In a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and Tom Juravich, director of the Labor Relations and Research Center at UMass-Amherst, made a compelling argument for why graduate student unions won’t damage academic freedom and collegiality on campus. “American higher education is in the process of a fundamental transformation,” they wrote. “Universities are becoming, to varying degrees, commercial institutions.” So, unions won’t turn ivory towers into factories because they’re factories already. That, in fact, is why they’re ripe for unionization. Lamentably, this may be true. Universities have become businesses, and unions are probably more the symptom of this state of affairs than the cause.
There are other symptoms of the trend, one of which was also the subject of a recent article in the Chronicle. “The bar for tenure,” says one reporter, “is rising at major research universities and teaching institutions alike. Most departments demand more published research—either articles or books, or both.” What’s more, the article notes that while teaching and public service once carried as much weight in tenure decisions as research and publishing, they don’t anymore. Professors live and die these days by the printed word and the name recognition it affords them. Good teaching doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Only reputation, prestige, pays in the commercial university.
Professors have been both the profiteers and the victims of this corruption of their profession. Some, like University of Illinois at Chicago dean Stanley Fish, are making a killing at it. Others, whose names, of course, won’t ring any bells, have faded anonymously away, with lost vocations in tow. What caused the ivory tower to become a snake pit?
“There’s a lot of research money out there,” says Colleen O’Brien, vice president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy. “It’s extremely competitive in terms of landing grants for your institution, be they federal, state, or corporate.” Hence the de-emphasis of teaching. It’s your research, your published work, that gets you grants, and grants, of course, enrich the university.
John Vaughn, of the Association of American Universities, agrees: “Prior to World War II, universities were pretty much self-contained in their support of teaching and research. There was minimal connection between the federal government and universities. Coming out of WW II, however, Sputnik sent a panic into the federal government. That was 1957 and that dovetailed with the GI Bill, which meant an extraordinary increase in enrollment. So both the need to increase our science capacity because of Sputnik and the need to produce more faculty because of the enrollment increase meant that from the late ’50s through the early ’70s there was a huge federal investment in university research and graduate fellowships. Over time it tilted the balance between teaching and research. Research capacity of an individual remains a very important aspect of getting tenure.”
That explains why research and publishing have come to matter so much to professors and university administrators. But then there’s the question of that other major source of any college or university’s revenue: tuition. How do research and publishing affect the public’s view of a university’s quality, and therefore, how do they affect a parent’s decision to spend his money there? Well, most parents and prospective matriculants judge schools by their rankings in places like U.S. News and World Report. Regarding this, Bob Morse, director of data research at the magazine, says, “We measure academic reputation by using surveys [of academic professionals], so if the basis for academic reputation is scholarly research, which it could be, then it could have an indirect effect on ranking.” It may be an indirect effect, but it’s a potentially substantial one, since, as Morse admits, “you get recognized not by getting ratings among your students, but by getting ratings among your peers. It’s the way the academic world works.”
In a market driven by reputation, and in a profession where reputation is determined by publication and fame, teaching is virtually beside the point. After all, it’s not good teaching that gets students ahead in life; it’s having the name of a hot school on their résumés. We’re all buying and selling image, not knowledge.