The close economic similarities between the business and university sectors are often obscured by the fact that university faculties are dense with critics of capitalism. Further, enterprises that operate in the not-for-profit form are supposed to have motivations fundamentally different from those of for-profit enterprises, to justify their tax exemptions. But how realistic is that?
The American university sector is distinctive in being largely private in structure and even more so in behavior; in contrast, almost all foreign universities are public. Even our state universities compete vigorously with one another and with private universities; moreover, increasingly they are only quasi-public. For example, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—Illinois's flagship public university—receives only 30 percent of its funding from the state.
What "not for profit" means in the university world is simply that a university's surplus of revenue over expenses does not go to shareholders but is instead added to endowment or invested in new projects, much as at a for-profit firm that doesn't pay dividends. Not-for-profit enterprises often compete just as fiercely as business firms do. Consider the universities' competition for students. It might seem that a profit-maximizing university would simply charge the highest tuition the market would bear and then admit anyone willing to pay it. Actually that would not be profit-maximizing. Faculty members would have to be paid more to teach slow students; and for students the market value of higher education depends significantly on the quality of their peers—as a signal of worth to potential employers and because students learn from one another and make valuable contacts for the future.
To increase the perceived quality of the education and the prestige of the institution (things valued by alumni and other potential donors, and by grantors of research contracts), universities compete to attract professorial stars. The result is a great variance in faculty salaries both among and within universities—indeed, often within departments. One thing the stars negotiate for is a reduced teaching load. The slack is picked up by poorly paid graduate students and by non-tenure-track adjuncts with low salaries and no fringe benefits. Some of the stars do little teaching, and some do little research as well, instead moonlighting as "public intellectuals" commenting in the popular media on the events of the day. This commentary is often uninformed, so one might think that a university would fear damage to its trademark; but most universities treasure their celebrity academics. Celebrity advertises the university. And students go to college not merely to learn but also to have a good time. The celebrity professor is an entertainer (though purists will question the appropriateness of tax exemptions for universities that double as entertainment companies).
The ways in which universities make themselves attractive to students include soft majors, student evaluations of teachers, giving students a governance role, and eliminating required courses. Sky-high tuitions have caused universities to regard their students as customers rather than as kids requiring an intellectual hazing. Just as business firms sometimes collude to lessen the rigors of competition, universities collude to minimize the cost to them of the athletes whom they recruit in order to stimulate alumni donations—so the best athletes now often bypass higher education in order to obtain salaries earlier from professional teams. And until they were stopped by the antitrust authorities, the Ivy League schools colluded to limit competition for the best students, by agreeing not to award scholarships on the basis of merit rather than purely of need—much as if business firms agreed not to give discounts to their best customers.
Major universities have become multi-hundred-million-dollar enterprises, and they behave accordingly and are managed accordingly. Gone are the days when a university president was a retired scholar of note. Now presidents are former provosts, and provosts are former deans—a promotion ladder that conforms to the norms of bureaucratic rationality.
The professionalization of the university is part of a broader trend, one first spotted by the German sociologist Max Weber, toward bringing an ever greater range of human activities under the direction of rational principles. Almost everything nowadays is "rationalized," in Weber's sense of the word—businesslike, rule-bound, disenchanted. The loss of enchantment—of idealistic, romantic, charismatic, or otherwise "primitive" or unrealistic methods of coordinating human endeavors—is the source of incessant diatribes against the university's loss of soul.
The loss is real, but we should not overlook the gains, which include wider access to higher education, the dismantling of many discriminatory and archaic practices, and increased breadth and sophistication in many fields of research. The university sector has modernized; but modernity comes with a price.