultant for advice doesn’t “know what they are buying” other than information they don’t know from a source they presume to be credible. This holds for consulting a lawyer, doctor, marketing expert, etc. In fact, one can argue students DO have a pretty good idea what they’re buying as the course cataloge & general knowledge convey a lot.

    RE: “In no way do I admit “leadership” is a skill. Can leadership—and I note you are narrowly defining it, in the sense of a business or political chief, whereas I mean it in a wider cultural sense—be taught in the same way that one teaches copying and pasting a column in a spreadsheet. No, sir.”

    WRONG!!!! Leader has been, can be, and IS taught. Hitler took lessons in voice, mannerisms, etc. & practiced a lot (the Holocaust Museum used to carry a book on just this subject) to prepare for his political career. Of course, these are “tactics” and many would consider this “manipulation.” But the line between contrived pretence, changing one’s habits, or doing what comes naturally is very fine.

    RE: “College should be reserved for our best and brightest, …”

    UH OH: And who do propose will be the judge of that?? And using what tools & diagnostics (noting that many who are “average” and many who are “below average” often turn out to be “late bloomers” and that many very smart people have little motivation or offsetting bad habits/tendencies). Who, or what authority/ies, will enforce it?? And when such a system is in place to identify who is “best & brightest” will that same system decide what area of studies will be made available…then what career path will be made available (by default or design)? Less than a sentence & you’re on a very slipper slope.

    And what about the “worst & dumbest”?? If we’ll do something for the “best & brightest” for their & society’s good, presumably we’d need to secure society from the ill effects of the dregs. Maybe that’s not what you meant….but…if something is established to do what you suggest, that same something will invariably be used by some to do something complementary. THAT is, for good & bad, human nature.

    History — a discipline in the “old school” colleges & universities senimentally addressed here of late, by the way — have studied how such programs invariably progress when administered by fallible humans. Its not encouraging.

    To state “College should be reserved for our best and brightest,…” you’re stating a philosophical perspective on, at best, a flimsy foundation. That’s exactly how eugenics was conceived & developed. And it was on such a flimsy ill-defined (or less) foundation that it was able to be sustained. Michael Crichton addressed this in one of his essays.

  16. The creation of a new metric system that tests knowledge and proficiency- not the number of university credits attained- may be the greatest threat to a system that arrogantly decides only university guild members are experts. Lets compare two mechanical engineers -one a recently graduated Ph.D and the other with a BS and 25 years practical work experience. Who is the expert – what is the equivalency of work experience, self learning to a degree credit? If an expert is someone with arguably 50,000 chunks of information– how can we test for this? And can we let universities decide?

  17. With all due respect, I’ve found this three-part series nearly incoherent.

    Corporatism? Taylorism? Seriously? Those are the problems–as an insider–you see with today’s university system?

    As an OUTSIDER, I see the problem is that the faculty and administration have surrendered intellectually to the students, and that the faculty has become monolithically left-liberal.

    Summed up nicely here:

  18. Mike B,

    Well, if you can ask those questions, it couldn’t have been that incoherent, right? Let’s be nice.

    On the other hand, I cannot disagree with your fingering one of the major problems.

    Pat Moffitt,

    You found another one: Mindless Mandarinism, a.k.a credentialsim. Track down William James’s essay “The PhD Octopus” to discover that this problem is over a century old. Now it’s worse, because the entire college experience for most simply means gaining the “degree”, that magic stamp which certifies them “Able.” Nonsense.


    To answer: it is. It should not be.


    University-as-entertainment or as job training is a marketplace. The traditional liberal education is not. College should be separate from those students seeking a “business major degree” and the like.

    The student of a college, as I define it (well, I’m using Newman’s definition), does not know what he does not know, and is therefore in no position to judge whether he is apt to see a “positive return on his investment.”


    True, but that system used to be in place and used to work. Think Oxford, think Cambridge, think eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. College (as we’re using the word) is simply not for everybody. Most will not be able to meet its demands. Most probably can meet the rigors of a university dedicated to football and jobs-training certificates (Business majors, etc. etc.).

    Universities are indeed tiered, but those at the top are anxiously seeking to un-tier themselves, or to at least proclaim a rough egalitarianism, or political correctness. I mean here the initial stages of the liberal education; not the apprenticeship training to become a chemist or mathematician that comes after (i.e. the graduate degree).

