Friday, November 9, 2018

Some hypotheses about universities

In the next month, I have been asked to give a talk and to write an article about universities in two different forums. What are universities for? How do they promote human flourishing?

Before I get too carried away I thought I would float a few ideas/claims/hypotheses that will be central to my argument that there needs to be a greater debate about fundamental issues and about the history of universities.

Some of the claims are interconnected.
In future posts, I may expand on some of these claims.

Universities are currently having a crisis of identity, mission, and purpose.

This crisis arises because there is a multitude of competing and conflicting visions from a range of "stakeholders".

This crisis and the degree of conflict is far greater and deeper than those faced by other institutions: government, schools, hospitals, business, charities, ...

Over time universities have been one of the most successful human institutions for promoting human flourishing (broadly defined) in many different ways: training leaders, science that produces useful technology, enriching cultural life, ...

Universities are a victim of their success.
Their current struggles follow the natural evolution of successful and growing organisations. 
Success increases the size, complexity, and cost of the organisation. Success also attracts "hangers on" who want a piece of the action: money, power, and social status. They do not have the same vision as the founders and first few generations of builders of the organisation. Their focus is more on their own agenda and interests than on the "common good" that the organisation originally sought to serve. This is a large part of the origin of the competing and conflicting visions.
Success also leads to the iron triangle of cost, access, and quality.

Here I expand on the first few claims.

Universities are currently having a crisis of identity, mission, and purpose.
I have written about this before. I think it is nicely illustrated by the diverse voices that claim this.

Universities on the Defensive 
Hunter Rawlings, a former President of Cornell, and currently the President of the Association of American Universities, a consortium of 60 of the leading North American universities.

The Slow Death of the University
Terry Eagleton, a distinguished literary critic, former Oxford Professor, and Marxist.

Higher Education is Drowning in BS,
by Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame.

The crisis is not just about research universities in Western countries but also smaller teaching institutions and large state universities in the Majority World. Last year I was involved in a range of consultations run by a global NGO, identifying big issues in universities, and it was surprising how often this question, ``What is a university for?" came up.

This crisis arises because there is a multitude of competing and conflicting visions from a diverse range of "stakeholders".
The latter includes faculty, administrators, students, parents, alumni, future employers, politicians, taxpayers, funding agencies, donors, ...
The conflicting visions include neoliberalism, job training, a finishing school for the privileged, nation building, sectarian religious, social critique, scholarship, social transformation....

This crisis and the degree of conflict is far greater and deeper than those faced by other institutions.
One might argue that many public institutions (government, schools, hospitals, business, charities, ...) are currently in turmoil. However, most of these conflicts are about funding, governance, internal codes of conduct, and how to respond to rapid social and technological change. They are not conflicts about the primary purpose of the institution. One might also claim that as societies have become more multi-cultural, more politically divided, and complex this crisis just reflects, the many competing voices in the public square at large.
However, I would contend that universities are one of the most contested public institutions in society today. There are comparable debates about funding and access to health care. However, everyone agrees on the mission of hospitals: to help cure sick people. There is little debate about the goal, about the methodologies, or about the relative importance of different sub-fields of medicine. In contrast, in universities, there is significant contention about what the actual primary mission is and of the relative importance of different academic disciplines. No one proposes a large hospital without a pathology or oncology department. However, there are people who think humanities now have little to contribute to universities.

What do you think?
Which of my claims do you disagree with?


  1. Ross, I agree with your characterization of the complexities of this question. A key challenge seems to me that universities are "multi-mission" organizations. For example, at my state-funded technically-oriented institution, some key goals include:
    - train undergraduate students to be successful in their future careers
    - perform world-class research and technology development
    - drive economic development in our state

    There are of course examples where these goals are synergistic, but also examples where they are not necessarily aligned with each other. And I am sure that others would add more goals to the list above as key aims for their institutions.

    This multi-mission reality makes a university more complex than, say, a hospital or a business (although those organizations also face significant mission challenges in terms of considering new areas, dividing resources etc.). Rather than comparing universities to those organizations, it is perhaps better to compare to a government - another clear example of a multi-mission organization where separate groups of people have strong and different opinions about what should be done and how it should be done.

  2. The "Universities on the Defensive" article is quite thought-provoking, even if in a somewhat negative sense.

    I wonder if the other countries are trying to emulate the American university system precisely *because* the universities are now becoming quite profitable multifaceted businesses, and not because of the virtues attributed in the article to the traditional American universities. For example, German system is quite successful in terms of research/education, however it relies on a large spending by the government, which a lot of governments nowadays wouldn't even consider. On the other hand, profitable businesses, university or not, seem to be always welcome.

    Second thought is about the justification of fundamental research by possible applications. While this is certainly a valid point, I think it gives a false impression that in the end of the day fundamental research is ultimately valued by its applications. I think that not enough emphasis is made on that the fundamental research could/should be actually evaluated by its impact on expanding and deepening the knowledge available to humanity, as well as creating relations/connections between different pieces within it. This, to my mind, is a (somewhat loose) criterion which seems, however, much more natural for a fundamental research instituition then the (somewhat unpredictable) possibility of future practical applications. And as the principle goals set for an institution would definetely affect its fate in a big way, I think it is important to be precise in these kind of statements.

  3. Humanities is required. However it should be analytical in comments. For example B Ginsburg had this to say in his book " Fall of the faculty"

    "Ginsberg lays at administrators’ feet a host of perceived ills: the increased curricular focus on vocational education instead of one grounded in the liberal arts; an emphasis on learning outside the classroom in lieu of core academic disciplines; the transformation of research from an instrument of social good and contributor to human knowledge to an institutional revenue stream; and the limiting of tenure and academic freedom.

    The larger result, he argues, is that universities have shifted their resources and attention away from teaching and research in order to feed a cadre of administrators who, he says, do little to advance the central mission of universities and serve chiefly to inflate their own sense of importance by increasing the number of people who report to them. "Armies of staffers pose a threat by their very existence," he wrote. "They may seem harmless enough at their tiresome meetings but if they fall into the wrong hands, deanlets can become instruments of administrative imperialism and academic destruction"

    There was Scott Walker Governor Of Wisconsin ( now defeated) , who just along with the administrators sacked several academics.
    Here is the full article below. The article says " The End of research in Wisconsin"
    UOW madison is a good univ with a enviable track record.

    This is where P Ginsbirg premise comes into play. He being a social scientist ( humanities) and has rightly said that the faculty has no power. Thirty years back even in science and engineering faculty profs were powerful in terms of productivity and decision making. Now it is in the hands of deans, deanlets etcetra, who can easily be pressurised by policy makers like Scott Walker to do the damage. Faculty Profs must have say in promotion issues, tenure funds, infrastructure etc. This is the reason humanities academics with critical thinking
    like B Ginsburg are required.

  4. A university is a
    - place where basic, big-question, long-term impact research should thrive. Universities nowadays are sadly too preoccupied with 'right-now' results.
    - place where open standards and open-source methodologies can and should thrive.
    - safe space where truth is ultimately pursued. Too many PhDs nowadays are just specific number-crunching.