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Globe Essay

You're getting the universities you want - and deserve Add to ...

Is the chief thing protecting our universities merely that they're Too Big to Fail?

No one loves universities today. Not parents, who complain of paying so much, and not students, who complain of getting so little. Not the underpaid and untenured journeymen who do so much of the teaching, and no, not even us senior tenured inmates who supposedly lead the life of Riley. Not the left, which lashes universities for their complicity in inequality and their subservience to business interests, and not the right, which berates them for their inefficiency, irrelevance and stifling atmosphere of left-lib ideological conformity.

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Even The Economist weighed in from its Olympian heights last week, wondering whether American universities will go the way of General Motors. Once it, too, was flush, innovative, beloved of its customers, globally dominant and globally envied, then … pfftt. (That was the air going out of its tires.) The American university similarly bestrides the world as a colossus, dominating all lists of the best institutions, hogging the best researchers and generating the most and best research, but …

The Economist notes the critiques just listed, and reads the handwriting on the wall. Tuition costs have risen in the past 30 years at a rate dwarfing even that of medical costs. Yet, students get ever less value for this money as universities privilege research (and bloated administrations) over teaching. Even so, research productivity has diminished along with the public funds invested in it. "The luxury model," the magazine concludes, "is unlikely to survive [the likely]prolonged economic downturn" and so, "America's universities … may go the way of GM."

Our Canadian universities may be no more than junior colossi, and luxury has never been on the menu. (When I visit my colleagues at Stanford I feel like a poor relation.) Still, the complaints heard here echo those south of the border. Here, too, tuition rises (albeit slowly and from a laughably low base), and the other discontents mentioned also simmer steadily.

While there's justice to all these critiques, they reflect a common misperception. It's that our universities have a will of their own, along with the power to accomplish it - that they go their own way, arrogantly heedless of society's interests, bad dogs that it's high time society brought to heel.

Actually, universities enjoy no such independence. They are what society has made them. Instead of flaying them for their aloofness, critics should thank them for their submissiveness. Throw those dogs a bone.

To see this clearly you just need to follow the money. Universities have only three sources of income, apart from their (woefully inadequate) investments. These are public funding, private philanthropy (whether corporate, institutional or individual) and user fees, i.e. tuition. As a result, they're predictably eager to please government, business, donors, students and parents. It's pathetic, really. It's in the service of this fivefold placation that universities trumpet not just how useful they are but how green, how inclusive and how generally right-thinking.

Far from threatening to slip their leashes, universities work tirelessly at giving the public what it wants. First, then, come research and all the good things springing from it, from economic growth to advances in medicine. Next comes "accessibility," the availability of higher education and hence occupational credentials to as many of society's children as possible. Last but not least comes achieving these goals on a shoestring. All right then, Mr. Complainer: You try to design, within these parameters, better universities than the ones we have.

Such are a university's basic (and impeccably mainstream) concerns: Everything else is window dressing. It's true, of course, that professors' opinions tend to be to the left of those of society as a whole. Being a social scientist, I decided to conduct my own poll, accurate within 9 percentage points except on Thursdays. The result: A native Hamiltonian is 10 times as likely to root for the Toronto Argos as a humanities professor to vote Tory. (If a scientific poll conducted by an expert like me won't persuade you, what will?)

While true, this is not as damaging to the image of the university as we might suppose. Populists and conservatives may fume, but most citizens neither know what professors think nor much care. Their concern is just that universities continue to churn out both useful research and ever more millions of diplomas. It's not with professors but with society that the preoccupation with research originates, along with indifference to what students learn, so long as they earn degrees for it. Does a professor make research his main concern, treating teaching as merely an adjunct to it? Don't expect society to chastise him for it. In fact, he's the one who will receive the Order of Canada (especially if he works in science or medicine), not some schlep whose greatest contributions were in the classroom.

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