First Monday

Letter to the


From: Karl Vogel
Date: Mon, 4 May 1998 19:28:39 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Response to "First Monday" article
Organization: Sumaria Systems Inc.
X-Disclaimer: I don't speak for the USAF or Sumaria


In "Brave New Universities" published in First Monday last month Michael Margolis said:

"Market capitalism, not the Internet per se, is the force behind developing the wired university."

Right off the bat, I get the impression that Capitalism is still the biggest villain on the American campus. I went to college from 1977-1981, and it's reassuring to see that nothing's changed. Here's the Cliff-notes version of my reply:

Margolis wrote:

"Applying market principles to North American Universities will, as David Noble warns, fundamentally alter them and possibly destroy what we think of as a "great democratic higher education system."

Take a step back and ask why there's any pressure to apply market principles this way to begin with. Maybe it's a misguided attempt to fix a system that's not functioning too well?

"Ironically, students are more likely to embrace than to resist what Noble calls "the wired remains of our once great democratic higher education system...""

It's "democratic" right up until you disagree with whatever politically - correct orthodoxy happens to be in vogue. After that, democracy goes right out the window.

"A college degree from an accredited program will suffice - the cheaper the better - as long as it increases a student's chance of securing a decent first job to help pay back his or her loans."

If my parents spend the equivalent of a small-home purchase on an education and I can't get a job because I either don't have any up-to-date, useful skills or (far more to the point) haven't been taught to think well enough to obtain them on my own, they're going to be more than a little annoyed. So will I.

If you want to say that the purpose of a university isn't to function as a glorified corporate job-training program, fine. I agree. For a student, the purpose of a university is to teach him how to think; in other words, how to reliably distinguish fact from non-fact and fact from assumption. That's the best job- (and life-) training you can get, and the plain fact is that the modern university has been doing this very poorly for the last 30 or so years.

"ITEM: The University of Phoenix, a for-profit subsidiary of the Apollo Group, enrolls more than 42,000 adult-learners, making it the second largest private university in the United States. The University operates over 50 satellite campuses and learning centers, mostly rented space in office buildings. Over 6,000 of its students are enrolled in distance learning or online courses, and its library is online. It has no tenured faculty."

I went to Cornell University, which was a pretty decent Ivy League place back in the late '70s, and probably still is. My best teachers were not tenured professors, they were instructors. The best professor I had was denied tenure because he didn't publish enough, and he didn't have a lot of patience for "publish or perish."

"Higher educational training, however, is too important to leave it mainly in the control of the faculties of traditional institutions."

Quite true, for the same reason that (say) the military is too important to be left to the Generals, or politics is too important to be left entirely to politicians. Speaking of which ...

"The marketing of Speaker Gingrich's course on renewing America has already provided a model."

... the obligatory slam against Gingrich comes as no surprise. In case you're wondering, no, he's NOT one of my heroes.

"In this era of global competition American universities can no longer afford to offer researchers such freebies. As researchers in the physical, engineering, and medical sciences have long understood, the only research worth doing is that which others are willing to pay for."

If you can't explain the value of your research to someone who asks, give me one good reason why they should fund it. I'm not here as a means to your ends, and neither is anyone else. However, I don't blame the faculty nearly as much as I do the Federal government; Uncle Sugar has turned the pursuit of knowledge into plain old grantsmanship.

"For too long American universities have paid professors to study and to think as opposed to teach or to produce valuable research. [...] But ultimately, the key to survival is ending tenure as we know it."

Good riddance. I was proud to attend Cornell, partly because I knew that some first-rate research and thinking was going on, but I also expected some competent teaching to come with the research. I was frequently disappointed. There's that pesky old "value-for-value" idea again.

At one time, tenure may have actually served a useful purpose. Today, it serves mainly to protect political correctness from any type of critical scrutiny. When I see more tenured professors standing up against bogus science, and encouraging (rather than boycotting) differing points of view on campus, I'll start to have some respect for the idea of tenure. Until then, treat it like the vampire it is and put a stake through it.

"When implementing these reforms, however, local universities still must use creative marketing to retain nearby customers who might otherwise shop for their courses over the Internet."

In other words, you don't have a monopoly on either knowledge or learning any more. Tough luck. If you want good students, you'll have to attract them.

"Judicious use of athletic scholarships has proven to be the most successful of universities' minority recruitment efforts. Moreover, this effort has raised hardly a murmur of objection, in stark contrast to the protests against affirmative actions to attract minority customers for graduate an professional schools."

I know, it's outrageous. The very idea that students should be attracted on the basis of merit instead of inherited guilt.

"American universities as we know them will be changed, possibly forever."

Long overdue.

Karl Vogel

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