The future of research universities – Potpourri – The Future of the City of Intellect

The future of research universities – Potpourri – The Future of the City of Intellect – Book Review

Harold Orlans

Forecasts commonly project known trends upon the unknown future. While those of contributors to The Future of the City of Intellect (Steven Brint, ed., Stanford, 2002) merit the credence of stock market forecasts, their assessments of recent trends at research universities are valuable.

Sociologist Randall Collins’s paper on credential inflation douses barkers of a “knowledge-based” society in refreshing cold water. In the early 1900s, he observes, high school degrees, held by less than 10 percent of the population, sufficed for managerial jobs and social respectability. Today, when over half of young people aspire to a college degree, its social and occupational value has declined.

Collins dismisses the idea that most higher degrees reflect job requirements. “Advanced computer skills are generally learned by teenage boys,” he writes; perhaps a fifth of high-tech employees are experts, the rest do routine work. Higher education, he insists, serves functions other than training: it reduces unemployment, and student loans and make-work represent “a hidden welfare system.” He can imagine a future in which janitors need PhDs, “virtually the entire population is on stipend in school,” and all work is done by robots.

Other contributors assume that the nation’s needs for knowledge drive increased enrollments and the proliferation of disciplines, courses, and specialized research. One cites Peter Drucker’s “conservative estimate” that 250,000 new students a year are needed to feed the gluttonous demand for “knowledge workers.” Nonetheless, by distinguishing the leadership of research universities from the followership of other higher educational institutions, their other contributors’ analyses resemble Collins’s distinction between an expert fifth and inexpert mass workforce. Not coincidentally, all contributors come from the “expert” sector.

Andrew Abbott forsees that, at most, 100 elite universities and colleges will provide traditional education in the humanities and social sciences, with the rest offering “off-the-shelf screen- and Net-based” courses aided by faculty paid by the course. The sciences, buoyed by government and industry money, may somehow escape this cheerless prospect.

In 1968, Christopher Jencks and David Riesman announced the triumph of professors at leading universities in The Academic Revolution. Richard Chait summarizes their view that senior faculty determined “curriculum, course content, selection of colleagues and senior administrators,…standards for admissions and graduation[,]…workloads, research agendas, and programmatic emphases.” What, Chait asks, is the present situation?

He sees only losses in professorial power. The proportion of full-time faculty has declined; the number in unions has risen; the professoriate has yielded power to individual entrepreneurial professors. Responding to public and business demands, boards have challenged faculty. Institutions “act more like businesses”: they sell logos, place ads on Web sites, establish for-profit subsidiaries, increase patenting activities, and cater to corporate research and training needs. The university as a cohesive institution has lost control to market forces.

Drawing upon studies of five European institutions that adapted well to business, government, and student pressures, Burton Clark retains faith in the university’s ability to control its destiny. Its prodigious knowledge disgorgement can be channeled by the conscious management of limited resources. A “steering core” of leading faculty and administrators can choose entrepreneurial opportunities and use them to sustain the humanistic “academic heartland.” (Similarly, Clark Kerr urges the election of representatives to act expeditiously on behalf of the faculty, and an ethics code on how faculty should act.) The university need not “passively accept a fate determined by others”; faculty and administrators can shape their future together.

Harold Orlans has conducted many studies of higher education and research policy for private and government bodies in Washington, DC. He retains the copyright for this column.

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