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.