The American University: National Treasure or Endangered Species?

Edited by Ronald G. Ehrenberg
Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1997
170 pp., $24.95 hc

Susanne C. Monahan
Montana State University-Bozeman

The United States has the world's most extensive higher education system, a complex set of institutions including public and private community colleges, liberal arts colleges, comprehensive universities, and world-renowned research universities. Of these, research universities have the highest status: they attract the bulk of research money and the most prominent faculty, they pay the highest salaries (with the possible exception of unionized community colleges!), and they are at the forefront of discourse about the state and future of higher education.

Ask the question, "What is a university?" and its logical follow-up, "What should universities be doing?" and you will get an array of answers that depend in large part on the relationship between the respondent and the university. For example, many students think universities are places where they get credentials for the workforce. Some think universities are places where they learn, but define learning in utilitarian terms: students expect to learn that which they can immediately use at work. The wider public, including communities where universities are located and state legislatures that provide financial support, tend to view universities as social, cultural, and/or economic resources. Universities bring jobs to a community; they produce new knowledge that--if it's worth knowing, it seems--creates products and services for the marketplace; and they enhance quality of life by attracting speakers, writers, artists, and musicians. Although faculty are generally aware of these visions of the university, they do not always share them. William G. Bowen provides a summary of a university mission with which most faculty at least partly concur:

I am an avowed believer in the ancient mission of universities: to be centers of learning, where students and faculty learn from their predecessors while simultaneously testing new ideas; to be places where no orthodoxy holds sway; where freedom to dissent is respected as well as protected; where individuals are valued for who they are and what they can become; and finally, to be institutions that serve as powerful engines of opportunity and social mobility. (19)

The essays in The American University: National Treasure or Endangered Species address the feasibility of Bowen's vision of the university's mission. Written by prominent faculty members and administrators at major research universities, the essays address--with varying degrees of success--important questions about the mission of universities: How should we fund universities, and what are the consequences of different funding mechanisms? What should be the goals of undergraduate and graduate education, and how should those goals be pursued? What special responsibilities do universities have in a diverse society? And finally, what are the future prospects of the university and its major subdivisions: humanities, social sciences, and sciences?

Charles M. Vest (President, MIT) addresses the question of funding in research universities. He describes a fundamental shift in how universities are funded: although the American university system was built upon a science policy emanating from the executive branch of the Federal government, science policy is now largely dictated by the legislative branch (Congress). Vest argues that this shift matters because good science (i.e., meaningful scientific development) does not happen over the short-term; rather, it is a cumulative process that requires conscious focus, long-term investments, and patience. Federal science policy made by the executive branch mostly met these requirements; now, with policy largely dictated by Congress, petty political concerns and legislative upheaval results in short-sighted, unfocused, and impatient policy decisions. This, Vest argues, has undermined the basic mission and functioning of the world's pre-eminent university system.

That said, however, Vest moves onto a less insightful analysis how universities should respond. First, he suggests that universities should be more "efficient" and have higher "quality." He does not, however, offer concrete suggestions about how to do this. More importantly, he does not link changes in the environment of universities (e.g., changes in funding structures, increased regulation and monitoring, changes in the composition of the student body) with the efficiency and quality problems that universities face. Although Vest indicates early on that he knows the problem does not primarily rest inside the university, his recommendations suggest that universities can--on their own--solve these problems. That is perplexing. Second, he argues that universities should improve the "environment for learning" by addressing "a greater need for personalization" and "[the] breadth of social issues and student aspirations." How exactly do we do this while simultaneously saving money in the pursuit of efficiency? Vest doesn't say, except to recommend the broader use of "information technology." Policy-makers and techno-jocks spout recommendations based on the assumption of efficiency gains inherent in new information technologies. Is there evidence that technology is efficient and that efficiency does not come at the expense of quality?

The missions of undergraduate and graduate education are central to any discussion of the American university. Harold T. Shapiro's contribution, "Cognition, character, and culture in undergraduate education: Education, rhetoric, and reality," focuses on the goal of undergraduate education and is one of the volume's best. After sketching a brief history of the liberal arts from ancient Greece to the present, Shapiro discusses the place of the liberal arts in undergraduate education in the contemporary United States.

Shapiro argues that society and educational institutions constantly interact; schools, including universities, have always been reflections of the societies in which they were embedded. In the U.S., two rhetorics--informed by contemporary social conditions--dominate: first, the economic rhetoric of capitalism, and second, the political rhetoric of democracy. In general, we privilege the economic imperative for educating students at the college level. We see this in Federal policy about higher education (e.g., "retraining of workers," claims about economic mobility through higher education) as well as in our own students' understandings of why they are in college (e.g., to get a better job). Shapiro, however, forgoes the obligatory treatment of the economic imperative and instead focuses on the role of liberal arts education in a democratic polity. He makes a compelling argument that higher education should serve a "civic" (as opposed to strictly economic) purpose.

Shapiro reminds us that the liberal arts benefit democracy by illuminating our past and its relation to who we are today. This knowledge is not immediately useful on the job but is essential to the survival of democracy (e.g., the Civil Rights movement reminds us of why it is important to have social institutions, like churches, that are independent of the state). A liberal arts education also encourages us to challenge all sorts of authority and to open our minds to new possibilities that may enhance the human condition. I am often reminded of this struggle as I teach students things they do not want to know. Sometimes I remind them that if I taught them what they are already knew I would not be performing a very useful service to them or society. Nonetheless, resistance to new ideas is pervasive but can be overcome by the shift in perspective that comes with a comprehensive liberal arts education.

