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An Interview: David L. Kirp

David L. Kirp-professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley since 1971-has written or edited 14 books, most recently "Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education," published by Harvard University Press. The interview was conducted by Carl Irving, a former higher education reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and a frequent contributor to National CrossTalk.

Carl Irving: In your new book, you warn that there is "a pervasive shift to the practical arts" in American higher education, away from traditional academic standards and the liberal arts, because of a growing fondness for the "raw power of money." Why has this happened?

DK: The stories I tell about the transformation of higher education point to two major changes during the past 30 years. The demand for money has become increasingly voracious. It's partly fueled by big science, partly by the "positional warfare" that has institutions struggling to best one another in the competition for prestige and market share.

Even more fundamental is the emergence of what I call the ethic of money. The marketplace, with its emphasis on satisfying consumers, becoming "business-like," isn't just a necessity. It's a metric of value. That worries me because, as one reader says, I have a lovers' quarrel with the university.

CI: How are institutions affected by this quarrel?

DK: The trick isn't to eliminate the market-that's like trying to eliminate Niagara Falls-but to keep the market in its place. In many ways the market has been a force for good, while in others it has created real problems for institutional integrity. There isn't a college or university, public or private, rich or poor, that is not affected by these trends.

Positional warfare is engaged in with particular avidity at the top of the pecking order-Harvard, with its $20 billion endowment, is fierce in fighting off the competition. And at each level the struggle for preeminence among the institutions is going on.

Though the book describes institutions that have tamed the market, and become better in the process, there are also many instances of schools being driven by market values, essentially to the exclusion of academic values-a list that includes some of the most elite institutions in the country.

In the book, I'm most critical of the University of Southern California, as it was run a decade or so ago, and the University of Michigan. At both places, the institution behaved as if it were a business-everything became a profit-and-loss center; essential components that served the entire campus, like the computing center and even the library, were regarded, tellingly, as "peripherals." There really was no university there, just loosely linked fiefdoms.

CI: You praise USC for what it has done more recently.

DK: Eventually USC claimed some power for the center; it realized, among other things, that it had an obligation to the community. The university reached out to the ghetto in which it sits. It also restructured its scholarship program so that it could effectively compete with cross-town rival UCLA. Meanwhile, the school has raised $100 million for 100 professors in cutting-edge interdisciplinary fields. Those efforts, driven by the central administration, help to define the university as an academic commons.

CI: You cite some very troubling trends in faculty hiring-the rise of the superstar and the growing reliance on adjunct faculty. How did this come about?

DK: Here's a startling statistic: Two-thirds of all new fulltime faculty are hired with no hope of getting tenure. There's also an increasing reliance on adjuncts-at NYU, for instance, about 70 percent of all undergraduate classes (including sections and labs) are taught by non-ladder rank faculty. What's most worrying is that, in many universities, the permanent faculty is being hollowed out. In order more effectively to compete-to hire the superstars and underwrite the "Jacuzzi U" activities like sushi bars and rock climbing walls-schools find low-wage part-time and non-ladder appointees very attractive.

Unionization under these circumstances is an entirely understandable response; for universities, left to their own devices, do not treat these academics well. A generation from now, when the history of the contemporary university gets written, the senior faculty of the leading universities will stand indicted for having done nothing as their institutions transformed themselves, in some cases effectively abandoning the idea of tenure.

CI: Statistics compiled by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, which publishes National CrossTalk, show steadily increasing state support per student-56 percent more in real dollars-for public higher education between 1980 and 2000. Isn't that a very positive countertrend to all the reports about increasing dependence on federal and private funding?

DK: It's also true that the state share of the higher education budget has declined during that period. And in the past year, state support actually declined for the first time in years. More and more, state universities are turning into state-aided universities-or even state-molested universities.

CI: Some scholars express dismay at the lack of outreach by the flagship campuses to bring in more low-income students. Do you agree that this is a worrisome problem?

DK: Absolutely. The plight of students from poor families gets shockingly little attention. There's a reason for society to care about the greater productivity that can be expected from an educated workforce and particularly about the poor kids who are being left out of the equation.

All the data on income and college attendance can be summarized like this: Dumb rich kids go to college at the same rate as smart poor kids. That's scandalous-and far more important than affirmative action, which by comparison affects a handful of students. The market values those who will bring in money directly-the upper middle class, that can pay its way-as well as those who contribute to the institution's status. Affirmative action programs for minority students strengthen the institution, because that kind of diversity is valued. What do poor kids bring in? From the point of view of these institutions, they bring in nothing.

