Thursday, September 3, 2015

A transition in university values: from scholarship to money to status

It is hard to make meaningful or reliable generalisations about social trends in a complex world. But, I do want to try. In particular, I would like to suggest that the values that drive university decisions [e.g. about hiring, promotions, and allocation of resources] has shifted in the last twenty years. Here are some potted historical observations, based largely on Australian and US universities.

The scholarship era (roughly before the 1960s).
People were hired and promoted largely based on letters of reference that evaluated the scholarly contributions of the individual. The emphasis was on quality not quantity.
Student tuition was either affordable (in the USA) or non-existent (in Australia).
Most administrators were faculty (many on secondment, i.e. temporary) with distinguished scholarly records. The disparity between faculty and senior administrator salaries was small.
Departments across the university had roughly equal influence and status. In particular, the humanities [history, literature, philosophy....] were respected and valued.
The only people getting grants were those who really needed them and it was easy to get them. Research groups were small.

The money era (roughly the 70s to 90s)
This coincided with the rise of MBAs and neoliberalism.
The number of "research universities" dramatically increased. Higher education became "massified" and a "sector" in the economy. Australian universities received significant income from international students. Departments fought each other for EFTSUs [Effective Full Time Student Units] because that determined departmental income. The best curriculum for students [e.g. engineering students taking physics courses or chemistry students taking mathematics courses] became of tangential importance. In the USA the total funding income of an individual had a significant effect on hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions. Publication rates and total "outputs" became important.
Administration became a [highly paid] career trajectory. Faculty became a minority among the university employees.
The internal influence of the humanities declined because they did not bring much money into the university. Science and engineering had much more clout.

The status era (the 21st century)
This coincided with a rise in metrics, rankings, and luxury journals.
All grants are no longer equal. Getting a grant is difficult and so just getting one is important for your "status" and career, even if you don't really need it, or if the dollar amount is relatively small. Furthermore, some grants have a higher status than others, particularly those with low success rates. In Australia a Future Fellowship helps you get promoted and in the USA an NSF CAREER award helps you get tenure. It is not just the money. It is the status.
The humanities have regained some status and influence because their faculty can win prizes, publish books with Oxford and Cambridge UP, or win "prestigious" fellowships.
I think basic science has also increased its influence and status.
[Personally, my career struggled in Australia in the 90s and took off after 2000 and I think this is largely due to an environmental transition not my own merits. My grant income or scientific output did not change significantly during this time].
"High profile" faculty may not "pay their way" in terms of grant or student income, but they are perceived (arguably wrongly) to help climb the rankings. Faculty who teach large numbers of students [which generates significant income] or get large $ industrial grants are appreciated less. Letters of reference play a much less influential role. Sometimes they are not even called for or if they are they may not even be read.

I freely acknowledge that scholarship, money, and status are not completely decoupled from one another. But, the question is which is the dominant value.

What do you think? Are these reasonable historical observations?

5 comments:

  1. Ross, I think this is a good overall summary of how we got to where we are.
    I would quibble slightly with your comment at the end that industrial funding is appreciated less than other funding. At least in my environment, industrial funding is respected and highly desirable, in part because the amount of money it is possible to generate in this way can be large compared to government sources. But my view on this is probably biased by being at an institution that is very engineering-centric.

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    1. David,
      Thanks for the helpful comment. I agree that I over-stated the case. Certainly in some environments, such as yours, the claim is not valid. However, one reason I wrote this post was because I was recently quite surprised that I encountered some situations where my claim was true.

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  2. Your summary corresponds to my experience.

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  3. I don't disagree, but I think it's important to recognize that a core of idealism lingers in the faculty: some people still devote their lives to uncynical values, and most faculty still have a deep (though often hidden) respect for the Academy. We have always been at war with the philistines; only the battleground changes.

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    1. Jess,
      Thanks for the comment. I agree completely that many faculty, including myself, still have high scholastic ideals. We should not give up on these values either and succumb to the pressure from our environments.

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