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Our Universities: How We Got Where We Are

[This essay, which has been written by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University), is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge--released January 2007.  For comments or questions please contact Ian Johnston. Note that this essay first appeared in Humanist Perspectives, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 2006/7)

On important occasions most colleges and universities, even very new ones, like to invoke ancient traditions by dressing the faculty in strange clothes with multi-colour capes, robes, and funny tasseled hats and having someone intone choice phrases in an ancient language hardly anyone understands any more.  These ceremonies, one assumes, are meant to remind everyone that the university is the only institution we have, other than the Roman Catholic Church and some native organizations, with roots in ancient times.  If that’s the purpose, then of course it’s something of a sham.  For almost all our universities are thoroughly modern institutions formed by a deliberate and decisive break with ancient traditions.

To understand the nature of this transformation, one needs to grasp the significance of at least three decisions which changed the relatively small traditional collegiate structure of the university into the huge modern multiversity or a smaller college anxious to achieve the status of its larger sibling.  These changes have made our universities enormously powerful institutions, essential components of our social and economic life.  They have also significantly affected for the worse the way we educate many of our young citizens.

Issue One: The Research Ethic

The first change is well known—the decision made about one hundred years ago to enshrine disciplinary research as the heart of the college enterprise, so that we might emulate the spectacular successes of the German universities in the nineteenth century.  What mattered now, above all other considerations, was advancing the causes of truth and of profitable new discoveries by hiring well-trained research specialists, giving them lots of time and resources to pursue independent research projects, and letting them take care of the education of undergraduates, particularly with an eye to the production of future researchers.

Since that time, especially in the last fifty years, the highest research degree, the PhD, increasingly has become the sine qua non qualification for almost all university faculty, and productivity in research and publication is now essential for promotion within the ranks.  Of course, universities have always paid lip service to their responsibilities for having good teachers, but in practice that alleged priority has almost always been more a rhetorical flourish than anything else.  What matters is the research qualification and research output. With these in place, one doesn’t really have to worry too much about basic teaching qualifications—for example, a sufficiently fluent command of English so that undergraduates can understand what the professor is saying.

Issue Two: The Departmental Structure

The second decision, which arises naturally out of the first, was to reorganize the university so that its key structural feature was the department consisting of faculty belonging to a single discipline, often narrowly defined, rather than a college composed of and run by a small number of faculty teaching a range of different subjects.  Departments make disciplinary specialization very easy to manage, because such units more or less administer themselves, making all the key decisions about hiring,  promotion, curriculum, equipment, and so on, subject only to the budget allocations determined by non-departmental administrators.  And once the elective system of courses was introduced, the curricular role of the departments was standardized in a model which required each department to develop a range of credit offerings, organize its courses in a sequence which would produce departmental specialists (majors, honours, and graduate programs), and then to compete with other departments for students.

This trend has turned the university into what can best be described as a Lego structure, something put together by assembling small, independent bricks and linking them in a mechanical aggregate (an important break with the more organic structure of the older institutions).  Since the departments are largely independent of each other, bricks can be quickly and easily added or removed as circumstance requires: new demands are met by creating a new brick, and redundant departments are removed without any significant effect on anyone else.  In such a structure, successful professorial work does not require any familiarity with what goes on outside the department or any vision of or concern for the university as a whole or for the student’s experience outside one’s departmental courses.  And the major task of middle and senior administrative life becomes adjudicating the competing demands of different departments for resources (a difficult and time-consuming task, hence the high salaries).   Such a model is also capable of infinite rapid expansion.  The huge modern multiversity would be inconceivable without it.

This structure, once in place, gradually eliminated the differences among colleges, and a standardized model emerged. No matter what university or college one visits in North America (with very rare exceptions), the structure remains the same: an institution organized on the principle of more or less autonomous departments in their own physical space, staffed with research experts who must regularly publish results of their work, and offering a curriculum consisting of a selection of departmental courses, each worth a certain number of credits.  The standards may vary, and there may be some minor differences in prerequisites and course combinations, but the basic arrangement remains the same.  So far as coping with the curricular organization is concerned, in North America few students or faculty have any difficulty in moving from one university or college to another.

