Who Really Runs American Universities? And Who Should?

tags: higher education



Jim Sleeper lectures in political science at Yale and posts frequently at TPM. He has been a New York newspaper columnist and is the author of The Closest of Strangers and Liberal Racism.




Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.

Derek Bok was named president of Harvard not once but twice: in 1971, after anti-Vietnam War protests of 1969 had left students' blood on his predecessor Nathan Pusey's hands and had shut down the university in 1970; and again in 2006, after a faculty vote of no-confidence in the obstreperous Lawrence Summers prompted the obstreperous Wall Street Journal to claim that Harvard's faculty has "as much intellectual diversity as the [North Korean] Pyongyang parliament."

Each time, Bok worked to heal bitter divisions that threatened to make the university ungovernable. Each time, he worked to renew American liberal education's essential but always fragile mission: not only to serve the liberal capitalist republic on whose Constitution and munificence academic freedom depends, but also to question and sometimes even challenge the very corporate and state powers on whose restraint academic and political freedom also depend.

Each time, Bok succeeded in that high-wire act. "Awesome" is a word I wish my students at Yale would outgrow, but I've talked with Bok just often enough since 1998 to know that it characterizes his balancing of an adherence to high principle, an alertness to paradox, and an adroitness in leadership. And now, at 83, he has published Higher Education in America, a magisterial yet often contrarian assessment of challenges facing university governance, teaching, and, indeed, survival.

Wesleyan University President Michael Roth has just reviewed Bok's new book briefly here in Huffington Post, but my purpose is different. I want to tell a couple of stories about Bok that aren't in the book and to quote some passages that Yale's new president, Peter Salovey, and its new provost, Ben Polak, and their deans and functionaries should read, as should faculty at Yale and other institutions who are working to defend academic freedom against manifold encroachments from people who would destroy it in order to save it.

Bok shows why defending academic freedom requires hard judgment calls, such as one he doesn't mention in the book: Shortly after becoming president in 1971, he unilaterally tenured the eminent political theorist and European Jewish emigre Judith Shklar, naming her the John Cowles Professor of Government in a department where she'd been languishing for almost 15 years as an untenured lecturer.

A Harvard president has a "constitutional" right to do that. But was Bok's move an unwarranted encroachment on scholarly self-governance and peer review? Or a long overdue blow against a sexism that hadn't openly declared itself?

These questions take on new inflections if you imagine that Lawrence Summers tenuring someone he favored in a foot-dragging department. Bok was able to do it only after he pondered peculiarities of the case that I won't go into here and because enough faculty trusted his balance of high principle, alertness to paradox, and nuance in leadership to accept, even welcome, his decision.

Such was Bok's credibility that not only did he serve as president for 20 continuous years, until 1991; he was called back for a year in 2006 to put Harvard together after the division and debacle of the Summers years.

If American universities are to survive what's happening to this country, many brave, sound judgments will have to be made by faculty and administrators, often working together, but often by challenging one another. They'll have to find ways to steer liberal education through cultural, economic, and political riptides without degrading it into a commodity, a grand strategy, or an ornament for a global managerial class that answers to no republican polity or code.

With students and even faculty scrambling to serve the casino-like financing of a consumer-groping global juggernaut that's delivering millions from grinding poverty into soulless depravity, who'll ensure that universities keep asking the right questions about it and finding answers that haven't been over-determined by profiteering or political pressure?

Bok doesn't tell old stories to guide the perplexed. He offers wise judgments and summarizes new research to show liberal educators know what to watch out for and how to be better navigators in shifting cross-currents. Thus the same Derek Bok who elevated Judith Shklar and learned that "Presidents may have a better sense of the real-world constraints and the institution's needs" also writes that "professors frequently have a clearer appreciation of academic values than do top leadership."

And he warns that presidents who "believe that they will be judged almost entirely by their success in 'growing' the institution... are more likely to resort to dubious methods of raising money and to overlook nascent threats to academic values."

"It is executive authority, after all, not [faculty] governance, that was primarily responsible for such debacles as the well-known excesses of big-time college athletics and the costly failure of for-profit internet ventures undertaken by several prominent universities around the beginning of the century," he adds.

He even finds it "difficult to accept the view of trustees and former presidents who claim that [shared administrative-faculty governance of universities] dysfunctional and that faculty participation should diminish. Professors have obvious interest in the internal affairs of universities and their support for decisions affecting teaching and research is so essential to success that there is no real alternative to shared governance."

Shared governance isn't achieved if administrators appoint faculty "amen corners" of professorial courtiers who don't communicate openly with colleagues and aren't much trusted by them. Such appointments break the faith and trust that universities depend on.

