- Media U: How the Need to Win Audiences Has Shaped Higher Education by Mark Garrett Cooper and John Marx
As I write, my colleagues and I—faculty in an English department at a large, land-grant public research university—look anxiously toward next year's undergraduate enrollments. As is true elsewhere, we have seen sharp declines in the number of English majors since 2008, even as our recently launched film studies BA, housed in English, has grown. At administrative meetings, we study often-conflicting data about English's shrinking market share and scan data visualizations from the Office of Planning and Budgets that track migrations of majors and minors across departments and colleges. We strategize with our college's marketing team about a sexier website with better smartphone compatibility and plot a more flexible social media strategy that meets our students and potential public audiences where they are, on the platform de jour. We do all of this in the aftermath of a tragic scandal at Michigan State University that continues to capture significant international media attention, rattle the university's alumni donor base, and depress recruitment efforts at the graduate and undergraduate level. This is just one snapshot of what Mark Garrett Cooper and John Marx call "Media U." Despite how we "choose to define the university's lofty intellectual purpose or bemoan failures to achieve it," that institution's "real business and social function" is the work of "audience creation and management."1 This is not a new thing. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing. But it is a fact that university stakeholders often overlook, at our peril.
It is a rare pleasure to read a book that reveals so much, and in such novel ways, about an institution—the US research university—that [End Page 180] many of us inhabit and perhaps think we know well. Rarer still is a book that, by informing us about Media U's past and future, is poised to fundamentally alter its audience's relationship to it—or rather, its audiences, plural. As this bracing and erudite study makes clear, the university has been in the media-savvy business of managing proliferating audiences for some time. Media U examines the history of the US research university as a media institution—one centrally involved in the work of information, which Cooper and Marx define as the process of disseminating communicable knowledge by which publics and populations are informed and thus "arranged in relation to each other."2 The university's primary goal, they argue, is "neither to produce nor curate knowledge but to connect people" through "feats of mediation."3
This, the authors insist, is less a project of Enlightenment, Bildung, or the cultivation of some common fund of knowledge and culture than a managerial process endemic to bureaucracy. Media U management works by deploying the "organizational form" of the research university to bind audiences into groups, to level social distinctions (ideally), and (paradoxically) to create new social hierarchies in the process.4 Some readers may object to the seeming infiltration of a corporate language of bureaucratic management that Cooper and Marx embrace unflinchingly. They would be wrong. "Lest we forget," they observe, "universities were corporations under the law before businesses were," and hand-wringing about the businesslike traits of universities is at least as old as Thorstein Veblen, not a symptom of contemporary neoliberalism or "the university in ruins."5 Indeed, Adorno and Horkheimer were on to something when they joined the operations of the university and Hollywood as "equally distasteful varieties of 'management.'"6 The US research university, Cooper and Marx show, has long existed in a competitive media environment, vying for the attention of audiences that have to be produced, then managed and transformed through different techniques of address and mediation.
Cooper and Marx's story begins with "the development of a distinctly organized higher-education sector in the United States" between the 1880s and 1920s.7 The book...