“The Meanest and Most Contemptible Persons in Society”*

17 October 2010 at 1:00 pm 6 comments

| 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.

Entry filed under: Education, Former Guest Bloggers, Institutions, New Institutional Economics.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. murray  |  17 October 2010 at 4:27 pm

    i doubt very much that the “Italian model” failed as a consequence of it not surviving the “Market” model.

    What is far more likely is that those in power (i assume that would be the Church) took control one way or another. The church need church technicians and lots of them.

    In all my years of tertiary education and subsequent career nothing is more obvious than that as the misdirection of public money into the the education system increases, the quality of the output decreases while its cost to the student increases and the cost (and incomes) of education hierarchy explodes.

    Take computer science – 20 years ago what was taught (in very small faculties or annexed schools) was pure computer science – what is taught now is often applied Microsoft or Apple development – in effect we have moved from training thinkers to training technicians. Consequently most computer science graduates now know next to nothing of the theory of computer science yet know a lot about using the current industry tools. Bachelor Graduates are now not much different to mechanics of 30 years ago except that they start with huge debts, are far less likely to find a job and their training is far less likely to be useful in unrelated fields. Hence we have enormous numbers of computer science and information graduates working in 7/11s or at check-outs or other menial tasks.

    I can’t blame the educators – that would be no different to blaming humans for being human – but that a market model driven by student guilds would be better i have no doubt.


  • 2. Peter Klein  |  18 October 2010 at 2:11 am

    Murray’s example reminds me of a conversation I once had with an HR person from a large life-sciences firm that employs many of our graduates. What’s the one thing you wish we could teach better, I asked, expecting “critical thinking” or “intellectual curiosity” or “writing skill” or even “working in teams.” The answer? “How to read a lab manual.”

  • 3. Scott Masten  |  18 October 2010 at 7:16 am

    We already have in many respects a market-driven model within universities. Students can choose the fields to major in and the courses in which to enroll. The effect is manifest: Last week SUNY-Albany announced the elimination of its French, Italian, classics, Russian, and theater programs, to take just one example. We also have experience with the consequences for course content and rigor of the “students are customers” fad. The trend toward more vocational education in universities is a response to student preferences.

  • 4. srp  |  18 October 2010 at 9:34 pm

    My question is how truly vocational are these “vocational” programs? That applies to both the short-term and long-term employability of graduates. The student-as-customer model (rather than the employer-as-customer) creates significant slippage due to all sorts of information gaps.

    I don’t see a great pressure from students to ramp up the difficulty and content of “vocational” majors to improve their future job prospects. And I don’t see employers levying a big market bonus to students from more-rigorous programs (although it’s possible I just don’t have access to the data).

  • 5. Peter Klein  |  19 October 2010 at 2:20 am

    Scott: Obviously there is competition and selection in higher ed, but it strikes me as a highly attenuated form of competition — more like that between government agencies or regulated public utilities than between software companies or venture-capital funds. Even nominally private research universities receive 50, 60, or even 70 percent of their operating funds from government sources, right?

    Here’s a testable hypothesis: universities and colleges that draw nationally, competing against other national universities and colleges, should have more diverse and “experimental” curricula, on average, than regional and local universities and colleges, which are more like territorial monopolists. You’d have to control for quality of course.

    Steve: Surely someone has data on within-school, across-major differences in career earnings, controlling for SAT score (and maybe unobserved heterogeneity). One problem is that the content effect and the signaling effect may work in opposite directions, though.

  • 6. Scott Masten  |  19 October 2010 at 7:42 am

    My point in my previous comment — in response to Murray’s suggestions that “a market model driven by student guilds would be better i have no doubt” — is that course offerings within a given university are to some degree driven by student course selections. We might think business students would benefit from a course on, oh, say, business transactions and organization, but if the 40-student minimum enrollment isn’t satisfied, that course won’t be offered. I’m not saying that is good or bad, only that there is a kind of within-institution competition for students that determines the types and nature of course offered and, thereby, the programs available and ultimately the faculty. Both Murray and the Warren article I originally cited complain that they don’t like the status quo; like Steve, I just don’t think giving students even more control over course offerings and content is likely to result in an improvement.

    Peter, your point is about competition between universities, which is indeed quite different and attenuated. I wrote a paper some time back about the antitrust challenge to financial aid coordination by the Ivies and MIT (known the Overlap Group), one issue of which was the nature of competition in the higher ed market given the quality stratification of universities. Henry Hansmann has written on this as well. (The Overlap Group is back in the news; I had thought of doing a separate post on it but didn’t want to overdo the higher ed. topic.) One implication of that stratification is that there is a fairly high degree of (traditional) competition at the lower tiers, which would presumably include the regionals, and an attenuated (to use your term) competition among the relatively small numbers of nearby (in quality) schools at the upper end of the distribution. But to get this to the level where it affects individual courses, it would have to be the case that students or employers can discern the content of courses and programs in a timely fashion (i.e., more quickly than the content and quality changes). Alas, too often students can’t discern the content of courses even after they have taken them.

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