American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 26

Changes in the Context for
Creating Knowledge

The Impact of Demographic and Social Changes
on Higher Education and the Creation of Knowledge

George Keller

Dennis O’Brien

The Paradoxes of Transnational Learning
Susanne Hoeber Rudolph

The Paradigm Drift

Dennis O’Brien
President Emeritus, University of Rochester

I have been asked to speak about resource restraints in the decade ahead. That means we won’t have enough money. But that problem is simple. The question I want to raise is why this problem appears so acute. Higher education has always been an expensive purchase. Even if it is now relatively more expensive, I think there is more here than mere money. I believe that beneath the dollar shortage is a fundamental shift in attitude. It is not our financial resources alone that are diminishing, it is the philosophy of financing that is eroding.

I have entitled my remarks “the paradigm drift” as a deliberate variation on Thomas Kuhn’s well-known concept of a paradigm shift. A paradigm shift in science marks a genuine revolution in science; the fundamental terms of the old science re-emerge in ways that would be wholly unintelligible in the previous paradigm. Einstein talks about “time slowing down”; for Newton this could only mean that you need to wind your watch.

Higher education does not move by such clear-cut revolutions. We operate more by paradigm drift, than clear-cut shift. I believe we are on the down side of a fundamental paradigm shift in higher education and that we have not yet fully understood that fact. Our revolutionary change is at least as significant as the rise of the “research university” in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

It is characteristic of educators in the midst of paradigm drift to have considerable problems finding the right terms and understanding for the change. Take “research university”: as late as 1906, Daniel Coit Gilman, the great founding president of the research university, Johns Hopkins, delivered a lecture at the University of Chicago objecting to the very term “research university.” “Research” was, he said, “not a felicitous term” and had only been an English word since 1875 when it was coined by a Dr. Appleton in a book entitled The Endowment of Research (qtd. in Wegener: 10). If Gilman had a hard time labeling the very revolution of which he was a founding father, it is no surprise that we may have a hard time seeing the direction of the current drift.

I want to suggest how certain long-accepted structures are undergoing significant change. The change can be noted by subtle alterations in language. As president of a private university, I was fascinated to read a recent speech by Chancellor Chuck Young of UCLA in which he declared that he did not consider UCLA a “state university” but a “state related” university. This change in terminology is a result of the financial crisis of the California higher educational system. When I spoke to Chuck, he made it very clear that the trajectory was to “privatize” UCLA: raise tuition, fund raise, seek endowment, and all the tricks us folks in private education have been at for lo these many years. What happens to the hallowed distinction of public/private if Chuck succeeds?

UCLA’s urge to “privatize” stems from the fundamental anxiety for higher education in the decade ahead: funding. UCLA is moving as indicated to deal with a $38 million budget shortfall. (I should say that when I queried some of my other friends in state schools about how they regarded their institutions they agreed with Chuck: not state universities — maybe “state related” or “state assisted.” One poor president’s budget had been so reduced that he said he now regarded his institution as “state located”!)

In order to discover paradigm change, I want to highlight a series of key understandings that are currently undergoing overt or covert drift. I will indicate one structure under strain in a variety of areas of academic life — research, financial aid, faculty, administration, students — and then suggest a grand overall design for the drift. Understanding and dealing with these changes will constitute the challenge of the decade ahead for all the constituencies of higher education from the state capitol to the student council.

Research: Gilman may have been uneasy with the term, but it is now firmly embedded in almost all of higher education. I was fascinated to note that one of my former employers now refers to itself as a “research college.” For the research university, however, the world of research is under fundamental stress. Whatever we may have called ourselves from the time of the founding of Johns Hopkins in 1876 to the beginning of World War II, the real era of the research university is a wartime and postwar phenomenon. During the war, massive government funding for everything from radar to radiation was undertaken by university professors in university settings. It is deeply symbolic of a new era that the first atomic fission took place under the stands at Stagg field at the University of Chicago.

At the end of the war, Vannevar Bush set out the fundamental terms of a new relation between universities and federal funding for research. He called for a partnership. What that meant was that the universities would offer the folks and facilities but the federal government would provide full cost for the research. This was an important shift. Universities had done research before, but the new sophistication and cost of research went well beyond the financial means of even the wealthiest institutions. Rochester, for instance, is currently the national center for laser fusion. We would not have a $55 million, 64 beam laser under construction were it not for full federal financial support.

