True story: a regent at a prominent university in Texas sat down with other governor-appointed regents to review the paperwork for scores of newly-minted Ph.D.s, a largely pro-forma duty at the end of each semester. Faculty are often invited to witness the discussions and to comment if any candidate for a degree is unfairly treated. None ever are, as far as I know. A friend of mine was among the faculty sitting at one such meeting, no doubt fighting off the urge to doze. But after the group signed off on the new doctors, the regent, attending his first such meeting, leaned over to my friend and asked in a hoarse whisper, “Tell me, my friend. Why do so many people major in philosophy at this university?” The doctor of philosophy degree was something he had never heard of before, I assume. Truth is, doctors who major in philosophy are rare. The majority of the candidates come from chemistry, agriculture, engineering, economics; a handful are from the humanities. My friend explained all this in whispers until the man held up his manicured fingers to say enough.
The regents make all the decisions on new construction, investment strategy, appointments to top administrative posts. They vet applications and hear testimony from people who have information on the backgrounds of the many executives vying to run the place. Most of these candidates for top jobs are portly middle-aged men from brokerage houses, insurance companies, large construction corporations, oil companies, bankers, pharmaceutical execs, and a few investors. Some of them contributed generously to the governor’s campaigns. They’re the “bundlers,” the moneymen, and no one seems to question the right of any of them to take a seat at the helm. They acquired their bona fides in the market place, and their connections to business and industry earned them appointments.
But if you asked a regent, almost any regent, where the idea of a university originated, the poor man might hunch his shoulders and give you a blank look. Would he know that most universities began as theological institutes, and that the work of most of them had to do with interpreting the sacred texts of Christian culture? The Sorbonne, Oxford, Cambridge, the great Italian universities of Padua, Bologna, Turin, were centers of monastic learning, extensions of the monasteries of the Middle Ages. They even resemble each other architecturally. The work of monks was no different from that of scholars; both groups preserved the important works of philosophy and religion that would otherwise have perished in the Dark Ages. Such copy work and interpretation were painfully slow going, but accuracy of transcription and exegesis were crucial to keeping the West alive.
It is no coincidence that Cardinal Richelieu is buried in the foyer of the Sorbonne in Paris. Students step over his remains on the way to class, as a reminder that the hardheaded, orthodox, high-minded Catholic prelate lay in the arms of the university’s soul. It was Richelieu who established France’s first national library, and instituted the French Academy whose immortals are responsible for the national dictionary and the purity of the French language. A modern regent hardly knows that a university is an odd fossil of medieval life, and that its passions and foibles are born of monkish devotion to the sacred truth.
What a modern regent does know, and knows well, is how to interpret the business end of a university, its corporate model, its need to pursue profit and to keep the system lean and efficient. These are the businessmen who took over from professors who used to help with upper administration fifty years ago. They have no patience with eccentric longhairs who bury themselves in arcane research projects with little practical value or immediate fiscal rewards. Gone are the ancient, creepy labs stuffed with fossil cupboards and framed collections of butterflies. Gone also are the gaunt-faced, stoop-shouldered men and women who ran those labs and knew everything about the creatures labeled in their precious drawers. In came the computer labs that digitized the old paper files, and the student evaluations that helped thin out the professors who mumbled and lacked social skills. Annual check lists further eliminated the ranks of professors who never consulted the calendar or the new requirements for merit pay, and who were baffled by the accelerating pace of scholarly work.
A new generation of academics was rushed through graduate coursework and a shortened period for writing a dissertation, and told it had five years to publish a book or series of important articles to meet the minimum criteria for retention. Two books would be better, accompanied by laudatory reviews in the key journals. The system grows leaner each year, with incentives for those who garner awards or national reputations, and harsh punishment for those who slip behind. The laggards are assigned to introductory courses and given the chores of lesser committees. Their salaries are frozen or upped in tiny increments. This is how it’s done on Wall Street and in the dungeons of the major corporations, and so the last vestiges of medieval devotion withered and disappeared on the sleek, new campuses of America.
Business culture has taken over academic plainness in other ways. Knowledge is a market commodity suitable for hype and catchy sales pitches. Contemporary academics are hip, attuned to the latest cultural trends, and know how to focus research so that it appears to reflect and comment on the national mood. Their courses are all about transnationalism, queer theory, transgendered and metrosexual citizens and their joys and sorrows. The usual faculty directory is a kind of shopping mall where professors parade their interests and show how close they are to the beating heart of America. The newspaper and the course du jour are indivisible; there is no separation between news and reflection on the underlying meanings or causes that make for headlines. The transformation of the university has been achieved at Mach speed.
The shift away from white European cultural legacies and traditions has been refreshing and long overdue. Many courses are successful in introducing the concerns of our time to the classroom. I have no quarrel with this revolution, and welcome further ways of balancing the information of universities to meet the needs of women, minorities, the sexual diversity of today’s youth.
But business has also adapted the university to the purely secular concerns of capitalism itself. The old model of learning was driven by a faith in transcendence, the urge to discover the hidden truths under the surface of reality. Christianity was the model of academic curiosity – the need to grasp the spirituality of existence. In shifting the axes of higher learning, transcendence was no longer a goal. Problem solving, business practices, the new technology were the new academic priorities. Students were not initiates in the divine mystery, but were now customers, consumers of academic goods. Dorms made way for condo-like blocks with spas, social rooms, luxurious suites equipped with flat-screen TVs and the latest Wi-Fi technology. The groves of academe sunk beneath vast stadiums where football and basketball are centers of social life. The library is a ghostly place these days; one can pretty much do “research” in one’s apartment or dorm, and never have to inch along the old dusty stacks full of untouched books.
Who knows if the university can survive such changes? There is much theorizing about the irrelevance of the brick-and-mortar campus. Learning could easily be achieved through on-line instruction at a much-reduced cost to the student and the community. Business is always thorough and relentless in its ability to purge the public space of old ideas. The traditional university may survive with “boutique colleges” that still cater to the individual’s need for transcendence, even if the humanities are hardly what they were in the 20th century. The modern city will grow its glass towers and vast malls over the remains of not only the university but the church that birthed it. The citizen of the future will have been formed by the market and its values, and will relate to the world accordingly, for good or ill.