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February 2, 2011

the greedy ghost of market madness in the university

Simon Head writes:

The Golden Compass author Philip Pullman makes a similar argument about British public libraries in a speech about the "greedy ghost of market madness" that is widely circulating online. (Eighteen thousand Facebook users have "liked" it so far.) Both authors treat several phenomena as part of one package:

I would unpack this bundle because I don't think the elements all deserve the same response. Just because a policy originated at McKinsey & Co.--or Margaret Thatcher liked it--it doesn't mean it's wrong. The United States should not be synonymous with Philistine market fundamentalism, especially since our state universities have long been beacons of scholarship and service.

Nor is it gauche to think of scholarship and publishing as economic enterprises. They do cost money (which other people pay in taxes, tuition, or gifts), and they yield products. We must be able to answer questions about our efficiency and value; those questions are not out of bounds if we expect people to subsidize us. Any amount spent on universities or libraries is not spent on hospitals and wetland restorations--unless we are willing to raise taxes, which has real costs for taxpayers and which requires their assent.

The cuts in British social services sound draconian to me: they are damaging as macroeconomic policy as well as unjust to the people who need them most. But one could introduce accountability and competition while raising the amount of funds--that is the central direction of US education policy under Obama.

Simon Head rightly notes that American universities exploit adjunct faculty. That is unconscionable. But a four-year American college education is extremely expensive already, and if the only reform we make is to pay adjuncts fair wages, tuition will rise substantially. The whole model of selling students hours of exposure to professors may not be sustainable. We are only making it work by substituting graduate students and adjuncts for most of the professors. We may need entirely different models of learning, such as computer-based simulations, to complement the traditional classroom.

Ultimately, I think we need to be accountable for quality, efficiency, and impact, but we should borrow business and market methods only if they fit the situation. The British have adopted a foolish policy of measuring the quantity of peer-reviewed books and articles and the number of times they are cited. This truly is "market fundamentalism," because it assumes that decisions to publish or to cite someone else's work are evidence of demand, and demand is evidence of quality or relevance. Those assumptions make some sense when people choose to buy consumer goods with their own money. But citing someone else's work costs me nothing. It is not a valid "market signal."

One can easily imagine a group of 250 professors who do entirely cheesy and useless work. But they all busily cite each other, give each other favorable peer reviews, and demand that their universities subscribe to the journals that they produce for themselves. They look like a highly "productive" scholarly community, worthy of public support. Meanwhile, the solitary scholar who spends ten years writing an unfashionable magnum opus looks like a complete dead weight for at least nine of those ten years.

Although the British government has taken to a ludicrous extreme the habit of evaluating quality as a function of citations, American universities do that, too--on the ground that we lack the expertise to assess the intrinsic merits of our colleagues' work. (So we leave the assessment to other specialists in their field.) But whole fields can be worth more or less than other fields. There is no substitute for deciding what is good. Evaluation must be discursive; we must be able to offer and assess reasons and explanations.

Universities, literary publishing houses, libraries, and other cultural institutions should certainly fight brutal cuts, foolish ranking systems, and ignorant critics. But the responses of Head and Pullman strike me as overly defensive, as if we have always served the public fairly and well and all our problems originated "in American business schools and management consulting firms." Part of our response must be to explain how we will do better in the future.

February 2, 2011 2:24 PM | category: academia | Comments



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