Hunting the snark of destiny

October 31, 1997

THE fit between higher education and society is a hot-button topic. Managing that fit leads to "policy". Consequently, we have higher education policy, science and technology policy, industry-university policy, labour markets policy, academic upward drift policy, admiss- ions policy, subject area quotas, and so on, ad infinitum.

We may well ask who exactly makes policy, how is it made, who is responsible for this modern instrument of high and right thinking? The hunted snark could not be more elusive than a precise answer. The learned doctors in faculties of social science, education, public policy and graduate schools of management analyse the consequences of policies, interview very important persons, train researchers and potential civil servants, and produce "recommendations", occasionally by testifying before government committees and commissions.

Outside the academy, participants in policy-making accumulate with rapidity. Privately funded or quasi-independent think-tanks abound (especially in the United States), as well as individual state coordinating councils with, but generally without, much authority - which, customarily, are advisory but undeniably earnest. Business-government-university round tables - all are welcome at the Mad Hatter's tea party.

In several countries, such as Sweden, there are higher education agencies reporting to cabinet ministers and hoping for the best, caught between their masters and a commitment to hoary academic values. And there are the politicians, the party loyalists, myrmidons and hangers-on, ministers and shadow ministers, in Britain the Treasury mandarins, in France the ideologues - the extraordinary collection of persons and institutions, alignments and planners which inhabit the elastic breadth of governments.

Every now and then a national leader in the US deigns to make higher education policy. President Clinton speaks in San Diego about affirmative action at Berkeley's Boalt School of Law, a situation hardly amenable to simple conclusions; and after this obeisance to conscience, he disappears into the recesses of the White House, or as the humorist James Thurber remarked about where he left his missing overcoat, someplace else.

There is more, elsewhere. In the US, the judicial system has its day, too. The courts enforce and then dismantle affirmative action policies dealing with student admissions, professorial appointments, tenure decisions, re-search contracts and non- academic staffing. And the threat of legal review leads universities to unload millions of taxpayer dollars on out-of-court settlements in-volving disgruntled employ- ees, students with weak academic marks and, so it seems, university cover-ups. Public opinion, a many-headed beast, is driven by advocacy organisations, plus single-interest groups and media intervention.

A lexicon of decision-making comes to hand. Decisions are generated from inside, as well as from outside higher education institutions. If inside, it may be by top-down management, American-style campus executives versus European-style short-term rectors. Or, decisions, if bottom-up, are led by departments, institutes or laboratories, with professors as entrepreneurs - often striking out in so many directions that insiders and outsiders cannot keep track.

A prominent California private think-tank leader recently declared that analysts can only look at the broad external picture as the baroni spring all traps. But academics have never had matters entirely their own way. Trustees and lay boards are the actual bosses, their strength depending upon experience, talent and their appointments. The stu- dents cannot be omitted, either. Whether they have a countrywide voice, as in Britain's National Union of Students, or vote in a system of consumer-relevant course electives, they also contribute to policy-making.

Has it always been like this - so many participants, with coats of so many colours? Possibly, but historians writing about the antiquity of colleges rarely address the question of decision-making, concentrating mostly on growth and expansion, or professors' lives and work.

It is well to remind readers about the intellectual tasks, but the historical links are also needed. Little consistent attention is paid to the actors or institutions responsible for change. The separation of the disciplines - history from policy or other social sciences directed at understanding policy - is clear, particularly for the earliest centuries of university history. Yet there is evidence to suggest that even in "simpler" times, when monarchs, ecclesiastics, oligarchs and aristocrats ruled, policy-making was never straightforward.

I believe there is a challenge for historians, to take hold of this story. To what end?

First, as in all serious study, to inhibit the irritating tendency to make glib generalisations, usually accusatory, about the imagined fit between universities and society. Second, to avoid equally glib and tired generalisations about the failure of universities to address leading social and economic problems. It would be seen that even under free governments, educational institutions are rarely in full charge of their destiny.

Third, the object would be to illustrate how often critical educational decisions have almost nothing to do with education, and to follow the argument wherever it goes - or, as in the "Atlantic" tradition of republicanism, create an informed citizenry, or pursue a standard of cultural excellence.

There are many players and many voices. But one voice, in particular, insists on being heard. We have contemporary examples of how the public interest can be undermined by its elected representatives. The political leaders of a large interior population centre in California insist on establishing a tenth campus of the University of California, despite warnings about ruinous costs and problematic student demand. No valley land developer, however, could ever be expected to bypass an opportunity so rich in economic potential.

Sweden's higher education planners must wrestle with the vexed problem of raising existing university colleges to expensive research university status, knowing full well that such institutions may not possess a research capacity and that certain members of the Riksdag had already decided the issue. In Britain, the Dearing committee struggled long and hard to produce a serious, if indigestible, tome. But almost on the birthday of its heralded report, Labour announced its own agenda for higher education. Nolo contendere.

Sheldon Rothblatt is professor of history at the University of California and STINT Professor of history at the Royal Institute of Technology, in Stockholm.

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