Yale's president Richard Levin and four of its trustees broke that faith when they unilaterally committed Yale's name and its administrative and pedagogical resources to a joint venture with the corporatist, manifestly repressive city-state of Singapore. They broke it further by appointing an "advisory committee" of ambitious professors in New Haven to mediate the deal.

Two earlier Yale presidents who savored academic leadership's paradoxes and nuances without sacrificing its principles were A. Whitney Griswold, a descendant of colonial Connecticut governors who crusaded for liberal education against both McCarthyism and Communism during the Cold War, and his successor Kingman Brewster, Jr., a direct descendant of the Elder William Brewster, the Plymouth Pilgrims' minister, who defended liberal education against both would-be revolutionaries in the streets and conservative reactionaries among Yale alumni who had somehow missed out on liberal education itself.

Doing that took not only immense personal strength but a deep sense of liberal education's mission and the university's soul. Brewster once deflated one of his relatives' preening about their distinguished lineage by joking that he was glad they'd had "the wisdom to choose such a magnificent ancestor."

It was out of that sort of confidence that, when Columbia University exploded in a police bust of anti-war demonstrators assailing an administration as clueless as Harvard's would be a year later, Brewster called his old Harvard Law School colleague Archibald Cox, the future Watergate special prosecutor, to propose an emergency strategy session at a secret picnic spot between New Haven and Cambridge.

Cox brought along Bok, who was just then becoming the new dean of Harvard Law School, to the hillside meeting with Brewster near Mystic Seaport, on the Connecticut coast. Bok recalls that Brewster arrived in a limousine bearing a butler who set out a table with white linen service and crystal - another instance of Brewsteresque panache that presaged an intensely serious discussion from which he emerged to become the Ivy president whose adroit balancing of high principle and alertness to paradox prevented Yale from exploding during the 1970 murder and conspiracy trials of several Black Panthers, including Bobby Seale, in New Haven.

Brewster's public statement, given atop a metaphorical powder keg, that he was "skeptical of the ability of Black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the U.S." disarmed some self-styled revolutionaries who were hankering to blow up Yale, but it made him a lightning rod for alumni and other conservative critics whose bitter resentments of the anti-war and black power demonstrators might have fallen even more heavily upon students who were supporting the trial defendants. His strategic opening of the campus, instead of barricading it, may have saved it from being stormed, occupied, and violently vacated, as Harvard's and Columbia's had been.

Although Bok didn't need to head off such violence as Harvard's president, he did have to cope with its aftermath. And although he doesn't write about that in this book, academic leaders and scholars will devour his judicious renderings of challenges facing liberal education's mission now, a mission that is both conservative and radical: As universities struggle to separate educational fads and corporate mirages from reforms that truly strengthen their capacity to preserve and extend knowledge, they learn to resist the seductions and manic demands of profiteering that stampedes the faddists toward dead ends.

Among such dead ends, Bok warns, is the predatory sub-priming of higher education by some for-profit universities.

He notes that only 20 percent of American undergraduates attend four-year, residential colleges and that many of the rest are older, have dependents, and are desperate to find careers. While some profit-driven schools may serve them, too many for-profits play on young people's yearnings, drawing them into inappropriate environments and insupportable debts.

In the process, universities are transformed from crucibles of a shared civilization and civic cultures into over-the-counter cultures, and students are taught not to be citizens who can deepen their commitments to society while in college, but to be consumers who are out only for themselves.

To keep from drifting toward such degradation of society and individuals, universities need wiser "investors," some of them public, some private, some intellectual, some economic - civic-minded leaders who "are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it," as Thomas Jefferson wrote in founding the University of Virginia in 1819.

Bok shows that neither a top-down, business-corporate model nor a statist one will encourage universities to "tolerate any error" or to liberate reason to combat it. Doing that requires the artistry and courage of a Whitney Griswold, a Kingman Brewster, or a Derek Bok - not necessarily an American aristocrat, as they were, but anyone who can measure up to the challenges Bok surveys in Higher Education in America.

Repeatedly he urges an understanding of undergraduate liberal education as a resource for citizens who can think critically and give voice effectively to their concerns while listening to the concerns of others - even when they're "citizens" of the world more than of a particular country. As Bok poses the challenge, "How can colleges prepare their students for a world in which their lives are likely to be linked increasingly with countries and cultures far different from their own?"

If, for example, New York University wants to prepare its students by opening portal campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, shouldn't it first have proved that it can prepare a student from the affluent New York suburb of Scarsdale to "link increasingly" to a student from the South Bronx, where NYU abandoned a handsome campus years ago? Shouldn't Yale show that it can link its students to those of the radically different cultures and social classes living only a few blocks away?

