The University in Ruins

SOME time ago a colleague of mine at a prestigious research university showed me a draft of a mission statement drawn up by senior faculty members. It said that "curiosity driven" research was outmoded, and a far more exciting challenge lay before us: to put our skills to work in the service of government and industry. As a faculty member, I recoiled. Since when had the public interest been encompassed by government and industry alone? And what about those past disasters (the waste and radiation hazards associated with the nuclear program, for example) produced when big business, big government, and big science colluded too closely?

But in retrospect I appreciate the honesty of that mission statement. It signals that a revolution is afoot in higher education. It bluntly says that those who pay the piper (corporations and governments) will surely call the tune. The relevance of universities is on the line. And a recent flood of books, commentaries, and reports all depict the university as a deeply troubled institution.

On the surface that claim sounds dubious. Prestigious institutions are winding up billion-dollar fundraising campaigns, and star professors move from one university franchise to another at ever-increasing salaries. Tuitions have been rising above the rate of inflation for years, while the demand for higher education continues strong.
There are problems, of course. A substantial amount of the teaching is now done by grossly exploited graduate assistants or temporary instructors. Public financing has not kept up, and scientists cannot feed so easily at the federal trough now that the Cold War is over. The cost of higher education has been increasing rapidly, particularly in research institutions, where equipment and labs absorb millions in the competitive chase to produce cutting-edge research. And relying on student tuitions has its price: universities have to market themselves competitively and deal with students as consumers who noisily claim their rights.

Universities now operate in a much more Darwinian world, where the fit survive and others flounder. Tenure is under threat, bothersome rankings and performance indicators are becoming common, and new university structures are arising to provide professional qualifications at very low cost. But nothing is going on here that has not already gone on in government and business. The shake-out should prove healthy, the argument goes, and bring us a sleeker delivery of higher-education services to match market needs. A dose of private-sector logic will surely help. And to the extent that everyone lives in this kind of world, why should the university be any different?

Internal resentments and resistance abound, of course. Complaints about excessive administrative powers and burdens, "corporatization" and "proletarianization," are everywhere heard. And difficulties attach to applying corporate logic when the "product" is something as undefined as "an educated student" and when there's a modicum of significance to the distinctions between getting an education and getting a qualification, between thinking and mere information processing, between producing knowledge and consuming it. Higher education for what and for whom? And why even bother? It is on this last point that much of Bill Readings's challenging book turns, setting The University in Ruins interestingly apart from comparable writings in recent years.

READINGS (who taught comparative literature at the Université de Montréal) argues compellingly that the university has outlived its purpose -- a purpose defined two centuries ago, when the nation-state and the modern notion of culture came together to make the university the guardian of national culture. In Europe it helped to solidify national cultures, gave "reason to the common life of a people," and fused "past tradition and future ambition into a unified field of culture." The university embodied an ideal. In the United States the mission was parallel. But here it was to deliver on a promise -- to create tradition, found mythologies, and form a "republican" subject who could combine rationality and sentiment and exercise judgment within a system of consensual democratic governance. The university was where elite citizens went to be socialized and educated.

But globalization of culture as well as of economies, the rise of transnational powers, and the consequent "hollowing out" of the nation-state have undermined this traditional role. So what, Readings asks, "is the point of the University, if we realize that we are no longer to strive to realize a national identity, be it an ethnic essence or a republican will?" What happens when the culture the university was meant to preserve goes global and transnational along with everything else?
This is an intriguing argument. And even if (as I believe) it is only half right, it helps to explain much. From this perspective, for example, Readings is wonderfully insightful on the "culture wars" that have wracked universities and bewildered the public for two decades. Attacks on "the canon" of dead white males signaled the end of the university as a guardian of universal truths and values. Conservatives were right to worry that multiculturalism meant an end to the university as we knew it, but hopelessly nostalgic in their prescriptions. Multiculturalists, by "lending primacy to the cultural," also missed "the fact that culture no longer matters to the powers that be in advanced capitalism -- whether those powers are transnational corporations or depoliticized, unipolar nation-states." Much of the current debate consequently "misses the point, because it fails to think of the University in a transnational framework, preferring to busy itself with either nostalgia or denunciation -- most often with an admixture of the two."

So what is actually going on? How are we to understand the perpetuation of the university as an institution? Readings carefully constructs his answer: The university is now "an autonomous bureaucratic corporation" responsive to the idea that what really matters in today's world is "economic management" rather than "cultural conflict." It no longer cares about values, specific ideologies, or even such mundane matters as learning how to think. It is simply a market for the production, exchange, and consumption of useful information -- useful, that is, to corporations, governments, and their prospective employees.

With devastating skill Readings takes apart the rhetoric of "excellence" with which universities cover the emptiness at their core. Rankings (like those in U.S. News & World Report) measure it, and internal budgets focus on it. And the joy of excellence is that we all agree about it. Its invocation "overcomes the problem of the question of value across disciplines, since excellence is the common denominator of good research in all fields," while all manner of multicultural diversities can be accepted as equally excellent.