CI: What is the impact of increasing tuition on these students?

DK: It's enormous. Here's one example. Community colleges in California raised tuition this year from $11 to $18 a unit. That's just $100 a semester. But enrollment in the fall was 100,000 less than expected. Students from poor and working class families are very good at calculating short term costs and very bad at seeing the long term benefits of higher education. Tom Kane at UCLA has done important work on these questions, but there's no leader out there-no politician, no academic statesman-making the case.

CI: In your book you cite a joint venture by the Classics faculties at 15 southern liberal arts colleges; those schools are using online devices to supplement teaching and research. Is that a hopeful example?

DK: It is. Putting some courses online can free up faculty for individual tutoring with students, critical in Classics, that otherwise isn't possible. Several of these schools have actually hired additional Classics professors because there's been increased student demand. The departments are better because the course offerings are better. This is one example where market pressures, the need to compete for students with other students and other schools, operate positively.

In order to reach a substantial number of students, Classics has begun to morph into classical studies. In general, the field has responded well to competition-a lot of what's taught by classicists is taught in translation, and there are many collaborative ventures with archeology. All that appeals to a far larger number of students, who are now being exposed to the classics.

The other positive development is the emergence of collaborations among schools, using the internet to make themselves stronger. This isn't just a Classics story. The message is this: If you're not greedy and you don't look at the internet as a cash cow, but see it as an aid to your educational mission, it's a great tool. But if you see it as a way to get rich quick, you're in trouble.

CI: Do you regard Fathom, Columbia's internet venture, as an example of what not to do?

DK: Yes. Columbia put fabulous material on line, but it never figured out who its audience is. If you're going to make a go of it, financially, you need a lot of money. Columbia's investment, $40 million, wasn't enough. Thomson Publishing has invested more than $100 million in an international undertaking called Universitas 21, and still has nothing to show for it.

CI: What about the for-profit ventures in higher education?

DK: Successful for-profits like University of Phoenix and DeVry University, where I spent a great deal of time, have confined themselves to the low-hanging fruit. That's how they can generate income. So far no school has ventured into the liberal arts. Still, the for-profits have something to teach nonprofit institutions. They are good at monitoring teacher quality, teacher training, developing courses that can be widely adapted and widely used, as well as counseling and placing their students.

CI: What have campuses experienced in the marketplace that affects their research mission?

DK: One lesson: A university should never sell off an entire department, as Berkeley did in the famous $25 million deal with Novartis, but should make decisions on a project by project basis. When a university is working on a drug that might benefit millions of people, it needs to hold on to the patent, as UC Santa Barbara just did (with its patent on a technique for treating schistosomiasis, a tropical parasitic disease). If scientists are working on a project with less of a public benefit, then the university ought to sell that patent and use that money to subsidize its research.

CI: You seem to be generally concerned about the impact of the market on priorities in higher education.

DK: We live in a time when the market is the zeitgeist. You and I could be having this conversation about almost any sphere of society-the medical world, museums, even churches. To challenge the market ethos requires someone who can speak with force and eloquence and power about the values of intellectual life-someone who can speak not just to the politicians, but also to the taxpayers and the parents, to make the case that there's something powerfully important about an institution that is not wholly captive of the marketplace. Higher education needs its John Edwards-or its Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There are a handful of academic leaders that have the potential to do this, including Mark Yudof, chancellor of the University of Texas system, and John Sexton at NYU. Former UC President Richard Atkinson was a powerful voice in focusing attention on a critical policy issue, the SAT, challenging the value of that test. There are a host of issues for which similar leadership is badly needed.

Concerning the relationship between industry and higher education, we need a statement of principle from the leading research universities, one that sets bounds on what's proper. And somebody has to stand up and say, in effect, that over the course of a student's career the liberal arts are really more "practical"-giving them the skills to learn new things-than the practical arts.

We really need to start a public debate about all these questions-about the market's impact on higher education. This may be a time for that, when people may be receptive, because there is a sense of crisis. I've been encouraged by the interest my book has generated among educators and the general public. A candidate is needed to seize on the issue of lack of education for poor kids. It may be a time for a GI bill for the 21st century.

Photo by Rod Searcy for CrossTalk

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National CrossTalk Spring 2004



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