« guest blogger: Lt. Brandon del Pozo | Main | an embassy from Hugo Chávez »

December 5, 2006

universities, civic engagement, and the global market

If I were asked why most universities do not put a lot of effort into civic education or civic work in their own communities, I would say that it's because they compete for students. Prospective students and their parents want credentials that are valuable in the job market. What affects the value of a diploma is not what the student learns in college, but how competitive it was to enter the university in the first place. Thus admissions offices do most of the economic work of universities, by selecting and sorting applicants.

However, to attract top students, universities need the assets that enhance their reputations, which include famous and sought-after faculty and well endowed facilities. Universities do whatever it takes to draw top faculty and donors, and neither group is particularly concerned about civic education or engagement. In any case, institutions make few important decisions about their own priorities. The critical decisions are made elsewhere in the academic labor market. For example, faculty are promoted when other institutions try to lure them away. Thus, even if a university decided to reward professors for civic engagement, the actual rewards would go to those with high market value.

Thorstein Veblen already recognized this situation in 1918 (see The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men). But conditions are worse in a globally competitive economy wherein risk has been individualized and each student feels that his or her economic future will be determined by credentials--not by family networks, unions, welfare systems, or even genuine learning.

Why then do I not argue, at least in passing, that the problem for civic engagement is contemporary capitalism? (Or I could say "globalization," or "neoliberalism".)

First, because I think we can fight the problem I have outlined above without battling capitalism. We can organize faculty who are dissatisfied with a life shorn of civic or public significance. We can bring colleges and universities together in consortia such as Campus Compact to resist competitive pressures. We can develop forms of civic education that appeal to prospective students because they may confer job skills. And we can press for changes in goverment policies, such as the proportion of federal work study grants that are reserved for community-based jobs.

Second, I am not willing to call capitalism "the problem," because it seems to me to combine a mix of positive and negative features. Global capitalism undermines traditional cultures and democratic sovereignty (see last Tuesday's post), but it also unleashes human creativity and freedom. A university insulated from the market might be a refuge for high culture, critical thought, and civic engagement. Or it might just consume public funds and tuition dollars without any accountability for outcomes.

December 5, 2006 7:12 AM | category: none


Dr. Levine,

I was also thinking about these types of problems, and I feel like, and I think CIRCLE is a great example of this, that there are "Moneyball" solutions to this problem. Which is to say, while academic institutions like big donors and professors who are getting lured away by others, they seem to like them because they have some estimable measure of worth based on those by which judgments can be made. It seems like creating departmental "sub-organizations" in Universities that have strict, achievable objectives and focused mission plans would also be something that universities would like very much, because they are something by which they can evaluate the investment and also something that provides concrete results that can be deomstrated to others. Maryland has initiatives, collaboratives, cooloquiua, etc. all over the place, it seems like, as you seem to imply, imply a question of organization and willpower.

December 6, 2006 12:45 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Steven Maloney

I'm proud of CIRCLE, which is very focused and cost-effective--partly because we must raise every penny ourselves. However, I don't think a university should be mainly composed of institutes like CIRCLE. We can raise money because we have interests and aims that happen to coincide with major foundations' objectives. If we were interested in postmodern theory or medieval art or communism, nobody would fund us. So somehow the university must preserve intellectual freedom while being held accountable. That's not an easy combination to achieve, and my little organization doesn't provide an adequate answer.

December 8, 2006 12:56 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Peter Levine

Site Meter