Universities as Research Centres: Some Observations

The major effects of these decisions are well known.  Our universities have become the centres for an enormous amount of specialized research, often with amazingly successful results.  Important research discoveries have increasingly been made in university departments rather than in research and development centres elsewhere or by private citizens, and the major prizes for pioneering research (especially in medicine and science) are routinely awarded to university professors.  We look to our universities to provide the innovations which will keep our economy dynamic and position papers which will keep our leaders informed.

The emphasis on research has led, in many quarters, to a very effective partnership of the universities (who provide the research teams), the business community (which provides massive amounts of money), and the government (which provides money and facilities and, where necessary, appropriate legislation).  Whatever questions we used to raise forty years ago about the probity of these arrangements and their effects on what a university is or should be seem to have disappeared.  There was a time when people worried about the close connections between, say, the drug companies, federal legislators, and university postgraduate courses or between the Pentagon and various academic departments doing research on how to conduct the war in Vietnam or develop Star Wars, but we seem to have grown accustomed to such arrangements now.  After all, the learned pate has always ducked to the golden fool.  Interestingly enough, the phrase Academic Freedom, which originally was supposed to mean protection for faculty to pursue independent research and to speak out openly on public issues, has in recent decades as often as not come to mean protection from having to answer potentially embarrassing questions about sources of funding.  Hence, the once popular notion that the modern university will act as society’s disinterested conscience has become something of a joke.

The transformation of the university into the research engine for modern society did not happen all at once. It met considerable resistance, particularly in parts of Europe and Canada, where a much older tradition continued to insist on different priorities, and research qualifications and productivity were often not as essential a part of a university professor’s work.  But in recent years European leaders have recognized the economic cost of this tradition and, as a central part of their so-called Lisbon strategy to make the European economy the most competitive in the world, are promoting the Bologna process, an effort to streamline and standardize European universities so as to maximize their research output and their economic effectiveness.  Canada made that transition forty years ago.

For all the obvious benefits this transformation has brought, there are some equally obvious problems.  First is the enormously disproportionate amount of meretricious research, studies which make no significant contribution to the discipline or to the “search for truth,” whatever that means exactly, and which are read by hardly anyone, not even by those in the same discipline.  Since every professor is required to produce a steady stream of articles for publication in peer-reviewed journals, there has been a staggering proliferation of what is little more than academic busy work, much of it incomprehensible to anyone outside the immediate and often very narrow academic speciality.

Equally staggering is the cost.  If we remember that a university professor teaches for about six hours a week for six months of the year, with generous time off for research every few years, and that his position brings with it a healthy salary, research facilities, and enviable fringe benefits, then we can understand easily enough that we are, in effect, spending massive amounts of public money to subsidize intellectual mediocrity (to use the politest term available).  What is the total cost, I wonder, of those thousands and thousands of articles written by professors in education, literature, social science, history, and even science which disappear without a ripple.  What would happen if we directed that money elsewhere, for example, into undergraduate education?

The research imperative is responsible for some very odd results, too.  Outsiders are frequently astonished at the sheer drivel produced by some university researchers, especially those under the influence of the latest intellectual fad (like deconstructionism or the most fashionable psychobabble).  But in some disciplines the only way one can say anything apparently original is to find a new vocabulary to re-describe an old work or to redefine the subject to include something considered too insignificant to explore up to this point.  Unlike the sciences, where research tends to move in a much clearer direction and there is an important sense of immediate priorities, many literary scholars, for example, are always circling around the same texts, and how does one contribute something new about, say, Shakespeare or Dickens?  Well, one answer is to find a new theoretical framework and language, so that one can present old ideas in a new vocabulary.  As the fashions change, the language changes, and new possibilities for published articles arise.  But this is not progress, merely variety, trivial and short-lived intellectual play, as often as not characterized by a jargon incomprehensible to general readers (including undergraduates).  And the New History, which claims that all aspects of life are equally important historically, that, in effect, Mickey Mouse is just as vital a subject of study as World War Two, has opened up an infinite number of scholarly research possibilities from, say, courtship patterns among medieval Languedoc peasants to the invention of the cheeseburger in Louisville, Kentucky.