Or are campuses abroad more a dodge than an engagement of the differences that will really matter in the global village? Bok stops short of endorsing them without strong cautions. He cites enormous political risks and their drain on energies and resources that are increasingly needed at home. And he tells me that takes a dim view of Singapore, where Yale has co-founded a Yale-National University of Singapore College.

"I had my own run-in with [Singapore's authoritarian founder] Lee Kuan Yew some years ago," he told me, "when the government in Singapore jailed the young head of the Harvard Club for 'consorting with the wrong people.' I wrote in protest to Lee and was surprised to receive a letter of several typewritten pages from him trying to persuade me that Asian values are different from those in the United States."

Lee's concoction of "Asian values" has been widely discredited -- and he himself has tempered it -- as a deterrent to Western moralists who dare to judge repressive societies. But as authoritarian rulers try to ride the golden riptides of global finance, communications, labor migration, and consumer marketing, they're expanding state coercion to shore up the social cohesion their societies once drew from the Confucian, Islamic, or even Western colonial traditions that are dissolving amid huge new inequalities and degrading and criminal behavior.

The Economist magazine casts "a sceptical eye" on this variant of state-capitalist control, which it says was pioneered by Singapore's Lee, whom it characterized as "a tireless advocate of 'Asian values,' by which he meant a mixture of family values and authoritarianism."

Such rulers want liberal education to help them finesse the brutality and hypocrisy of their bargains with "go go" economic development in the name of increasing prosperity (and increasing inequality and cultural instability.) They want American colleges' imprimaturs and the "critical thinking" and felicity in writing and speaking that a liberal education may provide to regime managers and spokesmen.

But Bok told me that "Nothing in that experience [with Lee Kwan Yew] would tempt me to try to establish a Harvard College in Singapore." His commitment is to improving teaching and learning for undergraduates, and while no one questions that many students in burgeoning new Asian markets are energetic and terrifically bright, their regimes are bent on channeling what they learn. Universities have more than enough such "channeling" to contend with in the United States, whose civil society and politics are collapsing before our eyes for want of civic-republican leadership training of the kind that American colleges used to provide.

Bok worries that even most professors are unaware of a large, growing body of rigorous research that discredits their rosy assumptions about what their students are actually learning. Only "efforts from outside the faculty itself" will "make professors aware that the methods of instruction they are using or the assumptions on which their course requirements rely are open to serious question in light of emerging evidence."

The technological opportunities and social pressures, and, with them, the habits and expectations of undergraduates, have changed so much in recent decades that they retain far less from lectures and spend less time studying than their lecturers assume.

University departments haven't taken a hard look what they're actually teaching to undergraduates who'll never become scholars but who need to enhance critical thinking and communicating as citizens and professionals - abilities that, the best research now shows, aren't enhanced by most of their courses:

"Only a small fraction of the questions asked on exams in liberal arts colleges and research universities demanded critical thinking; most questions simply called upon lower levels of skills of memory and comprehension of material."

"The key to educational reform lies in gathering evidence that will convince the faculty that current teaching methods are not accomplishing the results that professors assume.... Once that is acknowledged, the underlying values of the faculty will usually compel them to seek corrective actions. The critical questions, then, are whether academic leaders will actively seek to identify existing weaknesses and how they can best go about doing so."

Bok cites devastating, depressing studies of what undergraduates actually take away from coursework, especially in their majors. Here the same Bok who recognizes the indispensability of faculty to university governance notes that professors need to be prodded by others - including enlightened college presidents -- to stop using "academic freedom" and "autonomy" to cover for self-interested methodological preoccupations that compromise their teaching of undergraduates who won't follow them into labyrinths of research.

"The rationale for the discipline-based liberal arts major is far from clear," he notes, challenging departments to develop learning objectives for students who won't become academics. And he suggests breaking up lectures into interactive and applied group exercises.

He's remarkably - and, again, perhaps, paradoxically -- open to pedagogical possibilities in emerging technologies, as long as we don't inflate them for mercenary reasons: "As technology develops, [online] encounters will come to seem more and more similar to classes in which all participants are sitting in the same room." Even "computer games, along with avatars in virtual words and other vivid simulations, create additional opportunities for engrossing learning activities...."

I haven't done even rough justice here to Higher Education in America. It has sections on professional schools, research protocols and trends, and more. Bok has also written other books on universities in the marketplace, undergraduate education, and affirmative action.

But university leaders and faculty who want to save liberal education from corporatization and to rescue undergraduates' preparation for citizenship from consumerism should read this book and put more energy in to shared governance as he portrays it and has mastered it, with all its tensions and warts.


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