‘What Are Universities For?’ reviewed by Jay Starr

What Are Universities For?

Penguin, London and New York, 2012. 240pp., £9.99 pb
ISBN 9781846144820

Reviewed by Jay Starr

About the reviewer

Jay Starr is a Philadelphia lawyer and former corporate executive. He is former Chairman of the …


Stefan Collini’s What Are Universities For? joins a long list of serious books among the jeremiads about universities today. Of particular interest are Collini’s defense of the humanities, and his excellent discussion of the business analogy in university administration. Both issues are much debated and contested in America. Collini devotes much discussion to the Browne Report, and by extension to government bureaucrats and their enthusiasms (the Research Assessment Exercises, for example). The inescapable take-away is that UK universities are extensions of the national government. American universities (excluding the military academies) are either within the purview of a particular state among our fifty (State universities), or they are private (Private universities). Alumni, large donors and boards are the authorities to which administrations must answer.

The diversity of size and financial strength among American universities defies generalization. Private and State universities comprise a fragmented but recognized pecking order among 1899 four-year institutions (excluding for-profit corporate credential factories). Of those, 648 are public (State universities and accredited community colleges); 1251 are private. My undergraduate school, the University of Pennsylvania, has an endowment of $7.7 billion. My law school, the University of Michigan, has an endowment of $8.4 billion. My late father’s university (he was a long-serving dean) has an endowment of $116 million. I teach part-time at a small regional college with an endowment of $10 million. I was also chairman of a small, though distinguished sectarian college with an endowment of less than $5 million. It is fatuous to compare resources and capacities given these differences.

Penn is one of the eight Ivy League universities. In the era of radio, Penn versus Cornell (American) football was a Thanksgiving Day event. Today in the only game that really matters – published national rankings – the Ivy League is still top seeded. Six of the top ten ranked universities are Ivy League – Princeton (1), Harvard (2), Yale (3), Columbia (4), Penn (7) and Dartmouth (10). Brown (14) and Cornell (16) follow closely. Rankings and accompanying data are touted by the publishers to help families make an informed decision among an array of college choices, although there are as many limits on the prospective student (grades, test scores, financial capacity) as there are colleges to choose among. Despite the intrinsic subjectivity of the ranking process, the perceived competitive pressures terrorize university administrators. Rankings reflect our national enthusiasm for counting, measuring and comparing everything. The American addiction to statistical authority finds its fetishized celebration in the idea that the corporate model is the acme of rationality.

Collini rightly devotes much discussion to the business model. The pressure on university administrators to present a corporatist structure to boards, donors and accreditation panels is unrelenting. It demands constant change and adaptation to the business theories of the moment. The imperative of efficiency is always the highest value. Most university boards are filled with successful business types and lawyers, who hold a shared conviction that corporate tools apply to any organized action within the social order, including higher education. Accreditation continues to pivot from traditional areas of evaluation, such as library resources, to insistence on centralization of internal controls, instruction and communications. Administrators now function as managers of a complex enterprise consolidating multiple constituencies with sophisticated software, hence the demand for specialists and support staff. The history of the business analogy is derived from a particularly American undercurrent of ideological conviction. Collini’s description is accurate but does not explain why the business model is so insistently advocated, although largely inimical to intellectual work.

Efficiency is an industrial concept: the organization of production to produce more in less time with fewer workers in order to increase profit. It also is the point of management theory. Management theory is built on a foundation of class-based prejudices etched into an utilitarian ideology of “best practices”, a phrase which subsumes both efficiency and unrelenting change. It took hold in late 19th nineteenth century America, following on huge industrial empires built by individual entrepreneurs. The strategy of vertical integration—ownership of every step of production from beginning to end—meant complexity, but tooth-and-claw competition demanded efficiency to realize profit, and thus to survival. Specialized management was required; a new managerial class came into being. The father of management theory is Frederick Winslow Taylor, prophet of “scientific management”.

At Bethlehem Steel, Taylor’s particular interest was pig iron, ninety-two pound bars of smelted iron ore used in making steel. Taylor calculated that workers were loading twelve and a half tons of bars per man per day. He decided there was a better, scientific way to increase the load. Taylor and his assistants—he called them his “college men”— selected ten workmen for a test. Taylor offered them double wages to load bars as fast as possible. With that incentive, the men loaded sixteen and a half tons in just under fourteen minutes. Then Taylor extrapolated: in a ten-hour day, a worker should be able to load seventy-five tons. However, even Taylor had to account for breaks, so he arbitrarily adjusted the goal down by 40%, to forty-seven and a half tons. The men were not amused: they were now tasked to load four and a half times their prior average at their regular pay. They raised enough ruckus that Taylor dropped them. He substituted a single worker, a Pennsylvania Dutchman credited by Taylor with the intelligence of an ox. Spurred by the promise of an increased wage from $1.15 a day to a whopping $1.85 a day, the Dutchman loaded just under forty-six tons during his ten-hour shift. Taylor’s methodology thus was confirmed, at least to Taylor.