The issue here, let us be clear, is not whether or not such academic research is personally stimulating or intellectually demanding or a contribution to knowledge or whatever.  The issue is whether we should be spending massive amounts of public money earmarked for undergraduate education to subsidize it.  Is the result worth the cost?  I won’t explore an answer here, but whenever I have to listen to another lament from the universities about their lack of funding,  I’m tempted to remind the complainer that the greatest financial problem in our universities is the sheer waste of money spent on insignificant research and publication.  Why not try a “No-more-dollars-for-dreck” policy which supports the relatively few demonstrably excellent researchers to the hilt and insists that the rest of the money be spent in the classroom?

The Central Professional Myth of Faculty Culture

University faculty themselves are aware that most of what they produce as a group is without merit (how could they not be?), and since the vast majority of them cannot defend what they do by an appeal to its quality, they have come up with a frequently reiterated and almost universally shared justification.  Conventional research and publication, they assert, is essential to good teaching.  Unless a university professor is actively engaged in such scholarly activity, no matter what its value, she cannot be an effective instructor of undergraduates: she won’t be up-to-date, intellectually engaged in the discipline, mentally alive, or whatever.  This claim is enshrined in faculty handbooks and solemnly recited every time there’s a plea for more research time or money.

There’s only one problem: no one has managed to demonstrate that this claim has any validity.  All empirical studies into this issue over the last few decades (and there have been several) have come to the same conclusion: there is no demonstrable connection whatsoever between conventional research and publication and teaching quality.  And so what holds faculty culture together in the modern university is a myth, a wish-fulfilling assertion needed to justify light teaching loads and generous research funds.  Most faculty reject this unpleasant truth out of hand, and over the years I’ve been pointing it out, I have met with a good deal of abuse and outright denial, a reaction not unlike that of Caliban when he looked at his face in the mirror and was unhappy with what he saw. He smashed the mirror.

When you think about it, there’s more than a little irony in all this.  Research is apparently essential to good teaching, except research that indicates such a claim is unproven.  And given that the most important task facing almost all teachers of undergraduates is helping students learn to construct good arguments and to recognize shoddy ones, it is interesting, to say the least, that faculty culture rests on an argument so shoddy that it invites comparison with claims that something is true if anyone believes it or that creationism is just as scientifically valid as Darwinism.

In fact, university teaching is the only profession I am aware of where the extensive training and professional evaluation and promotion have nothing to do with one of the major requirements of the job.  It’s as if we hired and promoted our hockey coaches on the basis of their knowledge of the crystalline properties of ice or tensile characteristics of rubber or paid trial lawyers on the basis of their demonstrated expertise in some specialized area, like the history of Carthaginian maritime law, without regard to their courtroom performance.

What About the Undergraduates?

Not surprisingly, the most deleterious effects of this transformation of the university into a research factory are experienced by those undergraduates who have no intention of becoming academic researchers (and these people make up approximately 90 percent of the student population).  In many cases, they have to cope with enormous class sizes (an important way of keeping faculty teaching loads low), a bewildering range of options, increasing pressure to specialize, a lack of coordination between one course and another, and teachers who lack some of the most basic requirements for effective instruction.  Given that the vast majority of them have come to the university in order to prepare for a profession or to explore different career possibilities or to learn more about life, it’s not surprising that there is frequent tension between them and an environment defined by professors with very narrow research interests and a fragmented curriculum catering to faculty research priorities.

What’s been lost to a large extent in these developments is the sense of an undergraduate education as an important transition from youth to adulthood, a time to explore intellectual choices, to gather a more intelligent sense of one’s history, to read widely, without the constant pressure of a training in a specialized discipline to the exclusion of almost everything else, and to develop the social and academic skills necessary in professional life—something that used to be called (in what now sounds distinctly outdated) a general education as a preparation for citizenship.

