The Academic Industry

The Uses of the University.
by Clark Kerr.
Harvard University Press. 140 pp. $2.95.

The argument of Mr. Kerr's book is that the American university is the center of the knowledge industry in this country. There is a heavy demand for certain kinds of knowledge and knowledgeable people to move the society toward the goals it has set for itself, and the university exists to meet these demands. “The process cannot be stopped. The results cannot be foreseen. It remains to adapt.” The universities able to adapt quickly and effectively will be the great universities of the future.

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Mr. Kerr makes a parallel argument about the administration of the university. The President of the university presides over a loosely held set of bureaucracies; he mediates the forces at work among them, feeling their strength, deciding which ones are to be encouraged, which ones blocked, and which ones are so powerful that they would, if opposed, sweep the President away with them. There are varieties of interest groups, all of them legitimate—the students, the faculty, the alumni, the community, the voters, the government, industry, agriculture, “society.” The President has to see that each one of the interests gets its fair hearing, its fair share of legitimate attention and remains in balance with the others.

The President is therefore not an educational leader, nor should he try to be. The faculty would not allow it, and his managerial duties prevent it. Mr. Kerr is suspicious of “vision,” as he puts it. That day is over. The President is now a “mediator-initiator,” although what the mediator can initiate in the system Mr. Kerr describes, God only knows. In the biggest places, a half-billion-dollar budget, tens of thousands of students, a hundred-million-dollar building program, a political apparatus, government contracts, and hundreds of administrative details, get in the way of any hope of doing anything about education. The President has to have the opportunity to persuade (Mr. Kerr's italics), but he must remember that the mediator “wins few clear-cut victories; he must aim more at avoiding the worst than seizing the best. He must find satisfaction in being equally distasteful to each of his constituencies; he must reconcile himself to the harsh reality that successes are shrouded in silence while failures are spotlighted in notoriety.”

But why not seize the best? Why be distasteful to all constituencies? Why submit to the genteel cynicism of the academics? We are told by Mr. Kerr of the enormous growth in power of the organized intellect within the knowledge industry. We are told nothing about the way in which the power can be directed, by the President of the university, among others, toward ideal ends. “The ends are there,” says Mr. Kerr, “the means must be ever improved in a competitive dynamic environment.”

The ends are not there. They change all the time, and the means determine the ends. If a President buys scholars and his coaches buy football players, this defines the ends he is seeking—prestige and money. If the President is simply an executive with all the equipment of the “mediator-initiator,” and his twin purpose is “the keeping of the peace and the furthering of progress,” how does he choose which means for what ends? How does he decide what kind of peace is to be kept, what kind of progress is to be made, and what direction it should take? Or, for that matter, who decides what education is and what direction it should take? Not the faculty, since, as Mr. Kerr points out, they are not interested in education or educational policy. Not the students, they are never consulted. Not the vice-presidents and deans who, under the present system, are middle-management mediators in their own right, administering sections of the knowledge industry. Who then? The alumni? The Board of Regents? The state legislature? The government? A committee of outside experts?

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A university, no matter how big, must be a university, not a “multiversity,” and if it exists as a collection of activities held together only by a common name—if, as Mr. Kerr says, “it has been embraced and led down the garden path by its environmental suitors,” isn't it time that it shocked itself by its own situation and discovered at last “whether it has a brain as well as a body”? How can we, in view of Mr. Kerr's account of the seduction of the university by money and prestige, his statements about the scandalous neglect of undergraduates, the entrepreneurship among faculty members in the field of government contracts, the manipulative attitudes which have replaced the idea of comradeship among scholars and students—how can we accept, condone, or advocate a philosophy of mediation when the responsibility of the university is to give intellectual and cultural leadership?

The university is becoming organized so that competitive success by its members (high grades and prestige for students, high salaries and prestige for faculty members) is the criterion of value and reward. The society is so organized that competitive success in the economic and social system is the mark of American virtue. Then from what corner of the entire culture, if not from the universities, will come those ideas and criticisms which take the society out of its narrow orbit of self-acceptance?

