- To Save Academe1
In 1996, a relatively unknown associate professor of comparative literature at the Université de Montréal caused a stir by publishing a book that showed how colleges and universities are run more like businesses or corporations than educational institutions. Widely read and cited, Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins (1996) was an indictment of corporate practices in academia. It announced that business values were supplanting academic values in the administration of universities—and laid the groundwork for a chorus of increasingly dystopian voices decrying the political and economic future of higher education.
Readings’ book was highly influential and convinced many scholars whose primary area of research was not higher education to start thinking and writing about the corporate conditions of academe. Over the course a dozen years following Readings’ publication, many other fine accounts of the corporate logic of the contemporary university were published, including CUNY sociologist Stanley Aronowitz’s The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning (2001), former Harvard President Derek Bok’s Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education (2003), freelance journalist and New America Foundation fellow Jennifer Washburn’s University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education (2005), and more recently, Ohio State University English professor Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (2008). Derek Bok reports how he received “one proposition after another to exchange some piece or product of Harvard for money—often, [End Page 281] quite substantial sums of money” (2009, 46). Donoghue boldly predicts that while “professors have only been around for the last eighty years” (2008, xi), they may not as a profession see the next eighty. Each study strengthened the growing chorus that higher education in America had made a change for the worse.
Nevertheless, the group of studies on the university published this year takes a different tone: less nihilistic and more hopeful. While there remains the obligatory rehearsal of the evils of the growing corporatization of the university—one finds a noticeably improved prognosis. Two years ago (prior to the economic collapse), Frank Donoghue proclaimed in The Last Professors, “I offer nothing in the way of uplifting solutions to the problems that I describe” (xi). With so many academics now underemployed and unemployed, and so many students strapped with debt and finding fewer employment opportunities, academics now seem ready to get down to problem solving rather than simply bemoaning the changes in academic culture. Though the financial hurricane of 2008 may not have destroyed the corporate practices of universities, the house of higher education is still standing but tenuously as these new studies show, and is desperately in need of reform.
Follow the Money
In their highly readable, provocative book Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It, Queens College political science professor Andrew Hacker and New York Times journalist Claudia Dreifus respond to the most pressing question for college students and their parents: are higher-ed students getting what they pay for? Hacker and Dreifus articulately and painfully list convincing reasons to believe that our nation’s 2.6 million freshman and their families are being swindled. However, they also identify institutions that are worth the investment. In the process, their study balances the excesses of higher education with an account of its best practices, keeping the interests of students and their parents as their focus.
The interrogative in the book’s title refers to the authors’ discomfort that “over half of all undergraduates now enroll in vocational training programs, which range from standbys like nursing and engineering to new arrivals like resort management and fashion merchandising” (3). For Hacker and Dreifus, these programs do not qualify for inclusion in an institution of higher learning. “While we’re sure something is imparted in these classes,” write Hacker and Dreifus, “we’re not comfortable calling it education” (3). Rather, for them, “college should be a cultural journey, an intellectual expedition, a voyage of confronting new ideas and information, together expanding and deepening our understanding of ourselves and the world” (3). Vocational, technical, and professional...