    Un-tiering should accelerate, too. For those wanting to become engineers, specialty schools (inside universities, perhaps), they could just get the training they need to do that job.

    Well, that’s it for me now. I mean to say more about this later, but am in awful hurry.

  19. Mike B:
    I agree with you on all counts. My apologies for being so long winded when you were so succinct. The faculty and administration are the primary sources of any undermining of critical thinking, broad based historical and cultural awareness and intellectual rigour at colleges and universities that espouse a liberal education (as opposed to preparation for professions and careers). I also agree that this dilution goes hand in glove with a monolithically progressive perspective on society.

  20. Briggs “The university as an entity is at a crossroads. The introduction and improvement of the online technology brings with it fundamental questions. What is learning? What is education? What is the role of the university? What is the role of faculty?”

    I would argue the knowledge market- not the university- is at a crossroads. An efficient market solution for the consumer to the realities of the technological shifts you describe is not be possible when framed by a university/faculty perspective. The consumer should have all the rights here – and as such there are but two questions- What do I want/need and what am I willing to pay. “What is learning? What is education?” are important only as they relate to a definition of need. A consumer does not care about the squabbles over pay distribution within a selected provider. (Consumers being– the student and the taxpayer- each with their own metric for value and need.)

    Once we have bounded the above– Universities, faculty and anyone else that so desire can argue their price/value case. Basically they can argue for our business.

    No cartel with monopoly control wants to ask what best serves the customer however Universities would be well advised to start thinking now about how they will argue for their share of a rapidly evolving market. If they do not– it will not only be the architecture viewed as medieval.

    My prediction is that the answer from the universities and faculty will look like the GM Indianapolis union debacle.

  21. Remember all those academics running around, posing as consultants, recommending “right-sizing”, “organizational re-engineering”, and “doing more with less”? They could not have hawked their slogans and programs without reality cooperating, and now it seems that some are surprised that higher education is not immune to reality.

    Briggs pines for the classic education, and I am sure there is a place for that. Leadership, however, is not born in colleges or tech schools. Leadership is a personality trait, and the sad truth is that many of our leaders in politics, industry, and education are merely average administrators.

    When Ms. Larson says, “The university only acts as their banker, as a place where the checks can be routed, tax-free. But in reality, it is the employee who is covering the entire cost of his wages, his health insurance and other benefits. “, you have to think of the recent Penn State University whitewash of Michael Mann’s complicity in the almost criminal activities of the Climate Gate gang. Mann brings in too much money for him to get fired, and the rank dishonesty of the University is transparent. They will defend their own without regard to any principle other than money. How is this different from a corporation?

    Higher education may be changing, and I don’t know if all the change is good or bad. I do know that there are obsolete practices in universities that make less sense every day. There is no reason to protect academic thought. It must stand on its own as even some professors are expected to earn their keep.

  22. So the economy has tanked and unemployment is galloping over the hill, but somehow the Sacred Academe should be immune and buffered from all that? There were layoffs at Harvard? Oh my!!!!

    It would be ducky if universities reverted to the Socratic tradition with robe-clad philosophers in open-air Greek gymnasiums capturing the admiration of rich youths with bon mots. Oh, and with short-skirted secretaries to jot every tittle.

    But life marches forward, not backwards. Quaint is cute but not cute enough to drain the public coffers for. Let those who want the services pay for them. Why should I fork over my hard earned dough to pay Communists and other terrorists to “teach” my children how to hate America?

    Society did not crapualize the universities — they did it to themselves. Now they are irrelevant or worse, stuck on stupid. If I can find my very tiny violin, I’ll play you a dirge.

  23. Briggs,
    Its why I described our current system as a guild. Thanks for the Jame’s essay. I would distill his solutions to one– reward substance.

    The most sought after admission slip for decades at Notre Dame were for any course taught by the late Frank O’Malley. Students- in the true sense of the word -not fortunate enough to receive the coveted admission were often seen standing by an open window listening to Frank. Frank O’Malley had no advanced degree nor published papers– he was a giant nonetheless.

    The University system no longer allows room for such men and its a loss to all. I also think of John Isaacs the late head of UCs Insitute for Marine Resources. Issacs with no advanced degree was nonetheless a force able to move rapidly among subjects- mining, sonar, nuclear energy, climate, and deepwater ecosystems. Issacs was not only absent the 3 letters- his interests and personality could not be confined to a single academic department. (Specialty and department constrictions are a problem subset to a knowledge solution).

