"What makes the modern university different from any other corporation?" That's the question asked in the NY Times this week. In light of increasingly unaffordable tuition rates and the profitable but corrupt business of lending huge sums of money to students, do universities deserve their nonprofit status? Is the tight competition for federal grants corrupting the mission of universities?
The Times isn't so sure:
"Driven by big science and global competition, our top universities compete for “market share” and “brand-name positioning,” employ teams of consultants and lobbyists and furnish their campuses with luxuries in order to attract paying “customers” — a word increasingly used as a synonym for students."
I can relate: during my orientation as a new postdoc at Washington University, I was given what basically amounted to a marketing lecture by the HR person: I was told about the ongoing marketing campaign to raise awareness around town about our medical school's national status, and lectured about how every day in my work I should think about how I can please my customers. And just who are my customers? Everyone - my mentor, the grad students in the lab, the dean, and God knows who else.
So ok, my job orientation indoctrination was a dumb triviality, but are big research univeristies still pursuing the higher mission they were founded on? I think that the answer to a large degree is still yes, but the risk that money concerns are overwhelming more fundamental ones is real. Not all, but most cutting edge scientific research these days requires a lot of money and supportive infrastructure. That also means a lot of 'overhead' funds for the universities that win lots of federal dollars.
Most disturbing is the excessive focus on the university's image, rather than substance, because a good image (including a good US News ranking), as coporate America knows, can often be more effective at attracting customers than a truly substantial product.
Major research universities are a good thing - they produce the best science in the world, and often the best medical care in the world. But they (along with great liberal arts schools) should also produce a top education for their students, who will hopefully in the future produce more great science and medical care. Students who are educated in an environment of excessive concern about image and coddling 'customers' are unlikely to make great future scholars.
The biggest casualty of this trend, beside the decline in the general quality of a college education, and collegetown streets draped with tacky banners emblazoned with slogans pushing the local school's image, is the eroding status of universities as the best source in our society of excellent, honest scholarship. If we don't pass on how and why we do good scholarship, our culture will forget and be surpassed by others that do care about honestly understanding our world.