What should universities do?

The new semester is here so it’s time for me to figure out what the hell I’m supposed to be doing in the weird world of modern American university life. Roughly speaking, the answer is going to be “do the stuff that professors do to help universities do what universities do.” So what do universities do? What are they supposed to do?

Universities occupy a few different niches in society. I’m usually tempted to think of universities like a business. And in that framework, I justify my salary by providing something of value to those students. At my school, something like 90% of the operating budget comes out of students’ pockets.

But that’s an overly narrow view. Students pay to go to school because they expect they’ll get value from it, but they also go to school because them’s the rules–if you want to enter adult society, university is the front gate. In this framework, I justify my salary by serving as a gatekeeper. Even though it’s students paying, the (nebulous) principal I’m obliged to is the collection of people already inside the walls.

But wait! There’s more! Universities are (in no particular order):

  • A repository of knowledge,
  • A generator of new knowledge,
  • A place people go to learn,
  • A place people go to prove themselves,
  • A place people make friends and have fun (in a way that may be hard to replicate),
  • A business (engaging in mutually beneficial exchange),
  • A special interest group,
  • An institution that holds a particular (privileged) position in a wider cultural landscape.

Any one of these functions is a can of worms in its own right. When we start to consider tradeoffs between each function (and the many less visible functions I’ve surely missed), it gets downright intractable. I’m going to focus on the student-focused aspects of university life.

The mainstream view:

University is a place students get educated. This education helps them get jobs because employers value it. Students might also learn things that help them be better citizens.

The mainstream view doesn’t seem far off from what I’ve got in mind until you get your hands dirty and start disentangling what that view says. Here are three big problems inherent in that mainstream view:

  1. The education-for-job myth.
  2. The definition problem.
  3. The one-size-fits-all problem.

The Job-training myth

We’re told that students go to school to learn valuable skills. I think that’s true, but not in the usual way. Any specific skills students learn in school are a) incredibly general, or b) out of date. My students might learn some interesting ways of looking at the world (general knowledge), but a lot of what I teach is completely useless in the workforce (“Johnson, draw me a demand curve, stat!”). But students do learn valuable skills incidentally. They learn to manage their time (ideally), how to be conscientious, and in general they’re socialized so that they can fit in with adult society.

Lately I’ve been thinking of college as a form of upfront consulting. Instead of going to school when you’ve got a specific problem to solve, go when you’re young and have nothing better to do. Since you’re getting the consulting before you know what sort of problems you’ll face in the future, we couldn’t possibly give you exactly the right bundle of knowledge.

College exposes students to lots of different ideas that might combine in unexpected ways. Your class in underwater basket weaving might seem like a waste of time until some day 30 years later you are trying to solve some problem that turns out to make a lot more sense if you think of it like wet wicker (I’m looking at you civil engineers!).

Some of what I (and my colleagues) do helps prepare students for their careers, but mostly I’m trying to help them be better–better thinkers, better able to understand and appreciate, better able to enjoy life.

The definition problem

The word “Education” means a lot of things to a lot of people. More often than not, people use the word without being clear about what they mean. Often it means “job training.” Sometimes it means “enlightening.” Other times it means “making you agree with me.” In practice, it means surviving enough classes that you get a piece of paper indicating as much.

It should be recognized as a vague and nebulous word instead of being pigeonholed. It isn’t a binary state (I was ignorant, now I’m educated). It’s helpful to think of people as being more or less educated, but the state of your education isn’t something we can really objectively compare to my state of education.

There are lots of important but nebulous things in our lives: health, happiness, moral worth. Their vagueness makes them difficult, but it isn’t going away.

It isn’t hard to convince people that education is nebulous, but it is hard to get people to behave as though they really understand that.

Homogenization and commodification

Once people start thinking of education as some objective thing we can pull off a shelf and give to someone, we run into the real problems. This unexamined view leads to bureaucracies that attempt to standardize and commodify education.

Don’t get me wrong, I get why people would try to do this. We want everyone to get education (and moral training, and good health, and…). And as long as we’re worried about that, we’re going to worry about making sure everyone gets the best education possible. But “the best” gives the false impression that there’s one right answer.

A top-down approach isn’t the right way to achieve the goal of widespread education. Attempting to systematically scale up education provision kills the goose that lays the golden eggs. We should fight against attempts to commodify university (which currently happens via accreditation-as-gateway-to-subsidy and the general expansion of bureaucracy through administration).

So what should universities do?

There are different margins on which we can justify our existence, but it’s not obvious how to balance our tasks: teaching, researching, advocating, etc.. Given the high degree of uncertainty, I’d argue for pluralism… different schools (and professors) should be trying different things. As universities adapt to the future, it’s important that they don’t all try to adapt in the same way at the same time.

I think a big part of the problem is that we’ve been too successful at rent seeking. All money/privilege/goodies comes with strings attached, and more money comes with more strings. We’re always going to get a little tangled up in those strings, but in the last couple generations we’ve hamstrung ourselves. Accreditation and assessment have become the most important things a modern university does, which distracts from our more fundamental goals.

A bottom up approach doesn’t mean less education, just different education. A more modest education system would change the mix of costs and benefits faced by stakeholders. Employers might rely less on degree signalling, which means hiring managers and potential employees exercising more judgement in sending and evaluating quality signals. I don’t know exactly what would happen, but flexibility is valuable for the nebulous goals universities are supposed to be pursuing.

But at the moment we seem to be in an equilibrium. Students are expected to go to school, schools are expected to deliver on promises they can’t really fulfill, and we go through the motions of keeping schools accountable in a way that basically misses the point.

So what will I do this semester? I’m going to keep talking about interesting stuff to students. I’m going to keep working towards getting tenure. But I’m also going to quietly subvert attempts to commodify university.

 

2 thoughts on “What should universities do?

  1. I think universities need to be considered within a larger set of organizations involved with ‘education’. I’m a university professor, naturally enough, my primary focus has been universities. North American universities more specifically since living and travelling outside the US has sown me that educational systems have a lot of variation globally. The reason I bring this up is because variation in organizations allows for a division of labor that helps deal with the complex tangle you’ve described.

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