The benefits of such a non-specialist education are widely recognized, but here again the tributes are often more empty rhetoric than principles which professors are eager to put into action.  Most degree programs have some breadth requirements, but these are minimal and dealt with early on (if they are adhered to at all).  The important direction is always increasing specialization, treating all students as if they are potential research colleagues.  So we routinely produce scientists with no knowledge of philosophy or politics or, for that matter, the history of science, business graduates lacking any intelligent sense of the importance of ethics, and Arts or Education graduates who squeal in fright at the very mention of science or mathematics.  And in almost all cases, none of these graduates will have been encouraged in their classes to acquire the general skills referred to above (in spite of repeated demands from employers for attention to these areas).

Where there are genuinely successful programs of general education, these tend to be confined to the first year (as in Arts I at UBC or King’s College Foundations program).  Curiously enough, although faculty have long acknowledged that these programs are extremely useful educationally and universities feature them prominently in their advertising as a mark of their excellence, such programs have had little effect on transforming the curriculum in the later years of undergraduate study, mainly because faculty teaching higher-level courses insist upon the prevailing specialist ethic.  Yes, there are some exceptions (like the Liberal Studies program at Malaspina University-College, an upper-division program of General Education based on the Great Books approach), but these are rare indeed.  Our curriculums are far more decisively shaped by what research-oriented faculty want to teach than by what students need to learn.

For that reason, the best known and most successful alternatives to the modern public university, like St. John’s College or Evergreen State College, are offered in institutions which began by rejecting specialist research qualifications and productivity and the conventional departmental structure and which insist upon a much more integrated curriculum in which instructors and students work together through a number of different disciplinary materials—an approach that is not so much interdisciplinary as non-disciplinary.  Such an alternative recognizes an important fact of university life: function (what happens in class) is a product of structure (how the place is organized).  For obvious reasons, any institution based on a conventional university structure will have great difficulty in creating and sustaining any significant alternative to the standard curriculum organized by independent departments.  Even if some faculty are keen to introduce such alternatives, the imperatives of their professional culture will quickly snuff out their attempts or render them ineffectual.

That, too, is the reason why so many attempts to reform the undergraduate curriculum, from the famous Harvard Red Book (1945) on, have been largely unsuccessful.  Since they fail to address the conventional structure of the institution, they amount to little more than minor tinkering—a new list of books, a new combination of first-year electives, a new breadth requirement, and so on.  As well intentioned as these often are, they leave untouched the features of faculty culture which create the problems they are trying address.  Ringing endorsements of lofty principles are no match for the entrenched realities of life in a specialized research department.

The Social Dimension

Of course, in assessing the value of an undergraduate education one needs to be careful not to overestimate the importance of what goes on in the classroom.  For no matter what the quality of teaching or the structure of the curriculum, the most valuable educational experiences have always tended to take place in the surrounding campus culture—in the fraternities, sports teams, debating societies, drama clubs, study groups, and so on, those places where young students have opportunities to socialize with each other.  There’s abundant evidence that in the traditional nineteenth century colleges, the teaching was often (perhaps even generally) extremely bad.  The value of the experience emerged from the way it gave students so much generous access to each other.  That’s just as true today.  It’s no accident that magazine polls which produce a ranking of the universities based on student responses routinely favour the smaller institutions.  And the high reputation of the elite private educational institutions in the United States has nothing to do with better facilities or more intelligent teachers and everything to do with the ways in which these colleges encourage or require students to interact outside the classroom in all sorts of ways.

That point is worth emphasizing because in recent years the surrounding campus culture in the public colleges and universities has withered considerably.  Various factors, including the need to work to meet the rising costs of postsecondary education, the increasing numbers of mature students with outside responsibilities, the rise in part-time students, the pressure to take extra courses or achieve higher grades, and so on, have significantly decreased the number of students who have the leisure time to sample the wider cultural possibilities of campus life.  Thus, the social experience of going to university is being increasingly defined by what goes on in the classroom, a forum not usually set up to encourage any conversation which is not firmly controlled by the all-powerful professor at the front.