Taylor’s idea of efficiency was to standardize time and motion to squeeze the most production possible out of every worker. Workers, he believed, could be managed as human machines, each a replaceable automaton applying the same actions as every other worker doing the same task. Taylor was adamant that scientific management was the domain of an educated, specially trained and elite class (of men) bred to be the brain power driving workers, who were seen strictly as muscle power. Managers were a distinctive, privileged order, the heart of the new American middle class, the embodiment of economic success and meritocratic social status.

Universities embraced Taylor’s new science. In 1908, Harvard became the first university to offer a master’s degree in business. Its first-year curriculum was based largely on Taylor’s principles. Indeed, from 1909 to 1914, Taylor lectured there annually to enthusiastic reception. Harvard was apparently untroubled by the fact that Bethlehem Steel had fired Taylor and abandoned his system in 1901. Taylor always had many critics, who pointed out that little about scientific management was scientific: Taylor’s adjustments over time actually ranged from 20% to a startling 225%, contradicting his claim to have eliminated variability from process. In fact, Taylor’s results proved incapable of being reproduced.

Taylorism may be considered an eccentric moment, but it remains the ghost in the machine of business theory, pushed in every subsequent generation in different incarnations, but always celebrating the centrality of managers. Correspondingly, university administrators have increased in numbers, while faculty has declined. Over the last forty years, the number of full­time faculty at Private universities has grown by 50%, roughly congruent with increases in student enrollment, but the number of administrators has risen by 85%, and the number of staffers added to support the administrators has increased an inconceivable 240%. It is unsurprising, then, when neoliberalism in the 1970s began its long march toward transformation of social relations into an economic order, 67% of university faculty were tenured or on tenure-track. Today, 70% or more of undergraduate instruction is conducted by teaching assistants and adjuncts. Is it perverse that classroom teaching, possibly the single point of greatest influence on undergraduates, is the work of temps? Not for the business model.

Whether the structural changes to university culture are, as Collini argues, obstacles to thinking, writing and teaching by faculty is irrelevant. When he writes “the changes that have transformed the landscape of higher education in the past couple of decades have not principally been changes in scholarship and science themselves, but changes in the ways universities are administered, financed, and overseen by their host societies”, he is surely correct but misses the point. The business model embodies the organizational requirements considered necessary to function in a market economy: labor discipline, cost containment and protection of property. Despite the absence of a profit motive, the business model in higher education retains the principles but as transformed categories. Use of adjuncts converts essential labor into a variable cost combined with easy access to a reserve army of the unemployed (or precariously employed) readily available for hire. Short-term contracts for untenured faculty, limits on tenure prospects and cutbacks in departments deemed irrelevant to the economic order follow on. Finally, the distinction between faculty as independent scholars and faculty as employees, always difficult, is increasingly problematic. Changing definitions of acceptable private action, and consequent limits on academic freedom, protect property—the university brand—by implicitly discouraging controversy and private action in the commons.

The idea of academic freedom is an important but hardly immutable exception to the corporatist notion of employment at will. Statements by the American Association of University Professors, starting with the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, have been so often amended, restated or equivocally drafted as to be largely unhelpful. The principal administrative response has been the codification of disciplinary procedures. Today, administrative action against faculty is a procedural nightmare, during which the faculty member wanders in a maze of committee appearances, hearings and appeals while in professional limbo. The complexity and uncertainty of the process, along with the cost of lawyers, is an institutional big stick: a deterrent to faculty pressing for relief, and an incentive to settle quietly, if only to protect what remains of one’s career. Essentially, the process has become a tool of labor discipline and institutional self-protection, in which administration risks little and the professor risks everything.

The history of American universities since the last years of the nineteenth century is as dismaying as it is successful. It has bred enormous internal contradictions that shine particularly brightly when our society, our institutions and our social arrangements are being radically reshaped. The often-expressed mission of the university to prepare students to engage with society as informed and responsible citizens in a democracy is giving way to a pernicious demand for “relevance”. In popular understanding, this means credentialing students to get a job, to be good consumers and to be placid placeholders in a corporatized, market-based social order. It is no wonder that the humanities are in crisis: the long-wave of anti-intellectualism in American life has never had much truck with art or literature; business has no need of them.

Collini is particularly good on the intellectual work of faculty in the humanities and the slippery concept of relevance. Unquestionably, the university as an institution is not pristine, or even privileged; institutional reality and ideals are often disconnected, and a diploma is no reliable mark of education. But Collini makes his case that universities are the principal conservators of cultural memory; that there is intrinsic value in the preservation, expansion and organization of knowledge for its own sake, needing no utilitarian justification. His case has legs for the long haul: the store of human knowledge—changeable, interpreted, reinterpreted, popularized, reified—is, in fact, the collective project of the human species and a basic criterion of social thriving.

What, then, are universities for? They are for many things, mutable over time, but they are essentially the lockbox of humankind’s story, in all its diversity and complexity. Collini makes this argument with a solid grasp both of history and present contradictions. His essay on John Henry Newman is apposite. The business model, the pressures on the humanities, the self-absorption of administrators, the foolishness of faculty and the indifference of most students are with us for the long haul. At least this suggests that universities, too, will be with us. Maybe asking what are universities for is the wrong question. Perhaps the right question is: what would we do, what would we be, without them? That, I think, is actually the question, unstated but implicit, on nearly every page of Professor Collini’s worthwhile endeavor.

9 July 2014

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