The President of the United States is a mediator, in Mr. Kerr's terms. If that is all he is, he becomes a president like General Eisenhower, and decisions are made by the equilibrium of forces, not by the exercise of thought and imagination.

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The big universities have changed in precisely the ways Mr. Kerr has described. They have become corporations for producing, transmitting, and marketing knowledge, and in the process have lost their intellectual and moral identity. At the time that they should have been creative centers for the development of strategies for peace, disarmament, and world unity, they were busy with defense department contracts. When the educational problem of the Negro was getting worse by the day, they were busy making admission requirements more and more favorable to the white middle-class student from privileged environments. When the social habits and material ambition of the citizens were following the lead of the advertising agencies, the universities were producing graduates whose intellectual equipment was suited to reading advertising copy. When the public schools were groping for ways of improving the intellectual content of their curriculum, the universities were sneering at teachers colleges and schools of education as the province of the intellectually unfit and the spiritually slothful. At a time when political and social movements have been promoting authoritarian causes on a basis of anti-intellectualism, the universities have frowned on political action by liberal student activists.

In the face of all this, Mr. Kerr seeks a proper balance among competing interests, both in the relative importance attaching to the divisions of knowledge—the social sciences, the humanities, the creative arts, the natural sciences—and in the relative importance of teaching, research, professional education, general education, community service.

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What is wrong with Mr. Kerr's argument is that the pluralism of American society, while one of its primary characteristics, is not a pluralism devoid of all values, spreading in all directions like the content of a marsh. A poem is greater than a stock dividend, students are more important than projects, although all are necessary parts of the university structure. The university may be “a mechanism held together by administrative rules and powered by money,” but the power of the money must be used to achieve certain large aims which it is up to the educators in the universities to decide. I do not see how the university president and his colleagues can run away from this. Nor do I see why the classical view of the European university should be held up as a model for universities everywhere else. I am weary of seeing Flexner, Newman, von Humboldt, and the rest cited as those who have given us the definition of the university, with deviations considered to be defections from intellectual virtue. The American land-grant university is a new institution, and need deliver no apology for deviating from German, British, or early American models. These were the agencies of a class society and existed to create an elite of the educated to govern in matters of taste, religion, economics, and politics. The land-grant university in America possesses its own particular genius. It was developed to serve the needs of a new kind of society in which the intellectual life was not to be divorced from the practical. Mr. Kerr's idea of a university designed to serve the needs of society is one which accepts the reality of a pluralism of social need and purpose. But it is still too narrow to define the university's mission.

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The major component missing in Mr. Kerr's conception is the use of the university to inform, enlighten, and enrich the lives of the students. It is clear from those passages of the book in which Mr. Kerr deals with students that in the scale of university interests they are close to the bottom. Mr. Kerr describes their plight, but has no plan of rescue. In his suggestions for the use of federal funds for education appear ideas for federal research centers, the continued support of research projects, a National Foundation for Higher Education, graduate fellowships, a national Council of Advisors on Education, but the most he can produce for students is to suggest that “federal agencies should permit, even encourage, post-doctoral fellows and research professors to teach one-quarter or even one-third time at no cost to the institution,” and that teaching assistantships should be taken as seriously as research assistantships and fellowships.

But this palliative will hardly do. For the university, no matter how large and no matter how diverse its activities, exists within the society as the major force to keep the society intellectually honest and politically healthy. The students, and especially the undergraduates, are the instruments of cultural and social change, their minds are the means through which a society seeks its own future.

The production of knowledge and of knowledgeable people possessing marketable skills could presumably be done elsewhere than in the universities. Some business corporations and government agencies already do it, and American style and efficiency in organization make this comparatively easy, given the funds and a few first-rate executives. The hard task is to develop an educational community in which the central values of intellect and sensibility are shared by all its members without regard to the particular form of knowledge or skill possessed by the individuals in it.

What saves a university from becoming a training institute or a research institute is the student-body, and the mark of a true university is whether or not it takes its students seriously. They constitute the intellectual resources without which knowledge remains inert and social progress becomes impossible. To neglect them is to indicate that one is prepared to accept a role for the university as the servant of society, and as a place where faculty members; research scholars, and educational administrators band together to further interests peculiar to themselves and their clients.

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