In sum, Shapiro suggests that a liberal arts education should develop:

The capacity to make moral and/or political choices...; an understanding of how the world works; the capacity to distinguish between logical and illogical arguments; understanding of the inevitability of diversity;...[the ability to] distinguish between self-interest and community interest, between sentimentality and careful thought, between learning and imagination, and between the power and limitations of knowledge. (90)

An educational program with such goals will not be immediately attractive to students who seek a high-paying job, but we endanger our democratic political order if we neglect these goals.

The discussion of graduate education, contributed by Marye Ann Fox, addresses the perennial question: what are we to do with all of those unemployed graduates of science programs? Although humanities, social science, and science degree holders are too often unemployed or underemployed, Fox's essay focuses chemistry degree-holders. She conducted an informal survey among chemists in industry (as opposed to academia) and found that they were fairly evenly split regarding the solution to this problem: half argued that we should train fewer scientists, while the other half argued that graduate programs should be redesigned so that graduates are more broadly employable.

Fox concludes that universities should develop dual tracks for graduate students: a traditional path of apprenticeship and independent research for those who wish to do academic science and a broader, interdisciplinary track for those headed to industry and another non-academic fields. As laudable as they are, Fox's recommendations assume an ideal world where faculty are willing to work with all students regardless of status and aspirations. It is doubtful that any program or university could successfully implement a dual-track system without fundamental and widespread changes in how we reward and promote scholars, and Fox offers no suggestions for how to make such changes.

Thus she, like Charles Vest, primarily offers platitudes--recommendations that cannot be implemented but appease state legislators, taxpayers, and other funders. Their approach is not surprising, however, because both Vest and Fox are university administrators whose jobs require careful negotiation between the university and its external constituents, many of whom are unfamiliar with the structure and operation of the university.

In addition to confused missions and uncertain funding, contemporary American universities are faced with a student body that is more diverse than ever in terms of race, ethnicity, economic class, and gender. This diversity is partly a product of shifts in the composition of American society; it is also, however, a result of universities finally being accessible to non-white, female, working- and lower-class citizens. William Bowen's essay addresses the responsibility of universities in a diverse society. In particular, how does the university balance the individual rights of students to compete for placement in a university with the collective benefit to the student body and society of a diverse student body?

Bowen suggests that admissions criteria at universities need to consider three factors. First, he would consider individual-level factors: test scores and high school grades, but also unusual talents and experiences and the applicant's potential to benefit from a university education. In the current debate about affirmative action in schools, even this stance is controversial. For example, the proponents of Proposition 219 in California would prefer that admission decisions be based solely on test scores and grades, because grades and test scores are the only objective criteria and therefore the only fair mechanism to assign students to highly competitive slots in elite universities. Bowen provides evidence to dispute this claim. For example, among Black students who were admitted to universities under affirmative action plans, grades and test scores did not predict who would do well and who would struggle. Thus, if admissions criteria are intended to select students who are likely to succeed at the university, then grades and test scores may not be the best indicators for these students.

Second, Bowen urges universities to consider how learning in a diverse environment benefits the whole student body, especially since the world students will be entering is quite diverse. And third, Bowen urges universities to consider how making a university education accessible to a diverse sample of the population benefits the whole society. Thus, Bowen moves beyond a model of competitive individualism where merit solely determines who comprises the university, and instead suggests a model that takes good of the university and the society it serves as seriously as individual factors. Universities, Bowen argues, are not just another resource over which individuals compete; rather, they are community resources that must balance fairness to individuals with responsiveness to the needs of the collective. In a society dominated by economic, individualistic, and competitive rhetorics, this stance is controversial. As a sociologist, however, I find it compelling.

The volume concludes with three essays that examine the prospects for the humanities, sciences, and social sciences, respectively. Hanna H. Gray's essay on the humanities is a loving treatise on the possibilities of humanistic studies. She acknowledges the problems facing the humanities: the struggle for relevance in an academy dominated by science, an anti-intellectual public dominated by concerns for "real problems in the real world," and the internal dilemmas created by constant flux and change in the composition, methods, and materials of the humanities. In the end, however, she is convinced that universities can and will support humanities, as long as they remain true to their core missions.

Neal Lane's essay on prospects for the sciences focuses on the myriad of ways in which the sciences could become more accountable and responsive to broader society: by demonstrating more clearly its relevance, by building interdisciplinary studies, by building connections to industry, and by taking more seriously the task of undergraduate education.

Urie Bronfenbrenner empirically demonstrates the relevance of the social sciences by sharing research findings on the causes and consequences of poverty among children. He effectively argues that social scientists have a responsibility to articulate the nature of social problems and to pursue, through rigorous research, solutions to those problems. The nature of the social beast makes this a complex and frustrating process, but it remains, he argues, a core purpose of universities in general and land grant universities in particular.

In general, I found the volume on the American university to be thought-provoking. It focuses attention on the organizational structure of the university, on the constraints created by wider society, and on the possibilities of the university. One should not read this volume passively, however. To get the most out of it, the reader has to work at assessing what has been said and left unsaid, at thinking through what is feasible and improbable, and at imagining--as these writers do--what the university can be.

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