What Are Universities For?

Written by: Terry Link

Primary Source: Possibilitator

Stefan Collini, professor of Intellectual History and English Literature at Cambridge offers some considerations in his 2012 book of the same title. His erudite, yet conversational style made for a quick and enjoyable, yet thought provoking read. The last third of the book are previously written essays in response to major reports emanating from efforts to examine the state of higher education in Britain.

As he notes, this environment is even more accelerated in the U.S.  Among the thoughtful insights spread over 199 pages

…One of the most predictable places where pseudo-market guff comes in is the issue of ‘rewards’ for academics (as if they had just found lost treasure or an escaped criminal). HEFCE [Higher Education Funding Council for England] has already been on to this we are told, with its insistence that certain elements of the annual grant are tied to institutions having in place ‘human resources strategies’ which, above all, ‘reward good performance’: This process has successfully kick-started the modernization of human resource management in higher education.’ ‘Modernization’ is, of course, trademark NewLabourSpeak, here combined with the language of the personnel departments of commercial companies. What it essentially means is that, given a number of people doing roughly the same job, a way has to be found to pay some of them less than others. Otherwise, given the assumptions of market democracy, no one will have sufficient reason to try and do their best: they will only do this if they can see that it could earn them more money than their colleagues. ‘Modern’ here means using the market model. Result: endless procedures involving specious attempts to measure effort or effectiveness which have the net effect of being  divisive and demoralizing. On this point it is well worth recalling the moral confidence of what one historian has described as ‘one of the great state papers of this century’, the Robbins Report of 1963: ‘We believe any such disparity between the incomes and prospects of persons doing similar work in different universities, which are all in the receipt of public funds, to be unjust; and we consider its effects to be harmful.’

…It is another of the misplaced market assumptions of our time that giving a lot of money to a  few individuals at the top of an institution is what best contributes to the overall performance of that institution. In fact, in many activities morale, commitment, cooperation, and a sense of solidarity are far more precious, and they tend to be fostered by a system that uses only modestly differentiated pay scales. [pp.160-162]

When an artist creates a work with the emphasis on what will sell as opposed to what is in her heart, we generally find that the art is diminished, the beauty tarnished. Higher education in the past few decades has been so focused on ‘what sells’ that their product is at best blemished, at worst graduating people who will use their power for their own betterment and against the public good.

Perhaps nowhere is this more visible than in the heedless pursuit of wealth from investments. If you pursue the highest returning stock regardless of what that business is unleashing in the world, have you not sold your soul? I seem to remember a Biblical parable about that.

Higher education like, so much of the investment craze for narrow and quick profit (can you pronounce hedge funds), has unwittingly driven the consumption of much that is not for the public good. A serious discussion of what is the public good and what universities are for beyond making its graduates ‘profitable’ needs to take place. University reactions to the escalating threat of climate change and increasing inequality will speak volumes about the what their leadership believes universities are for.

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Terry Link
Terry Link is a retired MSU librarian, former founding director of the MSU Office of Campus Sustainability, and co-founder and former chair of the American Library Association’s Task Force on the Environment. He recently served as associate editor for the two-volume encyclopedia, Achieving Sustainability: Visions, Principles, and Practices(Gale/Cengage 2014). He has also served as executive director of a regional food bank and as a county commissioner. Currently he is president of Starting Now, LLC, a sustainability consulting firm, a Senior Fellow for the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development and serves on numerous non-profit organization boards.
Terry Link

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