In defense of the university

by on April 3, 2006 at 5:17 am in Education | Permalink

I have never been much of a university-basher, and in my new book Good and Plenty I attempt to explain why:

The university also injects diversity into the broader societal discovery process. Faculty tenure is based on two principles: free inquiry and intellectual autonomy. Taken together, these principles also could be described by the less favorable sounding phrase "lack of accountability." A tenured faculty member simply is not very accountable to deans and department chairs. This absence of accountability, while it comes under heavy criticism, is part of the virtue of the university. The university works by generating and evaluating ideas according to novel and independent principles, relative to the rest of society. Direct commercial considerations drive most sources of ideas in society, including corporate research and development, commercial culture, advertising, and celebrity culture. The university is an alternative and complementary mechanism for producing and evaluating social ideas. In the university professors are, at least in theory, insulated from direct commercial pressures. Most academic rewards are determined by peer evaluation.

Tenure and non-accountability work especially well for a process that depends on intellectual or creative superstars. The average producer might use lack of accountability to shirk, or to pursue self-indulgent ideas of little value. But the superstars will use lack of accountability to pursue their own visions without outside hindrance. We like to think of "creative freedom" as good, and "lack of accountability" as bad, but in fact they are two sides of the same coin. If most of the value added comes from the superstars, the gains from their freedom may exceed the losses from the shirking of the average producer. Given that most artistic experiments are failures, effective discovery procedures often succeed by supporting the extremes, rather than trying to generate a good outcome in every attempt. 

Since we should evaluate institutions as a bundle, the excesses of the university, which include conservatism and overspecialization, should be seen as part of a broader picture. All methods of producing ideas involve biases. The question is whether these biases tend to offset or exaggerate the other biases — usually commercial — that are already present in the broader system. To the extent the biases are offsetting, the benefits of the university are robust. Counterintuitively, one of the great virtues of commercial society is its ability to augment non-commercial sources of support, including the university. Academic institutions, whatever their particular failings, increase the diversity of the social discovery process, including in the creative arts.

1 dearieme April 3, 2006 at 6:03 am

That’s a pretty good defence of the ideal university; how about a defence of the real ones? One weakness is clear: “Most academic rewards are determined by peer evaluation” – that might explain a large part of the leftist conformism in US universities?

2 DK April 3, 2006 at 8:20 am

Tyler’s critics are exaggerated here. The problem with Tyler’s argument is the opposite one — most of the university’s impact is in science and technology, and in these fields it is not isolated enough. Too much university research is performed under contract to industry or government, and that research tends to be incremental and overcautious. You get big grants by promising a minor extension to last year’s research, not by promising (threatening?) to change the world. Ironically, corporate-backed efforts such as Xerox Parc, Bell Labs, and the Gates Foundation are more likely to produce truly forward-leaping innovations.

I can’t speak as knowledgeably on the humanities, but if I wanted to disempower my political opposition, I’m not sure I could come up with a better way than to fund it in the universities, where leading radicals can put their energy into fighting over office sizes and hiring policies rather than actual government. IMHO the best academic idea in decades was to start offering third-world dictators teaching positions at American universities, as a way to encourage them to relinquish real power.

3 rmark April 3, 2006 at 9:18 am

10% of our faculty should not be allowed near sharp objects, for fear
they may hurt themselves. The rest are mostly normal,
reasonable people.

4 Macneil April 3, 2006 at 9:49 am

I think the more ideologically conservative readers are afraid of the subtext here: Universities are subsidized. The economic case for subsidization is clear: you get benefits the market wouldn’t give you otherwise. But once you admit that you are concerned with practical matters and have gone outside of ideology.

5 sammler April 3, 2006 at 12:09 pm

Mr. Macneil: I am unable to fully understand your comment. Is the subtext that “the economic case for subsidization [sic] is clear”? But that is the plain text of Mr. Cowen’s argument.

In any case, I do not believe that the economic case for subsidy is clear; I believe that the existing subsidy system is a result of governments carelessly allowing non-scientific education to free ride on the (to my eyes, justifiable) subsidy of scientific and technical education. The cynicism displayed by deRien, while exaggerated for effect, is directed at a real social effect (college as a needed badge of status and a harmless distraction for youth lacking the maturity to remain gainfully employed, under the false flag of education) which supports this continuing misallocation.

6 Dave April 3, 2006 at 4:44 pm

I can’t speak as knowledgeably on the humanities, but if I wanted to disempower my political opposition, I’m not sure I could come up with a better way than to fund it in the universities, where leading radicals can put their energy into fighting over office sizes and hiring policies rather than actual government.

Shhh!!! You’re giving the game away. It’s vitally important to the working of all this that the professoriate be allowed to keep its feelings of intellectual superiority and disproportionate (if ‘soft’) policy impact.

7 DK April 3, 2006 at 10:02 pm

To make a constructive suggestion, IMHO the best thing we could do in the sciences would be to shift more federal funding from professors to students (less grants, more fellowships). Not only are grad students naturally more inclined to take risks than scientists with established reputations, but they are often quite good at figuring out what branches of their field are likely to need more research over the next twenty years. Someone at the beginning of his/her career has much greater incentive to choose promising projects for the future than does an established researcher, whose primary incentive is to avoid embarrassment.

While this is again based on my experience in the sciences (computer science), I suspect that grad students and newbie professors in the arts and humanities are also more likely to innovate and take risks than senior professors. Yes, shifting funding to grad students tends to decrease accountability, but Tyler has already explained that decreased accountability can be a good thing.

8 save_the_rustbelt April 5, 2006 at 11:09 am

Any excuse to cut teaching loads.

Proposed solutions:

20% of tenured faculty are “research professors,” with lighter teaching loads and more research subsidies.

80% of tenured faculty are “teaching professors” with a different work mix.

Allow teaching profs to compete for research slots, with every research slot up for grabs every 5 yeasrs. Teaching professors who want to become resarch professors could compete by becoming superstars.

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