October 18, 2010

The Corporatization of Academe

After a brief hiatus, your servants at Little Green Blog are returning to reconsider Dartmouth in her broader context. Many of the issues that face the College are reflected in the faces of university trustees, administrators, faculty members and students across the nation.

Too often we become ideologically ensconced, with doctrine serving as a perceptual screen intended to filter information. To the extent that we connect new information to our ideology, we either accept it or throw it out. Such a division over perceived party lines makes us rigid and stale. In considering how to address the challenges of the next decade, we must free ourselves from the confines of old entrenchments and sample good ideas from across the ideological spectrum.

In the process, though, we would do well to not ignore the guiding lights of history. Understanding whence we've come can inform whither we go. Today, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an interesting piece by Marvin Lazerson, a professor at Central European University and former professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania. In it, Lazerson eloquently guides the reader through the history of higher education in America, putting academe's current challenges in a concise but apt context.

Like the automobile and housing industries, Lazerson argues, the academic industry has marketed itself into the American dream. As demand exploded, so did the cost of attendance. As universities increasingly saw themselves as providers of a valuable service, their leaders became more market-oriented in their governance. The lessons learned after the the dot-com bubble burst were soon forgotten -- until history, infamously known for doing so, repeated itself. As Lazerson writes:

At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the automobile industry appeared to collapse, along with the housing market—two of the mainstays of success in America. [...] The higher-education industry has not collapsed, but it has faced complaints similar to those hurled at the automobile and housing industries: chastised for offering overpriced, poor-quality products and services; as inefficient and bureaucratic, unwilling to adapt to new markets, technologically backward, administratively bloated, uninterested in teaching, and more concerned with frills than the core product.
The complaints sound all too familiar. For the past decade, increasing choruses of disparagement have risen from factions of Dartmouth's faculty, alumni and students. These have largely been described as the wind in the sails of previous petition candidates for trustee. Yet as the first decade of the century spirals toward its end, has the competition between the keepers of the status quo and their increasingly vociferous critics served to better the College?

That is, my friends, the sixty-four dollar question. We cannot answer those questions in a single post, but intend this one to begin a conversation. Stay posted.

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