One sign of this trend is the increasing concern about various problems on campus—drugs, alcohol, suicide, sexual aggression, and so on.  It’s not hard to link these to some extent with the stress and bewilderment experienced in the setting of a modern university, especially a huge and complex campus, like the University of Toronto or the University of British Columbia, and with the absence of a socially supportive network of friends (this is especially true, of course, in programs where students are not part of a core group which takes all its classes together).  Attempts to alleviate these problems typically fail to address the root cause (the nature of the university itself) and instead appoint a Dean of Substance Abuse or a bevy of new counsellors or organize a workshop or distribute posters all over campus proclaiming a slogan or two.

The often impoverished social quality of the modern campus has in some quarters led to demands for a change in the standard teaching style—the lecture with the professor fully in control and a large group of students passively and obediently listening.  If the opportunities for students to socialize outside the classroom are rapidly declining, some have asserted, then it’s time to give them that opportunity inside the classroom, by a adopting seminar-style instruction and letting student conversation carry the weight of the class (a much more active learning process).  Such a style is basic to the education of those applauded programs of general education I referred to earlier. In spite of the demonstrated effectiveness and popularity of such a style, however, it is hardly likely to have much effect generally for any number of reasons (it requires the professor to share power with the class and to redefine his approach to teaching, it cannot process the huge numbers of students needed to boost departmental numbers, it requires special physical arrangements, and so on).

Issue Three: The Stranglehold on Professional Certification

None of these problems would matter nearly so much, however, but for the third of the three factors I have referred to, the decision to give the universities a virtual monopoly on entry into the professions.  Whereas, not so long ago there used to be a number of professions one could select and train for without going to university, now, thanks to what Michael Katz has called the biggest and quietest take over in the history of capitalism, the universities have a stranglehold on preparing for professional life, and a student aiming at a profession has little choice but to sign up for the expensive and long sequence of undergraduate and professional certification courses at a university.

Why this happened is something of a mystery.  There seems to be no compelling reason why many professionals need to be educated at a university rather than at a professional school with no commitment to research (e.g., nurses, engineers, lawyers, chartered accountants, therapists, librarians, teachers, and so on) or why such professions should not offer alternative routes, the way many of them used to do.  Perhaps it has something to do with the curious notion that a university degree somehow enhances the credibility of the profession.  Whatever the reason, one might well ask, as many university professors who objected to this trend did ask, what on earth a well-qualified researcher is doing teaching students aiming at a practical profession?  How is training for the professions compatible with the university’s role as a research centre and with the professor’s qualifications as a research specialist? 

Such objections were, of course, brushed aside in the interests of enormously augmenting the social power and size of the university and the social prestige of the professions, so that what we have created, sadly enough, is a direct contravention of John Stuart Mill’s eloquently liberal recommendation that while the government or its designate had the right to set the examinations needed to certify someone for a profession, there should be no monopoly on how a student prepares herself to take that examination.

Why should this matter?  Well, first of all, putting all professional training in the hands of people paid to do research is very expensive.  After all, if we make teacher certification, for example, a postgraduate university program, then every teacher in it has to have a professorial contract insisting on a minimum number of teaching hours and a host of research perquisites.  Once we insist that all entry into the nursing profession must go through the university, we have guaranteed that the cost of training nurses will be significantly higher than it was before.  One might make similar claims for, say, programs in business or computer science or engineering, among others.

In addition, given the enormous social power this monopoly conveys, the universities, in conjunction with the professional certifying boards, have not been slow to milk professional training as a cash cow by making such training excessively long.  Does someone preparing to be an elementary school teacher really require five or six years of university training? What about the enormous length of time required to get qualified to become a teacher of undergraduates?  Why thirty-five years ago were my professors adequately educated with three years of undergraduate work at Oxbridge; while now my children have to go through anywhere from five to ten years of postgraduate work to meet the minimum qualification for a similar job (in a very expensive program which roughly half of the students who start fail to complete)?  Here one might note, in passing, that, given the extensive use many universities make of teaching assistants, faculty tacitly acknowledge that the lengthy research qualifications required of teachers of undergraduates are unnecessary.  While insisting on the importance of such qualifications, departments routinely waive them in their own courses in order to make use of a pool of serf labour, grossly underpaid graduate students, who, in some places, carry up to a third of the undergraduate teaching load.

