Wednesday, November 16, 2011

CSU & Trends in Higher Education

Given the excellent discussion of Benjamin Ginsberg’s recent book in the previous blog post from Nov. 8, I thought I would offer some further food for thought to put the changes that are going on at CSU in broader context. In discussing changes within universities in the U.S., one writer noted that people frequently discuss “the high necessity of a businesslike organization and control of the university, its equipment, personnel and routine. What is had in mind in this insistence on an efficient system is that these corporations of learning shall set their affairs in order after the pattern of a well-conducted business concern. In this view the university is conceived as a business house dealing in merchantable knowledge, placed under the governing hand of a captain of erudition, whose office it is to turn the means in hand to account in the largest feasible output. … Under this rule the academic staff becomes a body of graded subalterns, who share confidence of the chief in varying degrees, but who no decisive voice in the policy or the conduct of affairs of the concern in whose pay they are held. The faculty is conceived as a body of employees, hired to render certain services and turn out certain scheduled vendible results.”

When reading this passage, I was struck by how closely it fit with the emphasis on the “business/corporate model” that seems to have been adopted at CSU – we certainly hear references to creating a more “efficient system” when many of the recent changes at CSU are discussed (such as the attempts to reorganize the College of Arts & Sciences, etc.). Many faculty at CSU can also likely relate to the experience of being “a body of graded subalterns.”

What struck me even more, though, was that the observation of this trend was not remotely new, unlike the newer trends discussed by Ginsberg in his book. The above passage is from Thorstein Veblen’s book The Higher Learning In America: A Memorandum On the Conduct of Universities By Business Men, which he wrote in 1918. That Veblen noticed this trend in 1918 and developed a strong critique of it is pretty remarkable, I though. It suggests that many of the problems we are seeing at CSU are not at all unique to CSU and are not anything particularly new.

I suppose that the question this raises is if the attempts to transform universities to follow a “business/corporate model” are nothing new, then what does that suggest to those of us who want to resist these changes right now? For this, I don’t have any answers, but perhaps it starts by affirming what we, as faculty, think that the purpose of a university is and CSU’s purpose in particular.

Veblen certainly had an idea about this in 1918. He starts his book with a discussion of “The Place of the University in Modern Life.” His argument is the following: “The conservation and advancement of the higher learning involves two lines of work, distinct but closely bound together: (a) scientific and scholarly inquiry, and (b) the instruction of students. The former of these is primary and indispensable. It is this work of intellectual enterprise that gives its character to the university and marks it off from the lower schools. … University teaching, having a particular and special purpose -- the pursuit of knowledge -- it has also a particular and special character, such as to differentiate it from other teaching and at the same time leave it relatively ineffective for other purposes. Its aim is to equip the student for the work of inquiry, not to give him facility in that conduct of affairs that turns such knowledge to ‘practical account.’”

Perhaps these ideas are worth thinking about in preparation for President Watson’s “Faculty Forum” that will be held tomorrow in the Breakey Theatre at 12:30.

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