The indomitable inner spirit

October 8, 1999

The essential meaning of a university still lives through entrepreneurialism, writes Sheldon Rothblatt.

We need to discover a new law of gravity and inertia. Let me explain. Set ways and convention provide stability and reassurance. Surprise and therefore friction are kept to a minimum (the theory of "civility"). Innovation still occurs, but subtly and slowly, in ways that elude daily comprehension. Much change in the medieval curriculum was of this order.

By contrast, in new universities, academic practices are said to be responsive to new demands. Personal gifts unnoticed in other environments are now liberated. Some academics have the rare talent of excelling in the task of institution building, while keeping up with accustomed patterns of research. But one common fear is that long-term commitment to a novel and as yet unshaped enterprise will seriously interfere with personal mobility.

These are the familiar dichotomies; and since higher education is currently in upheaval, in some nations more than others, the feelings are acute. If the reward system is changing to favour market responses and institution building, frustrations result from a midstream shift in the rules of the career game. If the present-day academic reward system remains intact, the fears of being left behind are amplified.

On the positive side, expansion of the higher education system has provided global opportunities. An international academic class has been created in perpetual motion and is redolent of the great age of the medieval peripatetic scholar. New and old reward systems exist side by side, their rivalry and interaction as yet uncertain.

To take the mid-19th century Oxbridge example, an internal binary organisational structure existed, consisting of two fundamentally different species of instruction and two conceptions of career advancement and knowledge acquisition.

Reformers attacked the collegiate structures for being stale and unprofitable. It was alleged that professorial teaching, where innovation was expected, was held back by collegiate control of instruction and examining. One solution was therefore to change the overall structure, abolish the colleges, reduce them to boarding houses or divert their resources to support of proper university purposes. And yet it was within the antiquated colleges that certain forms of revitalisation took place. They were small enough for one or two strong-willed personalities to introduce and force change.

Altering the internal divisions or decision-making apparatus of universities may yield certain gains; but whether morale improves, teaching flourishes, or the knowledge base is strengthened are open questions.

There is no ideal organisational structure. The lesson is one that is learned every time a corporation undergoes a burst of organisational zeal. New reporting hierarchies, different kinds of workforce teams, decentralised or centralised schemes, new units spun off into separate companies, jargon adopted to prove that a revolution has occurred - the constant reshuffling of corporate structures is always announced as a more efficient or effective or better way of achieving certain goals.

In his study of five new entrepreneurial universities in Europe, Burton Clark notes that while the responsiveness of structures to outside demands can be evaluated, the inner spirit of universities, their belief cultures and working ideas are intangible.

The hardest analysis to make respecting the functioning of universities is that of the interdependence of belief and organisational systems. Today's university is unquestionably more of a collection of sub-cultures than at any other historical moment. The inside conflicts between top and bottom, between managerial and collegiate organisations, between entrepreneurship and Wissenschaft - how are these resolved? Inequities in career rewards and conditions of work - how is the dust made to settle here?

The age of the entrepreneurial university brings with it amplified chances for increasing discontents. What keeps this solar system in rhythm? We lack a historical anthropology of the academic experience, an account of the symbols, rituals, routines and other bonding mechanisms that give wider meaning to particular activities. Do those lumbering beasts of academic self-government - senates, courts and tiresome committees - help or hinder? Notoriously slow or indecisive, they provide loci for discussion and communication, even friendships across disciplinary boundaries.

These thoughts return as I sit on the brow of the Berkeley hills on a fine San Francisco bay area day. Thousands of students are returning to campus for the autumn semester. This year in particular they are being ripped off by rapacious landlords or crowded three into a dormitory room normally designed for two.

An Aristophanic fantasy of sorts plays out on the edges of the university, the usual mix of auto traffic, oddities, bongo drummers, stray dogs, purveyors of incense and vendors of exotic foods.

Berkeley is in a social time warp. To everyone's dismay, the south campus neighbourhoods are dangerous. Armed robberies, extending onto the campus itself, are frequently reported in police bulletins. And yet much still remains of the sense of a common understanding, of a place where knowledge, growing up and thrilling new experiences intersect, of academic wars still to be fought, out of which come revised estimates of corporate identity and new accommodations to the inevitable changes of history.

An undiscovered law of gravity and inertia must hold everything together. Someone ought to prepare a grant proposal.

Sheldon Rothblatt is professor of

history at the University of California, Berkeley and STINT professor of

history at the Royal Institute of

Technology in Stockholm.

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