    Isaacs wonderfully described a variant of your “hundred year old problem” as a system failure to select for unique mental abilities (substance) and the associated metric challenge:

    “Our educational system in science and technology tends to train only those faculties of the human intellect that are readily testable: memory and formal reasoning. Untaught, unevaluated and, indeed, often suppressed, since they are so challenging to teachers, are those other vast components of intellectuality: conceptualization, that allows one to con-
    ceive of complex interactions as a system; intuition, the mysterious quality that leaps to truths through a jungle of confusing detail; the trilogy: mental adventurousness and fervor, attention to the unexpected, and curiosity, those intellectual attributes that can challenge established dogma by discerning its underlying flaws, and judgment, the equally mysterious faculty
    of recognizing the “likelihood” of something, a mental quality that went out of fashion a hundred years ago.

    My point is, of course, that the intellectual qualities that we neither teach nor know how to teach, and hence tend to suppress, are precisely the ones essential to dealing with the complex systems of this planet, and since these qualities are suppressed in our educational system, untutored people often possess them in more highly developed form than do the
    educated. I have much greater faith in simple observations and untrammeled
    thinking than I have in sophisticated observations and simplistic thinking! And I have much greater confidence that man’s relationship to the sea and its resources will be enhanced by thoughtful and observant people closely involved and broadly acquainted with the sea—scientist and non-scientist alike—than by frantic bureaucratic responses to public hysteria or by the pontification of the scientific hierarchy.”

    My metric seeks systems that allows for the O’Malleys and Isaacs.

  24. I think the issues being discussed need to be restated. I think Agnes has confound too many issues with the result that we are all talking past each other.

    Matt’s basic point I believe is that educational institutions that purport to provide students with a classic liberal education no longer are living up to their explicit or implicit promises and it is to our collective detriment. Moreover, one reason Matt argues why this is the case is an apparent reluctance on the part of faculty members to enforce the necessary standards as to the quality of the intellectual tools needed be fully informed citizens capable of civic leadership. This in turn stems from assuming that students are informed consumers, i.e., know what they need to learn, rather than “patients”. It is akin to the patient going to the doctor and saying, you need to prescribe X because I have disease Y. I believe there is truth in Matt’s description of the current state of play in some of our most prestiguous universities.

    On the other hand, Agnes has painted with a much broader and coarser brush, and laments the growing similarity between educational organizations and economic enterprises. Her analysis confuses the implementation of more rigorous and possibly inappropriate management processes and practices with (a) the points Matt raises, (b) the emergence of new competitors in a broadly defined knowledge marketplace, and (c) the impact of new technologies both in creating new competitors and modifying the existing pedagogic processes within universities and colleges.

    It would help me to know which issue was being addressed.

  25. bob says:
    21 October 2010 at 1:10 pm

    You cite Mann as an example of funding corruption. John Isaacs noted above publicly skewered a fellow researcher in the 70’s who held a press conference to highlight his findings that a certain bay had not returned to the environmental quality observed prior to an oil spill. Isaacs went to the press to note the reason the bay had not returned to “normal” – it was now of a higher environmental quality. (a result of the unrelated wastewater treatment). The largest abuses I have seen in the environmental academia are actually formally correct information intentionally denied context.

    The Manns of the world concern me less than the deafening silence from other academics.

  26. Association of American Colleges and Universities

    What is Liberal Education?
    Liberal Education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

  27. Customers are those who pay for services. Largely it is not the students. If you begin with this premise (customer = student), you end with the incorrect conclusion that somehow, college doesn’t follow the marketplace. As much as one wants to believe that universities are on some higher level, it is indeed in a marketplace. It is a business. It always has been about a return on investment. That is why the wealthy sent their kids to Oxford way back when, and that is why they do it today.

    I would not recommend a liberal education to my kids. I have an Engineering degree, and in my experience, a degree in engineering or science is most likely to produce graduates who solve real problems, and become the leaders we need in the future. Virtually everyone I graduated with has gone on to lead companies, engineering groups, and be community leaders. So thankfully, many of the best and brightest take this path! Contrary to your points, I find a general liberal education to be less rigorous (although I know there are programs out there), and less valuable.

    I think the issue today on the watering down and passing out of degrees stems from the notion that everyone should have a college degree. They shouldn’t. And they wouldn’t if the actual cost was born by the attendee. Huge subsidies, an influx of financial aid and tax breaks has basically allowed kids who really aren’t all that interested, to fill classrooms. They drag down the average, and probably don’t learn a whole lot.