Since obtaining professional certification nowadays is not so much a matter of demonstrating one’s competence (in the way Mill had in mind) as of accumulating the required number of credits (and these are clearly not the same thing), it’s hard to resist the notion that many of these professional programs are set up to maximize the university’s enrolment and the income from fees (along with a guaranteed supply of bodies for specialized upper-division and graduate courses, which professors much prefer to teach) rather than to meet commonsense demands for entry into a profession.  Well, those with a monopoly can, I suppose, erect as many expensive barriers as they wish, without caring about the debt a student must assume or how many competent people they are excluding from the professions because of the excessively high cost of getting certified.

The arbitrariness of decisions about the length of professional training is evident enough in the way universities and professional associations, working together, are quick to waive what they previously had claimed was essential in order to meet a shortage in the supply.  I was supremely lucky in being able to get my high school teaching certificate in fourteen weeks over two summers (at OCE in 1956-7) and an MA (from the University of Toronto) in six months (in 1968-9), because the demand for teachers and professors was high.  Looming shortages in some of the professions nowadays have already led to suggestions for drastically shortened undergraduate and professional programs, or arrangements whereby young professionals can start work and complete their certification part time, once they have an income. Implementing such suggestions is long overdue.

The point here, however, is not the optimum length of time it takes for this or that professional certification.  The issue is the monopoly itself.  Given that faculty organizations are quick to discipline any institutions which depart from the conventional arrangements (for example, by withdrawing accreditation or refusing to accept their graduates or blacklisting them), what we have is a system which acts in its own interests to oppress students and stifle alternatives.  We promote competition in many aspects of our lives, recognizing that competition promotes excellence and variety and lowers costs.  And we are quick to attack monopolistic business practices.  With the universities, however, we permit competition for students but tacitly prohibit significant competition between the standard model of the research university and other alternatives.

These issues are well known.  Writers inside and outside the academy have been calling attention to them for decades.  But the universities and colleges for the most part continue with business as usual—an increasing emphasis on specialization and research, more fragmentation, larger and larger undergraduate classes, higher fees, longer programs, and so on.  Experiments in various alternatives, like the BC college system, which often begin by trumpeting their potential for significant change, end up being quietly assimilated into the conventional university culture.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Changes, however, may be on the way.  According to James J. Duderstadt’s A University for the 21st Century (University of Michigan Press, 2000), the conventional model (“a Balkanized tyranny”) is very poorly equipped to deal with a wide range of modern developments, so that the pressure for significant adjustments is becoming irresistible.  There is a growing disconnect between what universities actually do and many of the social, economic, and educational needs the institution is meant to address.  And certain people who matter are grumbling more and more about the cost of maintaining the public university system in its present form and the crushing load of debt students are having to assume.

Of course, there is, as there always has been, plenty of brave talk about ways in which the universities can reform themselves.  But no one, it seems, is offering a significant challenge to the way in which the modern university is organized, and so such reform sentiments will, no doubt, go the way of all previous attempts in the past fifty years (at least) to improve undergraduate education.  For a large college or university structured in the conventional manner is incapable of the reform necessary to achieve significant changes, particularly in undergraduate education and professional training.  Our best hope for improvements lies in the development of new institutions with very different organizations and purposes. 

Under this hypothetical scenario, we should encourage the universities to continue to do what they do best—valuable cutting-edge research and graduate programs for would-be researchers—and offer new alternatives which are wholly committed to student learning in a congenial environment and which reject the research ethic and the various features which arise out it (e.g., departmental structure, narrow specialization, fragmentation, overqualified faculty, excessive cost, and so on).

However, given the university’s tyrannical power over postsecondary education and the ways in which various alternatives routinely get swallowed up or stifled by the conventional structure, I don’t hold any sanguine hopes that such obviously beneficial changes will happen soon.  For the time being, alas, we will remain prisoners of the model our own decisions brought to life, for better and worse, all those years ago.


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