University, Inc.

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."

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