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Saturday, March 04, 2006

Universities as Companies

John Tierney of the NYT has written another op-ed about university tenure, thinking that perhaps it should be abolished:

If newspapers were run like this, by committees of tenured journalists unconcerned with circulation and ad revenue, we wouldn't spend much time trying to improve the weather map or the news summaries or movie listings. We'd all be too busy writing 27-part series to be submitted for peer review by the Pulitzer board.

He makes that sound as if it were a bad thing.  I don't think newspapers' comparative advantage vs. other media is, anymore, the weather map or movie listings.  (When's the last time you looked at newspaper movie listings when a net-connected PC was nearby?)  It is likely not even news summaries.  We might actually know more about our world if journalists had tenure and were free to pursue stories wherever they led, without fear of financial repercussion.  Indeed, that's why some newspapers (NYT included) have an idea of a church-state wall between editorial and publishing -- to insulate the journalists from market-based incentives from angry advertisers that would overwhelm market-based incentives from "angry" subscribers who insist upon truthful news and agenda-setting.

The idea behind a profession -- law, medicine, journalism -- is that it exists as something other than simply a raw market-responding entity.  There are ideals associated with it, and members of the profession are to see those ideals as influencing their behavior independently of market forces (while also having good arguments about what those ideals should be).

If newspapers were to grant tenure to journalists, they might be less responsive to market demands and therefore less profitable.  Think USA Today vs. anything else.  Universities don't have to grant tenure -- indeed, those who think of market analyses beyond all others might presume that existing tenure-holders would have no particular reason to grant tenure to others, unless it were to entice scholars whose work and reputation would somehow rub off on their own.  You'd think these same market analyzers would apply market theory to Tierney's complaint here:

After a while, as we hired more reporters like ourselves, we'd be surprised when outsiders complained. We'd be as genuinely puzzled as the Harvard professors who wrote to me after I mentioned an issue that arose under Summers: the complaint that the history department didn't offer a traditional survey course on the American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution.

The letter writers defended the history department as being more student-friendly than other departments, which may well be true. They noted, correctly, that there are courses in various departments and programs dealing with the American Revolution and the Constitution. But those are not the nuts-and-bolts survey courses traditionalists want.

Sounds to me like the traditionalists want to see a university teach a particular subject independent of the market demand for it.  (Even places with tenure -- perhaps especially such places -- know that if they don't develop certain fields to meet student demand, those students will go elsewhere.)  That's a fine instinct -- I think there's a great debate to be had about what ought to be in a core curriculum without simply allowing "the market" to sort it out through the wishes of 17-year-olds and their parents.

What the traditionalist instinct suggests is that a university is greater than the sum of its parts.  There exist vocational schools, and the cash-and-carry model of school as business can thrive.  So why do liberal arts schools still maintain not only reputations as good places to learn about quantum computing or esoteric Shakespeare (what Tierney might think of as "self-indulgent" offerings by tenured professors), but also places where people who want to be journalists would attend?  I think it's because there's a world out there beyond the raw vocational skills needed for one's next phase of life, and because there is a benefit -- an incredible privilege -- to have a number of years to view the world according to one's intellectual curiosity, seeking and building truth for truth's sake, and learning to know it when one sees it.

I'd love to know of good links or sources to those who offer a defense of the University as a place of truth-seeking, .edu separate from and complementing .com, rather than as a poorly-run business that inexplicably still succeeds in markets.

Posted by jz on March 4, 2006 at 05:28 AM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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I'm glad that Jonathan has picked up this conversation; usually, it's the medievalists who sit around thinking about "the university." Here's one reference for you: The Idea of the University, written by Jaroslav Pelikan (a medievalist) a decade ago in anticipation of Yale's 300th birthday.

Tierney himself went to Yale, of course.

Posted by: Mike Madison | Mar 5, 2006 3:58:40 PM

Interesting post, but one sentence doesn't seem to make sense to me:

You write: "Even places with tenure -- perhaps especially such places -- know that if they don't develop certain fields to meet student demand, those students will go elsewhere"

But isn't that exactly what's happened at Harvard, and one of the things that Summers got in trouble for. There has been an enormous shift in choice of major towards fields like economics and the sciences. Part of this has to do with economic pressures, but if you look at, say, the economics curriculum, it is remarkably knowledge-based -- students have to complete basic microeconomic, macroeconomics, statistics etc. -- and features comparatively few "esoteric" courses. The number of majors in traditional areas like romance languages, english and history has been dwindling, and part of this has to be that those that define these departments have not done much to make them relevant or exciting to students. Summers proposed shifting resources towards departemtns like economics because (among other reasons) there was a market demand among students for them. And Professors in other departements flipped out, because he wasn't deferring to their traditional hiring perrogatives.

Posted by: JustaThought | Mar 4, 2006 11:49:14 AM

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