Starting sometime in the Reagan years, the federal government began to shift its understanding away from “partnership” toward “contract for service.” Universities were regarded as bidders on research proposals. To be sure, financial considerations, fiscal responsibility, and the like have been part of the “partnership” since the days of Vannevar Bush, but there is a fundamental paradigm shift when universities are moved from partner to contractor. I would hate to think what would happen to my marriage if I suggested to my wife that I wanted to move our relation from partner to contractor for service.

This shift in understanding can be detected all along the line in our dealings with the federal government — from the interminable squabble over indirect cost rates to the recent descent of the IRS auditors on select university campuses. At a recent meeting in the White House, President Everhart of Cal Tech noted to President Clinton the erosion of the sense of “partnership” in research. Frankly, I don’t think that the President fully comprehended the significance of the term or the problem. World War II and Vannevar Bush are more than a half century past!

Financial Aid: We should recognize this as a postwar term of art. Prior to World War II, one talked about “scholarships”: financial grants made for meritorious performance. After World War II, in an effort to broaden the outreach of higher education, it was decided to use university funds to help the needy, not just the performance stars. The term changed to “financial aid.”

There have been two fundamental changes in “financial aid” in the most recent past. In the case of most private institutions — with the exception of the handful of the highest prestige colleges and universities — financial aid is more a marketing discount to fill the seats than a simple response to need. Need may be at the base, but frankly it has become a bidding price for students.

The bidding price game has been accentuated by the recent antitrust threats from the Department of Justice. When financial-aid-for-need was introduced as a new concept, replacing “scholarship,” it was agreed among a number of institutions that they would not engage in a financial bidding contest for students. To assure themselves that financial aid was need based, the so-called “overlap group” was created to keep everyone tolerably honest. Lo and behold, the Justice Department decided during the Bush administration, that price bidding was exactly what should be going on and proceeded against the overlap group for “price fixing.” In sum, we have moved in the last 75 years from merit to need to price discounting while retaining some vague aura of the old “scholarship” concept.

Faculty: In 1914 my grandfather accepted a position at Ripon College teaching economics. He had been a pastor in Lakota, North Dakota, and he decided that the only way he could educate his five children was by accepting an academic post and the free tuition that accompanied the appointment. Grandfather did not hold a Ph.D. in economics — I think he went to university before such degrees were given. It may be that his keenest economic insight was on how to educate the children.

There is a large story to be told of the seismic shift in faculty self-understanding from the days of pastoral faculty to professional professors of economics. I want to single out one strand of faculty understanding, however, which goes beyond, if it does not run counter to, the professionalization of faculties: the rise of faculty unions.

Having started my academic career at Princeton with the less than princely sum of $4,000 per year, I have considerable respect for issues of wages, salaries, and working conditions. At the same time, I do not believe that we have been able to construct a proper balance between faculty as professionals and faculty as employees. Traditional and proper union-type issues seem to me to quite swamp the voice of the profession-as-profession. Even at colleges and universities without formal unions, the universal financial crunch on higher education can quite overwhelm the deeper issues of the profession of higher education.

I happen to agree with the Yeshiva decision that faculty are not “labor” under the definition of the National Labor Relations Act. The Court ruled in that case that faculty “in fact substantially and pervasively operate the enterprise.” This is as true in most public institutions as it is in most private colleges and universities. If Yeshiva is correct, it is not clear in these financially pressed times whether faculty will act as individual employees or as managers concerned to sustain the “firm.” Specifically, to what extent do faculty identify with the preservation and enhancement of the special institutional structure at which they practice their several arts? The socioeconomic truth about most of the learned professions is that in our age they live their economic life in things called universities and colleges. While some lucky few may migrate in hard times to posher places, there are few of the latter so that most of us need to attend to the 3,000+ colleges and universities of the land. My view is that those institutions in which faculty join administration in understanding and preserving the essentials of the “firm” will be the success stories of the next decade.

Administration: Having worried about faculty as labor, I should hasten to object to administrators — at least presidents — as “managers.” The idea of the “manager-president” was put forth by Clark Kerr many years ago. Kerr, a distinguished labor mediator, was not all wrong in seeing traces of labor-management conflict in the university, and yet the idea of the administrator manager and mediator seems to me quite inadequate. This is particularly so if what he or she mediates are labor issues and constituency politics. Wages and working conditions do not define the peculiar institution of education; constituency politics confuses the free-for-all of civil society with the methodical pursuit of truth which traditionally defined the academy.

