“The Meanest and Most Contemptible Persons in Society”*
| Scott Masten |
*That would be Peter, Dick, Lasse (I think), and me, but not Nicolai. (See below.)
I haven’t posted anything on higher education governance in a couple of weeks, so I guess it is about time. My excuse will be an Instapundit link to an opinion column titled “End Our ‘Multiuniversities’.”
The author, David Warren, complains that the “great majority of the universities — founded since the Second World War to bureaucratically process and credentialize a large part of the general population, as a matter of ‘right’ and regardless of their intellectual capacities — are in effect ‘community colleges’ or trade schools,” a condition that he attributes in the main to public funding. (Warren is writing from Canada but a related piece makes clear his reprobation is catholic.) I am broadly sympathetic with his lament, though I am less confident that public funding is the ultimate culprit. What I want to comment on, however, is his (possibly facetious) solution:
What interests me is the foundation of new universities, and the recovery of faculties within the old, that can again be committed to classical ideals of science and scholarship; to the ambition for comprehensive, and therefore unified knowledge; to what the term “university” always implied.
Two connected points I have been making, here: First, let our publicly funded “multiversities” dissolve, and be replaced by job-training schemes that are actually answerable to market forces.
Second, let the real universities — including surviving fragments within the “multiversities” — reconstruct themselves, under the voluntary patronage of people who actually care about such things.
If that ideal university ever existed anywhere, I’m pretty sure it was purely fortuitous and not a consequence of funding sources or organization. Eighteenth century Oxford? Nope. Here’s Adam Smith:
If the authority to which [a professor] is subject resides in the body corporate, the college, or university, of which he himself is a member, … they are likely to make a common cause, to be all very indulgent to one another, and every man to consent that his neighbor may neglect his duty, provided he himself is allowed to neglect his own. In the university of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.
Smith considered administration by an authority outside the faculty as even more pernicious, however:
If the authority to which he is subject resides, not so much in the body corporate of which he is a member, as in some other extraneous persons, in the bishop of the diocese, for example; in the governor of the province; or, perhaps, in some minister of state it is not indeed in this case very likely that he will be suffered to neglect his duty altogether. All that such superiors, however, can force him to do, is to attend upon his pupils a certain number of hours, that is, to give a certain number of lectures in the week or in the year. What those lectures shall be must still depend upon the diligence of the teacher; and that diligence is likely to be proportioned to the motives which he has for exerting it. An extraneous jurisdiction of this kind, besides, is liable to be exercised both ignorantly and capriciously. In its nature it is arbitrary and discretionary, and the persons who exercise it, neither attending upon the lectures of the teacher themselves, nor perhaps understanding the sciences which it is his business to teach, are seldom capable of exercising it with judgment. From the insolence of office, too, they are frequently indifferent how they exercise it, and are very apt to censure or deprive him of his office wantonly, and without any just cause. The person subject to such jurisdiction is necessarily degraded by it, and, instead of being one of the most respectable, is rendered one of the meanest and most contemptible persons in the society. It is by powerful protection only that he can effectually guard himself against the bad usage to which he is at all times exposed; and this protection he is most likely to gain, not by ability or diligence in his profession, but by obsequiousness to the will of his superiors, and by being ready, at all times, to sacrifice to that will the rights, the interest, and the honour of the body corporate of which he is a member. Whoever has attended for any considerable time to the administration of a French university must have had occasion to remark the effects which naturally result from an arbitrary and extraneous jurisdiction of this kind.
Smith’s solution was to subject professors to competitive market discipline by tying their compensation to fees paid directly by students: With their livelihoods dependent on “the affection, gratitude, and favourable report of those who attended upon [their] instructions,” professors would thereby be induced to discharge their duties faithfully and diligently. The notion of student sovereignty over the supply of education was hardly original to Smith. The first medieval universities of Europe were organized much as Smith proposed: Teachers at the universities at Bologna, Salerno, and Padua during the 12th century were hired, paid, and even fined for poor performance directly by student guilds. Yet despite the prominence of the “Italian model” of education during the middle ages, student-run universities were ultimately displaced everywhere by alternative governance arrangements. Smith’s “market” solution failed the market test of survival.
All of this is not to say that we shouldn’t try to improve the provision of higher education. But we should recognize the problems inherent in its provision or risk utopianism.