restricted access Universities As If Students Mattered: Social Science on the Creative Edge (review)
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Reviewed by
Jon Scanzoni. Universities As If Students Mattered: Social Science on the Creative Edge. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005. 288 pp. Paper: $29.95. ISBN 0-74254567-9.

Universities As If Students Mattered calls for the social sciences to adopt a more innovative mission and posture that will elevate undergraduate education from its rigid and anachronistic paradigm to one that is inquiry (discovery)-based and that relies more on action research than basic research. While not sentimental in tone, the book does reflect Scanzoni's passion for renewal (both self and society) and his hope that others will enlist in his social science brigade to forge the next iteration of postsecondary educational excellence.

One of the book's strengths is a historical summary of the reformation of the social sciences and its impact on higher education. Scanzoni documents the adversarial relationship between higher education and public officials across different eras, thus allowing the reader to analyze fluctuating patterns. However, the simplistic belief that current politicians view higher education as just another bothersome interest group masks the more complex arrangements of the last two decades emerging from the changing economy, college costs, declining/growing enrollments, partisan politics, etc.

Social scientists can be catalogued in various ways; and although I found Scanzoni's conceptual demarcations of them intriguing, his ideas would have been better supported by concrete examples. How is the notion of a social scientist as an entrepreneur versus a credentialer similar or different in disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, or political science? The author is on target when he identifies certain research-extensive universities as entrepreneurial, but this overemphasis fails to note that the University of Michigan also has a national reputation as a center for teaching and learning excellence.

Even the most scholarly writers can occasionally be seduced and comprised by their passion. For example, in the preface, Scanzoni asserts that this book "points the finger of blame at no one" nor does it accuse any "particular set of persons of being responsible for whatever (if anything) ails higher education." While this claim might be true in a legal sense, his assertion is not supported by semantic validity. Entrepreneurial professors are not hustlers, and institutions that strive to move upward in the Carnegie classification shouldn't be referred to as wannabes. Both aspersions were repeated throughout the book (p. 110).

Unsubstantiated generalizations should never be used as a literary tool or as a platform for scholarly innovation. Among Scanzoni's more inexplicable statements are:

  1. 1. Academic leaders are "oblivious to the historical mission of the social sciences" (p. 10).

  2. 2. Public officials can ignore social science because "it possesses no track record of research that works" (p. 50).

  3. 3. "Basic research has its own major downside, namely irrelevance—no one pays any attention to it" (p. 47).

  4. 4. "The emergence of the academic and commercial communities that were once quite distinct from one another have now become virtually indistinguishable" (p. 39).

  5. 5. Service-learning programs are "well intentioned but wrongheaded" (p. 180).

Unfortunately, the author offers no evidence, formal or informal, for such beliefs—he just states them.

Scanzoni frequently cites the important impact of Ernest Boyer on much of his thinking about transforming teaching and undergraduate education. [End Page 319] He competently and clearly discusses Boyer's conceptual and pedagogical positions. In later chapters, he incorporates this analysis into his own phase-development model for the social sciences. Unfortunately, this concrete exercise is counterbalanced by his almost dogmatic acceptance of short quotations of genuine higher education icons (Clara Lovett, Mark Yudoff, James Duderstadt, etc.) as justification for various contentions that demand more expansive explanations.

He uses a 2004 report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education to support his assertion that public officials and business leaders believe there is an absence of data concerning postsecondary lower-order learning. What should be said, then, of the enormous amount of data that has been gathered at many colleges and universities as part of undergraduate and graduate program review, the assessment of general education outcomes, and the evidence provided by senior capstone courses? Scanzoni does not address this bounty.

In Chapter 5...