Let me explain that last remark by a diversionary comment on academic freedom. In my judgment, the idea of academic freedom has become hopelessly entangled with the notion of free speech in a civil society. Academic freedom is a particular license to teach and speak on the basis of demonstrated specific competence. Free speech is much broader since it allows anyone to say almost anything short of “fighting words.” Competence is not a prior issue. At one institution with which I was associated we had to decide whether a particular faculty member could offer a course on “creation science.” We decided he could not. He was not in any way a biologist and so we judged he lacked competence to address the issues. One might, on such grounds, not permit a Nobel physicist to give a course on “racial characteristics.”

If the university is a gathering of powerful methods of truth, the president-manager of the place cannot be a mere mediator of a marketplace of ideas. The “management” of the institution, in formal administration and in faculty administration, must undertake the deep and difficult task of shaping the educational and research missions in a manner which advances the students and the disciplines on sensible and productive pathways. I do not say that this is an easy or obvious task: it is much easier just to let every fad and fashion have its day and hope that it will all somehow progress toward enlightenment. I would not hasten toward dogma, but a four-year bull session may produce just what bulls produce — and that is not quite education.

Students: The student story is either much longer or much shorter than my other detections of paradigm drift. Let me take the longer story since it seems clearer.

American education began as an education for the ministry and, while that specific vocation may have faded in importance, the idea of vocation remains enshrined — if not embalmed — in the rhetoric of college presidents to this very day. One is supposed to get “the Princeton Experience,” not just learn calculus. As the nineteenth-century evangelical colleges saw the annual religious revival as the crucial event in college life, so contemporary university and college rhetoric continues to emphasize the education of the whole person: a true discovery of the self.

Noble as that concept may be, it is not at all clear that the drift in student self-understanding is in that direction. Students are much more likely to see the university not as leading to a vocation, but to a job; and the week of classes as external work, not as soul searching. What, after all, is the deep significance of that most annoying of student queries: “Will it be on the exam?” Job and vocation may sound like the same thing, but of course they are not. My father was a doctor. I mean he was a doctor: it was not his job, it was his way of being in the world. For all sorts of complex reasons, we have a much more difficult time identifying public roles with private meaning, so that a radical separation occurs between job and private person.

Let me sum up the direction of the paradigm drift. We have moved from partnership to contractor, from aid to discounting, from professional to labor, from leader to manager, from vocation to job. It is relatively obvious that all those transitions appear to be moving in the same direction: from ends to means. Higher education is not a definer of ends, it is an instrument to goals set elsewhere. Value gets shifted toward jobs, low bids, discount pricing, better wages.

Stan Katz asked me to talk about the challenges of higher education in the decade ahead. In one sense there is only one challenge: economics. But the economic challenge exists at two levels: the actual budget and the re-understanding of higher education solely on economic terms.

We were recently dedicating a building at the University of Rochester: a new residence hall for the Eastman School of Music. It is a wonderful facility, charming and romantic in vision and execution. It was also way over budget. I chided the architect at the ceremony, noting the romantic character of the facility. “Oh yes,” he said, “you know the definition of a romantic: a romantic is someone who knows the value of everything and the price of nothing.” No one has to tell me — or any other university president — about the problems of price. Dollars are reality. We need to bring our buildings in on budget — and our budgets in on budget. What is worrisome is that we will not be able to balance price and value. We can run off with grand visions about our high calling, liberal education, the ultimate value of scholarship and research, and end up romantically broke. But, if we become obsessed with price — if we come to understand ourselves under the terms I have indicated, we can end up as just another consumer commodity.

I am not suggesting that higher education stands wholly outside the needs of the larger society in which it resides. We must be cognizant of new needs, new skills, new populations. But if we are a “business,” we need to understand the business of the business. Just as a financial analyst can dissolve the firm into its balance sheet, so we can dissolve the fundamental transactions of education into economic terminology — contracts, wages, jobs, services — and forget the business of the business which is “education”; education, not political persuasion, social reconstruction, or job training — useful as these may be.

Faculty need to address the fundamental university or college task — not just their departmental or individual needs. Administration must address the character and effectiveness of the university as an educational institution and for this presidents and deans need to have some leading concept of what is higher in higher ed. Students should ask for an education in deep habits of thought, not just today’s skills and fashionable frills.

This talk has been about resources — that always means money — but the resource that may really be lacking is a sense of education.

Works Cited

Wegener, Charles. Liberal Education and the Modern University. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.