The view from the bridge

The Research University in a Time of Discontent
April 28, 1995

Those who are voyeuristically inclined will enjoy the candid insights into the present state of America's more prestigious universities offered by this volume. Even the parochially minded may find that it can teach us some indirect lessons about our own higher education system. The task of reading it does, however, call for some considerable effort. It provides a fairly substantial compilation of 19 independently authored chapters, ranging from six pages to six times that length. The contents are correspondingly uneven in quality and varied in approach. Six of the 20 contributors are present or former university presidents, and two more are provosts - senior academic managers. Many of them, as befits their office, are given to musing or pontification rather than to rigorous analysis. Nearly one-third of the contributions are by people who have retired. In consequence, the predominant stance is a top-down one: the only chapter directly concerned with the day-to-day activities of teachers, learners or researchers comprises a useful description - but no more than a description - of an innovative undergraduate course in political science.

The book's key themes are succinctly charted by one of the editors, Jonathan Cole, in his opening chapter. In English translation, they concern managerial problems, internal politics, student-related issues and the perennial question of funding and resources. The contributors, who were clearly difficult to keep in line, cover these in a somewhat haphazard way, allowing for numerous repetitions and overlaps, and the occasional clear contradiction.

On management, one apparent commonality with the United Kingdom scene is the growing politicisation of the senior officers' roles: as Donald Kennedy observes, "There is a powerful temptation to engage in the politics of self-preservation which most often turn out to be the politics of caution". The age-old battle between academics and administrators is, it seems, fought out with equal passion in both countries. What is noticeably different is the intensity of inter-institutional competition, as manifested across the range from transfer fees for star academics to a disproportionate emphasis on sports teams (accompanied predictably by the occasional athletics scandal).

Internal politics offer an intriguing scene, as of a medieval bearpit. Those academics on the far right churn out volume after volume of condemnation of the system in which they work, adding royalties to the doubtless handsome salaries they already earn. In the middle ground, there is a proper concern with the under-representation of women and minority groups among students and faculty, but an awareness of the problems of positive discrimination (the point is nicely brought home in the authorship of the book - there is only one woman co-author among the 20, and no one, it would appear, from a minority group). The academics on the far left - whose activities are sharply delineated by Neil Smelser and John Searle - are held to use a post-modernist stance to introduce radical arguments about cultural egalitarianism and the introduction of courses on gay and lesbian studies, Chicano studies and the like. The heavy and sometimes hypocritical emphasis on political correctness is a feature of campus life which most British universities are as yet spared while animal rights enthusiasts seemingly wreak their particular version of havoc on both sides of the Atlantic.

Students get only a very limited degree of the authors' combined attentions: the extensive index lists only six entries. The notion of students as consumers, rather than as junior members of the academic community, is evidently a novel and unfamiliar one. There is, however, considerable agonising (which will be all too familiar to British ears) about the imbalance between teaching and research and the distortions of the current reward system, and the tendency to delegate teaching responsibilities to graduate students without offering them any prior training. The major difference that emerges is that postgraduates in the United States get disproportionately generous resources. There, the graduate programme is the point of pride and undergraduate teaching an also-ran: a neat reversal of our own current situation.

British higher education is ahead of its American counterpart in one respect at least: even their best-endowed universities are 15 years or so behind ours in beginning to feel the pinch of reduced resources. Among the resultant dilemmas noted are the political difficulties of closing down even moribund departments and the strategic problem of whether to restrict the number of research universities or promote the sharing of resources through inter-institutional collaboration. There is some brave talk about "doing more with less", and a stiff-upper-lip observation in the preface that "The challenge is to reorganise and perhaps downscale university activities". The reasons advanced for the changed state of affairs include an over-rapid expansion of student numbers; an excessive dependence on central government funding, promoting first interference and subsequently withdrawal; and a loss of support from foundations (cited by one author but denied by another). On this last point, the comparative abundance of foundation funds is signalled by the fact that the authors of the book - which involved no fieldwork whatsoever - enjoyed between them the support of no fewer than five different foundations. Still, the sense of relative deprivation is evident enough.

There may be an understandable inclination to indulge at this point in a touch of schadenfreude, particularly if one takes the view that American higher education has in the past been too insular and self-congratulatory. To do so, however, would be a mistake: it is rarely that we are in a position to give our transatlantic counterparts the benefit of our own experience, and we might ourselves gain some new wisdom in the course of doing so. In its positive references to a new spirit of internationalism, this book opens up that prospect.

Tony Becher is professor of education, University of Sussex.

The Research University in a Time of Discontent

Editor - Jonathan Cole, Elinor Barber and Stephen Graubard
ISBN - 0 8018 4957 8 and 49586
Publisher - Johns Hopkins University Press
Price - £37.00 and £13.00
Pages - 416pp

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