A theologian who can write a book titled God and the New Haven Railroad - subtitled "and why neither one is doing very well" - is likely to be an unusual sort of university president and to have unusual views about higher education. So it proves. George Dennis O'Brien taught philosophy at Princeton, migrated into university administration, became president of Bucknell University, and subsequently president of the University of Rochester. He thinks, rightly, that most books on higher education are pretty dull, and that their dullness springs from the fact that it is easy, but on the whole unprofitable, to deliver elevated speeches about the idea of a university, and pretty difficult, if also more profitable, to say something intelligent about how universities in the late 20th and early 21st centuries should deal with the problems they really face.
These problems are not a shortage of educational philosophies so much as a shortage of cash and a wholesale crisis of organisational legitimacy.
It must be said that O'Brien provides no remedies for shortfalls, whether of cash or legitimacy; more to the point, he eschews any ambition to do so. This is unusually self-restrained. Recently retired university presidents are all too prone to explain why, but for recalcitrant faculty, obtuse trustees, tightwad donors or ineducable students, they would have turned Sow's Ear College into Silk Purse University. O'Brien says frankly that to the extent that he has an administrative philosophy it is that of muddling through. But muddling through is not the same thing as going round in unhappy circles.
What All the Essential (Half-) Truths sets out to do is place higher education in a context that makes it more manageable, intellectually and organisationally. That context is the rise of the research university. It is not that most United States universities or colleges - of which, it is well to remember, there are more than 3,500 - do much that you might call research. Perhaps a hundred are "research universities" in the full sense. But it is the research university that sets the tone for the whole system; before its rise, little denominational colleges were governed despotically by presidents whose sole qualification for teaching and administration was the possession of a minister's licence; after its rise came tenure, faculty self-government, and a great deal of guff to the effect that "the faculty is the university". That proposition is the most important of the half-truths discussed.
By the same token, the rise of the research university complicated the moral and educational mission of higher education. When higher education was, as the cliche had it, "Mark Hopkins at one end of a log and a student at the other," the president of Willams College - for that is who Mark Hopkins was - could create the entire curriculum, teach it and examine it without appealing to any authority between himself and God. (The quality of Hopkins's instruction can be gauged from his remark that the college library needed only one book, the Bible.) Once the research university had arrived on the scene, the canonical image of education was no longer that of the wise elder passing on a fixed body of truth to the young, but that of faculty and apprentice graduate students together discovering what makes the world tick.
Changes in the mode of instruction to a large extent reflected this shift. In the 19th century, students attended "recitations", which were exactly what they sound like - occasions when students repeated the lessons they had been sent away to learn. This was not a peculiarly US way of carrying on; in the first half of the 19th century, teaching in Oxford would equally have involved small groups of students rehearsing exercises to their teachers. The modern conception of tutorial or seminar instruction is not much more than 100 years old.
O'Brien writes sensibly, though not always very surprisingly, about the difficulties of persuading the incompetent but tenured to find other occupations, persuading the elderly and tired to pack it in even though the Supreme Court has decided that a fixed retirement age is an unconstitutional form of discrimination, and persuading the practitioners of any subject whatever to lift their eyes from their discipline to consider the needs of the whole university. He writes equally good sense about institutional morality: drugs are worse than sex because drugs and booze incapacitate those who are addicted to them, while sexual obsessions just take up a lot of time that could usefully be employed on other matters. But sexual relations between faculty and between faculty and students cause difficulties because they make it harder for the institution to live up to its own institutional morality. That morality hinges on the idea that everyone is judged by impersonal standards of competence, whether as a student or an instructor.
The obvious question for a British reader is whether the anxieties that beset O'Brien relate to British experience. One that does not is a bizarre effect of the financing of education in the US. A half-truth that turns out not to be a truth at all is the thought that cheap tuition in publicly funded colleges and universities is a benefit for the badly off student. The effect of means-tested financial aid in the well-heeled private schools is that a well-off parent finds it costs $32,000 a year to send a child to private schools such as Princeton, while a poor parent gets it for nothing.
In a state university, where the education may be just as good, tuition may cost $5,000 rather than $22,000 a year. A well-off family living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, will save $60,000 - £38,000 - over the four years of an undergraduate degree if they can persuade their offspring to attend the University of Michigan rather than Princeton. Why does that matter? Because decent public universities will be filled by students from better-off families and will have no room for the people they were set up to look out for. Selection on merit as measured by performance at school and in the Scholastic Aptitude Test will fill the best public universities and colleges with white, upper middle-class kids from affluent suburbs. The last time I looked at the numbers, the median parental income at UCLA was indeed higher than at Princeton. Too much of that, and the good public universities will not fulfil their mission of helping the worse off and less well trained. As O'Brien puts it, blacks, women and the poor will, as usual, end up at the back of the bus.
Otherwise, O'Brien's anxieties are entirely apposite to the British scene. This is hardly surprising; government policy has turned British higher education into a poor and under-funded imitation of state-funded US higher education. That this has happened by inadvertence rather than design makes O'Brien's reflections on how to cope with under-funding, demoralised faculty, public disdain for cutting-edge cultural studies, unprepared students and administrative mechanisms that lack either effectiveness or legitimacy, all the more apt. That his reflections will tempt anyone over the age of 50 to explore the option of early retirement may recommend the book to graduate students and finance officers, too.
Alan Ryan is warden, New College, Oxford.
All the Essential (Half-) Truths About Higher Education
Author - George Dennis O'Brien
ISBN - 0 226 61654 1
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £15.95
Pages - 243