  28. ScorpionDas says:
    21 October 2010 at 3:15 pm

    One could also say that the liberal ed. value problem is the result of turf wars. Think of push-backs that must arise from the English department or one of the other Liberal ed power Departments to any proposal to add a required civics course or a basic economics course to the mandated Liberal Arts curriculum?

  29. The opposite of “profit driven” is bankrupt. Unless you are a government entity and then you can be as inefficient as you want and just keep raising taxes. And therein lies the problem with our public schools…

  30. Uncle Mike!

    Welcome back. How I’ve missed you!

    (It was a different Mike before: a real one, but a university guy.)

  31. I have no solution. Costs at a university are eaten up, as rightly pointed out, by admin (even with the massive layoffs of 2009), but as noted previously, there are compliance and regulatory issues (health and safety, grant admin, and other fiduciary responsibilities that were not so important as in the past) that demand more admin to make sure all the t’s are crossed and the i’s are dotted. A secondary yet very large cost is technological. To get the computers up and running, and to have the ability to archive data. The posts were an observation of what is happening at the university, framed in somewhat industrial terms, but the change is palpable. When students enter the class of 2030, they will be entering a very different place than those entering in 2010. I would speculate that there will be far fewer tenured positions than today (in fact, since the 1970s, the rate of tenured/untenured was something like like 70-30, and today it is closer to 30-70). Library staffing will be curtailed sharply, because as the wisdom goes, “everything’s online” (and if that’s the case, who needs a librarian?). Online degree programs will be booming, and there will be a worldwide hunt for students and tuition dollars. The university is going to be a far different place, and one that some of us won’t be able to recognize. One of the great things about a university is that the basic experience has not changed greatly over the past 150 years. We are at a place now where changes are going to take place rapidly and without our express consent.

  32. Matt, I never left.

    Agnes, I hear your lament for the existential intellectual garden, but much of that was myth anyhow. The institutions will remain because there will always be a need for coming-of-age enclaves, where youth become adults with moderate supervision and crowd control, but imparting knowledge? Or thinking skills?

    Our universities, public and private, are funded in large measure by Federal grants, particularly research grants. Large proportioned overhead charges, sometimes including salaries, are paid for with Federal research grants.

    Those grants are tainted with political bias. They force faculty to play a political correctness game with disregard for (and sometime in direct conflict with) real science. Lysenkoism has thus infected Academia. The “knowledge” being taught is tainted. The “education” being passed on filled with inaccuracies and sometimes complete falsehoods.

    This phenomena is not restricted to a few subjects. They all have political taint, including engineering. Real world failures have some influence at reforming engineering, but real world failures in other disciplines don’t seem to register much.

    Education delivery is being transformed by the Internet, no doubt. Where else but the Internet can you get a free course in Bayesian statistics, with frills and bonus lectures, taught by a world-class expert? Or free “post-graduate” courses in any subject?

    But content is also changing. It may not be as apparent, but the expertise outside Academia (and outside the government) vastly exceeds that within. Academia has become a self-referential circle of pseudo-intellectuals promoting pseudo-science, which may pull in Federal grant dollars but retards the advancement of knowledge. Meanwhile, outside the Tower, the true intellectual giant has awakened and is in motion.

    Knowledge marches forward. The slow wildebeests get eaten by crocodiles. Across the river, the experiential intellectual garden is still out there, but it is largely virtual. The mind-expanding conversations are occurring in the Ether. Some of the participants may be physically on college campuses, but the conversations are pan-vernacular.

  33. Briggs, Agnes:

    My apologies for being so blunt in my assessment of the series as “nearly incoherent”.

    Actually Briggs, at first I thought you were playing a trick on us, because this series sounded an awful lot to me like something written in the 1930’s.

    But to me, it is incoherent to, on the one hand blame the problems of today’s university on “corporatism and Taylorism” while pointing out the layers and layers of bureaucracy required to administer government grants and government regulations. Not to mention the self-imposed bureaucracy added by things like multi-culturalism, speech codes, etc. Seems like a healthy dose of corporatism, while no magic cure, might actually help in some of those areas.

    And with regard to Taylorism — God forbid we should try to apply some scientific (i.e. industrial engineering) approaches to improve instruction. Especially given all the new technology available, it only seems sensible that some sound experimentation, guided by scientific methods (the essence of Taylorism) be used to optimize educational methods. I’m no insider, but I seriously doubt there is any organized, coordinated effort at most univerisities to determine the best approach — if any — to using some of these new technologies.