The trouble is that excellence is meaningless when it comes to key decisions (for example, to close a classics department and open up a multicultural-studies program). "So to say that excellence is a criterion is to say absolutely nothing other than that the committee will not reveal the criteria used to judge applications." Those criteria, it turns out, lie elsewhere. The pursuit of excellence allows the university "to understand itself solely in terms of the structure of corporate administration." A key slippage then occurs, as the quite proper demand that the university be accountable gets translated into the reductionist idea that everything is simply a matter of accounting.

This is a striking insight. But Readings could have pushed it further. Money is now the measure of all things, and a crude cost-benefit logic pervades administrative decisions. University presidents pontificate about excellence while the bean counters in the back rooms call the shots. The traditional university culture, with its odd sense of community, has been penetrated, disrupted, and reconfigured by raw money power.

I recall an incident some years ago when my own department was rumored to be "in trouble" with the dean. We prepared voluminous documentation to prove how excellent we were. The dean said that he had never questioned our excellence but was interested in only one thing, and it was "colored green." We were not, apparently, earning enough of it to justify our existence.

The effects of such logic are devastating. The hidden hand of the market distributes resources and rewards so as to ensure a proliferating freedom of market choices in higher education while denying the capacity to explore alternative values. Money discipline undercuts the freedoms of research and speech promised by tenure and threatens to be worse than McCarthyism in its effects on independent scholarship and critical thought. And it is far more insidious: there is no overt source of oppression to be identified and resisted. Even university presidents are caught within the logic, forced to raise more and more money or economize on costs by whatever means to meet the escalating financial needs of teaching and research.

This is what aligns the university with the economistic logic of contemporary capitalism, converting knowledge into information and students into consumers, and transforming the ability to think into a capacity for information processing. It constructs a kind of market in which we are free to choose about issues that, like culture, no longer matter.

I DO depart from Readings's diagnosis in some respects. His conception of globalization is too simplistic. Although the nation-state's role is changing, it is nowhere near as hollowed-out as he claims. New territorial commitments, to locality and region, are emerging, within which the university may be an invaluable economic and cultural leader (think of Quebec and Catalonia). Readings sees the bitter tension between national (or even local, ethnic, or regionalist) commitments and the forces of transnational and cultural globalization too one-sidedly. Furthermore, the modern research university is driven by science, engineering, medicine, and technology. Readings's claim that the problems arising in these sectors are broadly parallel to those in the humanities is hard to swallow.

If he got that wrong, it casts doubt on the metaphor of the university as a ruin. Readings likes the metaphor not only because it clearly signals the end of the traditional university but also because ruins contain some niches of unpredictability in which the human "addiction" to thinking may perhaps flourish. The university can then be viewed as a potential model space in which a new kind of "dissensual community" might form -- a ruined edifice within whose cracks many different flowers can bloom.

But if the university is bowing more and more to corporate values -- if it is also a centerpiece for the knowledge-based industries so essential to economic competitiveness -- then it appears more like a modern-day behemoth than a gentle ruin. The university is a battleground where accountability has indeed been coopted into accounting -- where empty chatter about excellence evades fundamental questions of values while disguising narrow and brutal conceptions of cost and benefit. It is a battleground where the professionalization of disciplines remains closely guarded, even though that makes no sense in relation to many of the pressing issues we now face, such as global rights and systems of governance and worldwide environmental degradation.

Something plainly has to give, and the powers that be -- corporations, governments, wealthy donors, and even parents -- broadly know that the university must be reformed. Their overt interventions in curricula and research grow more transparent by the day. The fear of ruinous "tuition wars" in which the more well-endowed universities use their resources to lower tuitions is everywhere apparent (the competition is essentially hidden these days under the category "financial-aid packages"). But beyond this we also see a vast struggle unfolding over appropriate knowledge structures for the twenty-first century. How can we think, Readings asks, in "an institution whose development tends to make Thought more and more difficult, less and less necessary?" What the transnationals and the international bureaucrats and even the foundations need and want to know is not necessarily all that the public needs or wants to know.

Who decides is a key question. Readings offers a call to arms to those of us who live and work in universities as well as to those on the outside -- a call to better understand our position in a changing world, to come out of our professional shells, stop pining for a lost world, and actively seek to construct something different. Change, he insists, "comes neither from within nor from without, but from the difficult space ... where one is."

Readings invites a conversation on these matters. Sadly, his voice has been silenced. He died in an air disaster shortly before this book was published. So I give him the last word, a fitting epitaph drawn from a remarkable contribution.
Energies directed exclusively toward University reform risk blinding us to the dimensions of the task that faces us -- in the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences -- the task of rethinking the categories that have governed intellectual life for over two hundred years.

David Harvey is a professor of geography at Johns Hopkins University and the author of (1996).
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1998; University, Inc.; Volume 282, No. 4; pages 112-116.