¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 “American higher education is dominated by a model in which status is attained through the maintenance of scarcity, and academic elitism has become a defensive posture and abdication of implicit responsibility.” —Michael M. Crow and William B. Dabars, Designing the New American University
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Roughly around the time that I first began sketching the outline for this book, I attended a day-long workshop on new models for university press publishing, for which the provost of a large state research university had been invited to give a keynote address. The talk came during a day of intensive discussions amongst the workshop’s participants, university press and university library leaders, all of whom had a real stake in the future of the institution’s role in disseminating scholarly work as openly as possible. And the keynote was quite powerful: the provost described his campus’s efforts to embrace a renewed mission of public service, and he emphasized the role that broad public access to the faculty’s work might play in transforming the environment in which the university operates today. The university’s singular purpose is the public good, he said, but we are seen as being self-interested. Can opening our work up to the world help change the public discourse about us?
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 It was an inspiring talk, both rich in its analysis of how the university found its way into the economic and social problems it now faces and hopeful in thinking about new possibilities for renewed public commitment. Or, I should say, it was inspiring right up until the moment when the relationship between scholarly publishing and tenure and promotion was raised. And then it was as though someone had dimmed the lights: we heard about the importance of maintaining prestige within the faculty through modes of assessment that ensure that faculty members are publishing in the highest-quality venues, conventionally understood. Frustrated by that shift, I asked the provost during the question-and-answer period what the possibilities might be for a very important, highly visible research university that understands its primary mission to be service to the public good to remove the tenure and promotion logjam in the transformation of scholarly communication by convening the entire academic campus, from the provost through the deans, chairs, and faculty, in a collective project of revising—really, re-imagining—all of its personnel processes and the standards on which they rely in light of a primary emphasis on the public good? What would become possible if all of those policies worked to ensure that what was considered excellence in research and teaching had its basis in the university’s core service mission?
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 3 The provost’s response was, more or less, that any institution that genuinely took on such a project would immediately lose competitiveness within its institutional cohort.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 1 To say that this response was disappointing would be an understatement, but it was if nothing else honest. It made absolutely clear where, for most research universities, the rubber meets the road, and why lots of talk about openness, impact, public service, and generosity falls apart at the point at which it crosses paths with the more entrenched if unspoken principles around which our institutions are actually arranged today. The inability of institutions of higher education to transform their internal structures and processes in order to fully align with their stated mission and values may mean that the institutions have not in fact fully embraced that mission or those values. Or perhaps it’s that there is a shadow mission—chasing Harvard—and a shadow value—competition—that exclude the possibility of that full alignment.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Maybe this is unfair, or hopelessly naive, of me to point out: in the actually existing world in which we live, our institutions are in fact in constant competition with one another, as are pretty much all other aspects of contemporary American society. They compete for funding, for donors, for faculty, for students, for attention. But that approach to institutional existence—what Chris Newfield sums up as the mandate to “compete all the time”—forecloses a whole range of opportunities for our institutions, making it impossible for them to take any other approach (144). It leads, as both Newfield and Michael Crow and William Dabars have explored at length, to an academic enterprise that defines itself not based on those whom it gathers in, but on the masses that it excludes. Andrew Delbanco goes on to note that “the quest for prestige is nothing new, but it has lately reached such frantic intensity that it is having seriously negative effects on the educational mission of many institutions” (117). Prestige, that which drives an institution to compete, that which renders it competitive, in fact undermines its mission, especially where that mission is or ought to be focused on public service. Prestige requires an institution to serve fewer rather than more; prestige is based not on how well those admitted are served but instead on how many are turned away. This peculiar prestige-by-exclusion operates at many levels in higher education: the prestige of publications, for instance, is in large part determined by their rejection rates. And focusing on prestige within the faculty creates a mode of invidious comparison that profoundly affects faculty members’ attitudes toward and commitments to their institutions, resulting in a form of disgruntlement that a colleague of mine describes as “If There Were Any Justice, I’d Be at Princeton.” These comparisons and exclusions work together to create an environment in which the university’s benefits are understood to be best restricted to a small audience rather than shared with the world, which is overwhelmingly unworthy.