  34. I understand why some say that students are customers. If the student is buying a service then he is entitled to a good service. However, students are not simply demanding to be well taught. Many seem to expect that, having paid (or borrowed) the fee, they should get the degree. This does not follow. If you pay for violin tuition, you do not expect to become a competent violinist simply because your teacher is Yehudi Menuhin and you turn up to his lessons. Some practice (learning) is required in between. Unfortunately there is pressure on Universities to pass students in order to maintain fee income. Failing students costs money. If all your students pass you are a good teacher (avoid exams and give them an essay to paste from Wikipedia). If they don’t pass it’s your fault. If examinations were set by an independent examining body (independent from the University and the government) this might stop the rot. Unfortunately it won’t happen because government and many universities have an interest in appearing to increase educational performance and standards by doing the exact opposite.

  35. I think I went through this excercise in some Six Sigma training I was giving.

    The consensus was (or I guess I should say as an outstanding instructor I guided them towards:) that in the system of higher education, society was the consumer; administrators were executive management, faculty the first-line supervisors, and students were the local workforce.

    So I agree with Briggs and others, students are most definitely not the consumers of higher education.

  36. There are licensing and certification exams for Doctors, Lawyers, Accountants, CPAs, Actuaries, Financial Advisors, Stockbrokers, Engineers and IT. These are far from perfect, but as a thought experiment they do point in a direction that focuses on common expectations rather than reputation and ascription. Such “exams”, i.e., a standard framework for assessing a body of knowledge and intellectual skills, will force a crystallizing of what constitutes a “liberal” education. I seriously doubt that even the most intelligently designed exam would receive much support from most academics and that in itself is part of the problem.

  37. It is essential that you understand that most of the reasons for licensing and certification is to exclude others not to prove or establish excellence. Often the pretext of excellence is used to establish the licensing and certification but it’s intent and it’s practical use is to protect those in the field and to prevent “outsiders” from competing. To extend this to the next obvious level that is what unions are for as well. Workers wanted to protect their jobs and pay and formed unions to throw up hurdles for entry into the brotherhood. One of the best teachers I ever had was a retired businessman from New York who taught a business class at a community college. He knew what he was talking about, could give you practical examples and warn against pitfalls and loved what he did. If he had to jump the same hurdles that K-12 or four year colleges place in the way he would have simply spent his retirement playing the horses and some 26 year old college graduate who had never even worked, never mind own a business, would be teaching the class instead.

  38. From today’s Wall Street Journal
    Putting a Price on Professors

    A 265-page spreadsheet, released last month by the chancellor of the Texas A&M University system, amounted to a profit-and-loss statement for each faculty member, weighing annual salary against students taught, tuition generated, and research grants obtained.

    This new emphasis has raised hackles in academia. Some professors express deep concern that the focus on serving student “customers” and delivering value to taxpayers will turn public colleges into factories. They worry that it will upend the essential nature of a university, where the Milton scholar who teaches a senior seminar to five English majors is valued as much as the engineering professor who lands a million-dollar research grant.

    That pretty well sums it up.

  39. Speed:
    It is a thought provoking piece. Did you catch the statement about “hidden” assessments on what students learn between freshman and senior year?

  40. If you really would like to know how academia thinks and works, may I suggest that you attend University Senate meetings at a nearby university? See it for yourself. Some of the comments (guesses?) hit the outer rim of the dart board, which is not bad as outsiders, just to be candid. I think some of you probably would be surprised to find out faculty share the same concerns and values with you.

    Bernie and Mr. Richard Smith,

    Many chemistry departments use the American Chemistry Society standardized tests as their final exams for general and organic chemistry classes! Standardized tests would make instructors’ job easier, and they are welcomed, especially among instructors of low-leveled science and math classes. Though I wonder how they could make teachers more effective, minimize the number of ill-prepared high school graduates, improve students’ work ethics, the cost of college education, etc.

    They worry that it will upend the essential nature of a university, where the Milton scholar who teaches a senior seminar to five English majors is valued as much as the engineering professor who lands a million-dollar research grant.

    Valued nearly the same? Please check out the considerable salary disparity between them! ^_^

  41. JH:
    What type of test is it? To what extent does it cover “higher level” skills as they might be manifest in the study of inorganic Chemistry?

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