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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.

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 …

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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?)

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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.

And really, how could it be otherwise? A democratic society is a utilitarian society. Tocqueville observed this in 1830, and would observe it again today. Citizens value their comfort, health, safety, prosperity and whatever they perceive as contributing to them. They also want all these good things as cheaply as possible. So such a society both needs universities and can be counted on to squeeze them.

As for theory, it's of concern to the public only so long as it issues in practice, just as education matters mostly insofar as it serves as training. Of the different sectors of the university, then, science, which costs by far the most, finds it the easiest to justify its costs to the public. The humanities, which demand only a pittance, encounter the most resistance.

Ah, the humanities. Don't we need them, too? Don't they make good human beings better, and bad ones less bad? My Globe colleague John Allemang seems to think so. In these pages last Saturday he even posed the question, "Can the liberal arts cure jihadists?" His answer was more or less affirmative. Here he drew inspiration from the American professor Martha Nussbaum, a tireless promoter of the humanities to an increasingly skeptical society. Ms. Nussbaum defends the humanities as (among other things) hotbeds of empathy. So if jihadis are deficient in that quality, why not send them off to study with Ms. Nussbaum (preferably before they've turned jihadi and are bent on vaporizing her classroom)?

I'm leery of this argument. The humanities seem neither necessary for empathy nor at all sufficient for it. Educated Nazis, after all, were notoriously fond of Mozart. That doesn't detract from his greatness. It does suggest rather forcefully that evil takes the humanities in stride.

But while the humanities won't redeem twisted people, they can do much for normal ones. Properly taught, they are vital to the health not only of the university but of society. Of the various disciplines they alone challenge students to rise above the reigning (and deadening) societal obsession with utility. They alone pose the question of what it means to be human, while introducing students to the greatest minds of the past to help them in addressing it.

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What Mr. Allemang may not know, however (and Nussbaum would just as soon forget), is what possesses the humanities these days. If students flee them in droves, it's not just because their occupational benefits are dubious. An arid "postmodernist" scholasticism currently dominates much of the study of literature and has spread from it to other humanistic disciplines. What passes for excitement in this milieu is to pronounce a topic "undertheorized" - and then proceed to "theorize" it, dousing it in buckets of the stuff. The humanities so conceived don't raise the great human questions, nor do they turn to great thinkers or writers for guidance. These merely furnish the occasion for predetermined ideologically correct conclusions swathed in the latest fashionable jargon. The original text all but disappears beneath so much pseudo philosophy. Such professors "theorize" their undergraduates right out the door.

There are scholars who eschew these tendencies, of course, and some humanities departments offer more balanced approaches than others. The ailment is pervasive, however, and the prestige of the humanities has suffered. This is one problem for which academics have only themselves to blame, for here the broader society is indifferent - and thanks in part to their antics becomes more so with every passing day. The wounds of the humanities are largely self-inflicted.

For the most part, however, society has gotten the universities it wants (and deserves). No doubt they could cater to its wishes even better, achieving still greater efficiency, offering still broader access, and so on. If they fall down in these respects, though, it's certainly not for want of trying.

Returning to The Economist's dire prophecy, do Canada's universities likewise risk going the way of GM? They should be so lucky. Such a future would bode not doom but eventual revival. It would show that nothing had been ailing them that a $50-billion bailout couldn't cure. Call, write or twitter your provincial legislator today.

Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

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