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 I should note a few things before moving on. I began drafting this chapter shortly after re-entering university life myself, after having spent six years as a member of the senior staff of a large scholarly society. It’s possible that the time away allowed me to see institutional structures with fresh eyes, freeing me from the assumption that things simply are the way they are in some unchangeable sense and permitting a broader view of the possibilities. It’s also possible, however, that my move back into campus life has further transformed my vision, though it’s probably too soon to say whether things are clearer or more occluded. In the latter section of this chapter I discuss some possibilities for rethinking the nature of the university as and in relation to community, and in the process I draw on a few programs from my own institution. No doubt my original interest in the opportunites presented by these programs was driven by the sunny optimism of the new arrival, in love with everything around her. Even then, however, there was intentionality behind that interest, as these programs and possibilities were key to my decision to join this particular institution. But it’s important to acknowledge that there’s no small amount of heartbreak, and even rage, involved in my relationship to this institution as well, at this particular moment in time. I joined the faculty of Michigan State University in the fall of 2017, utterly infatuated by the institution’s historic commitment to the public good, and I got to watch close-up as the limitations of the contemporary commitment to that mission was exposed on the national and even international stage. The failures here are particularly spectacular; they have destroyed much of the public trust in the university, and they have touched off a campus-wide self-examination and mobilization to transform the university, its administration, and its structures from the ground up. How this will all turn out—what good the campus’s fury might in the end be put to—remains to be seen. But all of us connected to the university, both on campus and off, have been forced to contend with the extent to which the university—MSU, certainly, but far from alone—constantly undermines its relationship with the public through its failures to uphold the principles under which it claims to operate. And I have found myself, somewhat perversely perhaps, inspired by the rage and despair so evident in my colleagues and my students, as it’s only that level of care on the part of the community that might have a chance of rebuilding the university, requiring it to become an institution that actually lives out the values that it professes to uphold.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 1 Back, however, to my exchange with that provost, about the possibilities for genuinely aligning university policies with the institution’s primary mission of public service, possibilities that I recognize open a massive can of very wormy questions—wormy because it’s clear that these are things that need to happen in order to make real change within institutions of higher education, and yet they generate significant anxiety about their consequences. What would be required, for instance, for the university to begin letting go of the notion of prestige and of the competition that creates it in order to begin aligning its personnel processes with its deepest values? How might we reground our institutions in the recognition that competition never really results in distinctive research and educational enterprises, but rather variations on a more thorough-going sameness, as we’re all chasing the same model? Is it possible for our institutions to accept that even when we seem to be trying to single ourselves out for support from the same funders, or attendance from the same students, the competition that we have been drawn into has both fictional premises and fictional ends? What might become possible if we were able to decide that the real competition is not among institutions of higher education but rather between a vision of higher education as a public good and an understanding of higher education as a private responsibility? And what new goals could we set if, in seeking a collective grounding in a renewed commitment to higher education as a public good, we were able to recognize that, far more than our institutions need to differentiate themselves from one another, climbing over one another in some academic restaging of the Hunger Games, they need instead to collaborate, to build collectively the systems and capacities that all institutions of higher education need in order for the entire sector to thrive?
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 1 This chapter, happily, is not delving into the economics of the university; terrific work in that area has already been done, including Newfield’s exploration of the damage wrought on the public university by insistent privatization, as well as Crow and Dabar’s and Tressie McMillan Cottom’s very different explorations of the relationship between the evolution of the university and the new economy. Rather, this chapter is focused on thinking through some other institutional possibilities, emerging ways of returning to the mission of generosity at the heart of our institutions of higher education. In order to create the ground for these possibilities, we must collectively find ways to focus our institutions’ attention, in the words of Crow and Dabars, less on what we can think about and more on what we need to think about (207). One of the key things that we need to think about is the relationship between the structures and policies of our institutions of higher education and their mission of serving the public good, as well as about our roles—all of our roles—in effecting the organizational change required to ensure that such a relationship is paramount.