Troubled meeting of minds

Education in a Research University - Academic Duty
January 9, 1998

Life in the universities can seem pretty grim at times. What with student numbers up by 70 per cent since 1989, funding per student down by a quarter since the same year, still no let up in the demand for places and no really serious thought being given as to how or by whom they are to be paid for; what with extraordinary demands for assessment and accountability imposed by outsiders on universities and by university managements on their dons; what with university salaries having increased by only 10 per cent in the past 12 years while those of school-teachers have risen by 30 per cent; and what with the values of scholarly enterprise being often the target of attack and ridicule, it is not surprising that on some Friday mornings not even Laurie Taylor's sparkle can raise more than a weak wintry smile. It may help, however, to remember that universities have been racked with difficulties at other times and that present woes strike other places too.

Cambridge 100 years ago was consumed by anxieties - about funding, about access, about what to teach, about the tension between teaching and research, about the horrendous and spiralling costs of research, particularly in science, about the disregard with which the academy was held, and about the threats, both overtly political and subtly indirect, that worked to undermine the independence of the university and the colleges, striking at the heart of the academic world.

These two books seek to understand the difficulties facing university communities at the end of the 1990s. Both have strong Stanford connections, but they are very different types of book. Education in a Research University brings together a collection of 30 short and sharply focused research papers edited from Stanford and informed in large measure by the thinking of some of Stanford's foremost social scientists. The collection is a distinguished one, but it contributes to a general debate by being ruthlessly particular; Academic Duty, by contrast, is a general reflection on the predicament of the modern university written by a Stanford professor after his retirement from the presidency of his university.

The essays in Education in a Research University fall into three broad sections. The first ten deal with problems of administration and management, the next 14 discuss teaching and learning through case studies, and the remaining six consider the impact of statistics and operations research methods outside the university in fields as diverse as greenhouse gas abatement and the judiciary.

At first reading the papers seem so brief and their subject matter so diverse that it is hard to see the justification for bringing them together in a single hardback volume. But soon it is apparent that this reflects the complexity of universities themselves. An argument running through the book is that the difficult problems that face universities must be understood by rational study and by the most rigorous application of scholarly methods to their definition and analysis. Thus the essays in the first part of the book range from setting out how to calculate the costs of an ageing faculty (a question that has some bearing on plans for retirement schemes and opportunities for recruitment) through to how to measure the success of affirmative action in graduate admissions or how a judicial charter evolved under stress of campus revolt, to discussion (by Donald Kennedy) of the ethical problems that might arise from collaborations with government or with industry.

There is a good essay on why a medical school should be an integral part of a major research university, and a fascinating account of Stanford University fellows' programme, designed to turn scientists and scholars into university statesmen and stateswomen. What is impressive is that all the essays are firmly grounded in fact, and arguments, which seem anecdotal, are buttressed with statistics and a clear research methodology.

Similarly, in the second part of the book, there are brilliant expositions of what is involved in writing a good textbook, in giving a good set of lectures, or of designing a new course. But these pages also bring to the reader sterner material: over and over again a case is made for the use of quantitative methods and rationality in academic decision-making. Kenneth Arrow's own essay comes at the end of this section. In a succinct historical account that reaches back to the 18th century when rational aspects of behaviour were both described and extolled as guides for action and policy, Arrow discusses the interplay of statistics, operations research, decision theory and game theory on teaching and research in microeconomics. The interaction between these intellectual currents has not only defined and reshaped a particular field of study, but has also affected what and how students are taught and hence influenced their thinking at work and as citizens.

Such a thought-provoking essay leads naturally to the third part of the book where understanding statistics and analysis of data are considered in academic and non-academic contexts. The essays all argue for the importance of using statistics and arguments based on them in determining matters of policy and in making decisions more generally.

Donald Kennedy's original scholarly expertise lies in the field of neurophysiology, but, like many scientists, he came to have a wider interest in the formulation of academic policy and in the management of universities. He served, not uncontroversially, as Stanford's president between 1980 and 1992. His Academic Duty is a stimulating book. The main arguments have been tested in a seminar Kennedy organised for senior doctoral students at Stanford, and part of his purpose in writing the book is to offer advice and guidance to those about to enter university professions. He is good at identifying problems - or at least setting them out as they are perceived, by both academics and their critics.

Kennedy observes that the rapid expansion of student numbers since the 1950s has levelled out but there remain problems of access to universities and there is continuing demand for more places and for changes in the curriculum. Research has become much more complex and difficult to do, absorbing more resources, people and time: it has also acquired greater prestige along the way, especially in the sciences. University costs generally continue to rise. Increased pressure on funding, particularly from public and business sources, has brought with it more demanding regimes.

Government and major corporate sponsors are keener to know how their money is being spent and quite new and powerful pressures, both direct and indirect, are now brought to bear on universities in ways that threaten their independence and their integrity. Politicians have become more interventionist, unleashing hordes of accountants on the universities' books and encouraging journalists to dig dirt. But students and parents also are reluctant to pay increasing sums for university education without knowing more about how money is spent. Younger scholars are increasingly distressed at working for next to no pay for a decade or more in order to obtain hard qualifications with poor prospects of employment. Compared with 30 years ago, academic jobs are now less well paid and the elusive benefits of a civilised style of life, so often touted as compensation for lower pay, have been eroded by external interference and an internal collapse of manners and collegiality. Confidence has been undermined and the role of the teacher is diminished. Universities have many critics and few friends.

Kennedy is in no doubt about the value - intellectual and cultural - of universities. He also believes that by many objective measures universities perform very well. However, the thrust of his argument is that academics must become more conscious of their responsibilities and that they should rely more on a rhetoric of duty rather than one of freedom as being essential to the well-being of their enterprise. Thus the main chapters of the book stress the importance of adequate preparation for academic life, the need to place more emphasis on good teaching, to be aware of ethical concerns associated with advising graduate students on research and publication, to think carefully about how to handle relationships with government or with industrial and business sponsors, to recognise the need to change. Universities are in a dynamic equilibrium with society and this means more explicit and transparent accountability for academic activity.

This is a rather bracing approach and the book is a good read. Kennedy puts his case forcefully, drawing generously on his own experiences and pulling no punches on issues that matter to him, such as the definition and maintenance of a core curriculum, the dangers of policies of positive discrimination, or of giving way to fashionable fads. He is also amazingly dispassionate about the rows over presidential expenditure that dogged his last year at the helm at Stanford. But there is disappointment with the book as well. Perhaps so much is promised in the opening polemic that there is inevitably disappointment that Kennedy does not have any very profound solutions to the problems facing universities today. His message about responsibility and duty need, without question, to be taken very seriously; but Kennedy's book is, on reflection, a more lightweight contribution to the literature than, say, Henry Rosovsky's witty but very serious The University: An Owners Manual, nor does it come near the intellectual sophistication of David Damrosch's We Scholars. Both books in this review should be read by those charged with the well-being of our universities: it is remarkable how much more lively thinking about the future of universities is being done in north America than is being done in Britain.

Gordon Johnson is president of Wolfson College Cambridge and author of University politics: F. M. Cornford's Cambridge and his advice to the young academic politician.

Education in a Research University

Editor - Kenneth J. Arrow, Richard W. Cottle, B. Curtis Eaves and Ingram Olkin
ISBN - 0 8047 2595 0
Publisher - Stanford University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 494

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