Courtesy Reuters

AN ACADEMIC DEBATE

By Charles Larkin

To the Editor:

The recent article by William Brody on the topic of globalization in higher education ("College Goes Global," March/April 2007) outlines such a utilitarian view of education that it would have made Jeremy Bentham blush. The justification for the academy, according to Brody, is to be found in its ability to provide the credentials and the research that form part of the engine of economic growth. But this view of education is the antechamber to academic stagnation. Its realization would mean that only "useful" ideas and disciplines would be cultivated, whereas others would be allowed to wither on the vine.

Brody puts forth a theory of academic globalization that is based on an incorrect reading of the history of of the university. Brody argues that the academy of the past was a hyperelite institution, filled with academic hobbyists, charlatans, and dilettantes who were coddled by their institutions in an age when limited means of communication kept people and ideas from traveling between centers of learning. These institutions were small and lacking in financial power or savvy, says Brody. But the physical location of the university was a product of the residential academy, where persons were afforded the opportunity to focus on study and live a philosophical existence. Furthermore, universities in Europe have had a large share of elite students but have also produced many alumni from lower social strata, as it was common from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century for institutions of higher learning not to charge fees. And academics were never hermits. The transmission of ideas and the travel of persons have always taken place. After all, the research university, the institution that is the focus of Brody's article, has its origins in early-nineteenth-century Germany. Finally, the idea that universities were financially weak runs counter to the historical record as well. One must only look at the foundations of several sixteenth- and seventeenth-century universities to understand their monumental financial interests (great land grants in the case of Uppsala University, for example).

Brody unwittingly argues in favor of the end of academic freedom. First, he states the importance of the academic superstar; second, he stresses the importance of grants; and third, he outlines the inevitability of the end of tenured faculty.

The concept of the academic superstar runs directly counter to the idea of universal respect for disciplines. The elevation of one person and his or her ideas jeopardizes the respect afforded to different ideas and methods as they are promulgated in academic forums. The superstar is afforded the authority of infallibility by the market's valuation of his presence and salary. This salary-based view of knowledge has been a feature of the U.S. university system for many years but is an insidious innovation, as it ultimately results in the designation of some disciplines as useful and economically viable and others as at best superfluous and at worst unnecessary. This point of view has had profound implications for the academic freedom of lecturers at all levels and for the overall advancement of knowledge.

Where grant income is concerned, it is important to look at the origins of the "grantrepreneurial" university. The advent of the "capitalist university" came with the Dole-Bayh Act of 1980, which allowed universities to patent works derived from government-funded research, and a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that radically altered the field of intellectual property seen as patentable. Universities became part of the economic policy portfolios of many nations and were therefore held to account not on the basis of the knowledge of their students or their importance to the democratic system but on their ability to transfer research from the lab to the market. Those faculty members engaged in less lucrative forms of research or in undergraduate teaching have, as a result, often been relegated to the second tier, below the academic superstars. Genuine academic inquiry has been overshadowed by areas that will attract funding. It is true that the two have coincided at times, but there are few grants for blue-sky research in science or the humanities and nonapplied social sciences.

The end of tenured positions in the university sector is a further erosion of academic freedom. The development of adjunct faculty has resulted in the emergence of academics who are fully qualified but are subjected to freelance-style working conditions. Much of the teaching of undergraduates at prestigious universities is performed by professors at the adjunct level. The creation of a hierarchy of disciplines on the basis of funding prospects has relegated many subjects to second-tier status. Disciplines unfortunate enough to be part of this subset may, at times, be almost entirely staffed by low-cost adjunct faculty. The result is that some subjects lack a research base, as their staff are always in pursuit of more secure forms of employment. Certain subdisciplines of financially lucrative subjects, such as economics, that are themselves less popular or more "academic" have become moribund over the last 20 years of the globalizing university.

Brody provides one view of what the future may bring as a result of these developments. Universities, and those people who appreciate their special role in the political, social, and economic fabric of the state, should deplore the transformation of the academy into a technical training organization with little interest in education or academic inquiry. Those engaged in education must avoid being turned into mere servants of the market, where the transfer of technology and the signaling powers of university degrees are the sole raison d'être of university education.

Charles Larkin

Professor, Institute for International Integration Studies and Department of Economics, Trinity College, University of Dublin

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