When powerful individuals muck with professors or deans are they that different in the 21st century from the 19th? I don’t think so, but Siva Vaidhyanathan uses that contrast to critique recent events at UVA. Throw in recent efforts by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) “to prohibit the National Science Foundation from funding political science research” and it turns out that people love to pick on academia at various levels. The Flake issue focused on what he called “meritless” research such as “‘$700,000 to develop a new model for international climate change analysis’ and the ‘$600,000 to try to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do.'” That these turns have problems is correct. To me, however, the problem may be that universities have been preaching to the choir. We have faith. Many do not. These problems are old. Our solutions may need updating.
Siva starts with:
In the 19th century, robber barons started their own private universities when they were not satisfied with those already available. But Leland Stanford never assumed his university should be run like his railroad empire. Andrew Carnegie did not design his institute in Pittsburgh to resemble his steel company. The University of Chicago, John D. Rockefeller’s dream come true, assumed neither his stern Baptist values nor his monopolistic strategies. That’s because for all their faults, Stanford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller knew what they didn’t know.
In fact, the tenure system traces its routes in part to Stanford, as in Leland, and a fight over what was good work. In 1998 tenure was under scrutiny as the economy was shrinking and many things were up for grabs. The Stanford Today wrote about tenure there and admitted:
An unpleasant chapter in Stanford history played a key role in the history of tenure. In 1900, sociology professor E. A. Ross was forced from Stanford after upsetting university co-founder Jane Stanford with public speeches against Chinese immigration and the supposed sins of corporations. Seven other professors later resigned in protest, and the incident fueled a national coalition that wrote the so-called Declaration of 1915.
Vaidhyanathan is correct that treating educational institutions like businesses is a mistake, but this pattern of questioning academics and education has a long history. The 1998 article from the Stanford Today hits the same notes about the difference between long term and short term goals, how business is different than education, and the need to “buffer [researchers] from political and administrative pressure.” The tenure process itself traces to fights over what is good research. So how do we explain why education matters and especially academic freedom? Siva, others, and I have called out the way education is different. My fear is that most don’t care about these points and that like debates in cyberlaw, saying “keep it open” is not that compelling. Patrick O’Donell’s comment to Frank’s post offers great resources to understand the problem, but whether any but the converted will read or care is the problem for me. The project may need to be a deeper look at what education does and why it should be funded for reasons beyond market metrics. Explaining education in ways that make sense to folks outside academia is probably necessary too.