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  • The University and the Global Knowledge Society by David John Frank and John W. Meyer
  • Joshua Kim
The University and the Global Knowledge Society
by David John Frank and John W. Meyer
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020. PP. 200.
Paperback, $29.95, ISBN 978-0-6912-0205-1.

2020 was not a good year for the university. In a 10/19/20 letter to leaders of Congress, the president of the American Council on Education (ACE) Ted Mitchell writes that “American higher education faces an existential crisis.”1 The letter details the pandemic’s impact on colleges and universities, relating that the combination of lost revenues and additional expenses has resulted in massive losses for institutions. Asking for $120 billion in federal support, ACE points out that US higher education serves over 25 million learners and employs over 3.8 million faculty and staff. As Mitchell points out, this makes the higher education industry larger than “the accommodation and airline industries combined.”

Readers of The University and the Global Knowledge Society will be unsurprised by ACE's claims about the university”s scale and centrality. For Frank and Meyer, the university’s growth should be central in any narrative of the formation of our modern and hyper-modern (post-1990) society. The global university has supplanted (or co-opted) many of the modern (post-1800) institutional sources of status and authority. Through the authors’ lens, [End Page 275] the hyper-modern university is the key actor in constructing our contemporary knowledge society. Education has even encroached on, or supplanted, the role of religious faith in explaining “the fundamental nature of being by interpreting local facts in light of transcendent truths” (3). Nowadays, when we think of the university, we often think of the many existential crises that the sector now faces. These crises include the pandemic-driven economic devastation that is resulting in wide-spread university layoffs and potential institutional closures. Before the pandemic, the university was living through the twin crises of public disinvestment and demographic headwinds, resulting in declining demand when tuition-revenues are increasingly essential to balance budgets.

In The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich, Carnevale and co-authors lay out the crisis of concentrated wealth and growing inequality across universities. These authors point out that two-thirds of selective private institutions have reduced the share of students they admit from the families in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution over the past three decades. At the most selective colleges, 60 percent of students come from the most affluent families. This concentration of privilege is taken to its farthest extreme at “Ivy Plus” colleges (the eight members of the Ivy league plus Duke, MIT, the University of Chicago, and Stanford). At these schools, close to one-in-six students are the children of parents in the top one percent of the income distribution. The offspring of the most affluent parents, with incomes over $2.2 million annually (placing them in one-tenth of one percent), are 117 times more likely to attend these most elite universities than are those whose parents are in the bottom fifth of the income distribution.

The authors of The University and the Global Knowledge Society acknowledge that the vast majority of the scholarship on higher education focuses on the differences between institutions, rather than understanding the university as either a unified idea or a singular institutional force. For Frank and Meyer, what is most interesting about the university is not the challenges that it may face (funding, demographic, etc.) or the stratification across its constituents, but instead the entirety of its global trajectory. Indeed, when we step back and view the university as a unified (or universal) entity, rather than a fractured ecosystem, its rise is astounding. The authors cite a 2015 study that counted 23,887 postsecondary institutions worldwide, [End Page 276] with over 60 percent of these colleges and universities located outside North America and Europe. Compare this figure to the baseline of approximately 190 universities that were in existence between 1500 and 1800. This growth in the number of colleges and universities has been accompanied, or perhaps driven by the global...


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