Universities: How We Got Where We Are
essay, which has been written by Ian Johnston of Malaspina
University-College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University), is in
the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, without
permission and without charge--released January 2007. For comments
or questions please contact Ian
Johnston. Note that this essay first appeared in Humanist
Perspectives, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 2006/7)
important occasions most colleges and universities, even very new ones,
like to invoke ancient traditions by dressing the faculty in strange
clothes with multi-colour capes, robes, and funny tasseled hats and
having someone intone choice phrases in an ancient language hardly
anyone understands any more. These
ceremonies, one assumes, are meant to remind everyone that the
university is the only institution we have, other than the Roman
Catholic Church and some native organizations, with roots in ancient
times. If that’s the
purpose, then of course it’s something of a sham.
For almost all our universities are thoroughly modern
institutions formed by a deliberate and decisive break with ancient
understand the nature of this transformation, one needs to grasp the
significance of at least three decisions which changed the relatively
small traditional collegiate structure of the university into the huge
modern multiversity or a smaller college anxious to achieve the status
of its larger sibling. These
changes have made our universities enormously powerful institutions,
essential components of our social and economic life.
They have also significantly affected for the worse the way we
educate many of our young citizens.
Issue One: The
first change is well known—the decision made about one hundred years
ago to enshrine disciplinary research as the heart of the college
enterprise, so that we might emulate the spectacular successes of the
German universities in the nineteenth century.
What mattered now, above all other considerations, was advancing
the causes of truth and of profitable new discoveries by hiring
well-trained research specialists, giving them lots of time and
resources to pursue independent research projects, and letting them take
care of the education of undergraduates, particularly with an eye to the
production of future researchers.
that time, especially in the last fifty years, the highest research
degree, the PhD, increasingly has become the sine qua non qualification
for almost all university faculty, and productivity in research and
publication is now essential for promotion within the ranks.
Of course, universities have always paid lip service to their
responsibilities for having good teachers, but in practice that alleged
priority has almost always been more a rhetorical flourish than anything
else. What matters is the
research qualification and research output. With these in place, one
doesn’t really have to worry too much about basic teaching
qualifications—for example, a sufficiently fluent command of English
so that undergraduates can understand what the professor is saying.
Issue Two: The
second decision, which arises naturally out of the first, was to
reorganize the university so that its key structural feature was the
department consisting of faculty belonging to a single discipline, often
narrowly defined, rather than a college composed of and run by a small
number of faculty teaching a range of different subjects.
Departments make disciplinary specialization very easy to manage,
because such units more or less administer themselves, making all the
key decisions about hiring, promotion,
curriculum, equipment, and so on, subject only to the budget allocations
determined by non-departmental administrators.
And once the elective system of courses was introduced, the
curricular role of the departments was standardized in a model which
required each department to develop a range of credit offerings,
organize its courses in a sequence which would produce departmental
specialists (majors, honours, and graduate programs), and then to
compete with other departments for students.
trend has turned the university into what can best be described as a
Lego structure, something put together by assembling small, independent
bricks and linking them in a mechanical aggregate (an important break
with the more organic structure of the older institutions).
Since the departments are largely independent of each other,
bricks can be quickly and easily added or removed as circumstance
requires: new demands are met by creating a new brick, and redundant
departments are removed without any significant effect on anyone else.
In such a structure, successful professorial work does not
require any familiarity with what goes on outside the department or any
vision of or concern for the university as a whole or for the
student’s experience outside one’s departmental courses.
And the major task of middle and senior administrative life
becomes adjudicating the competing demands of different departments for
resources (a difficult and time-consuming task, hence the high
salaries). Such a model is also capable of infinite rapid
expansion. The huge modern
multiversity would be inconceivable without it.
structure, once in place, gradually eliminated the differences among
colleges, and a standardized model emerged. No matter what university or
college one visits in North America (with very rare exceptions), the
structure remains the same: an institution organized on the principle of
more or less autonomous departments in their own physical space, staffed
with research experts who must regularly publish results of their work,
and offering a curriculum consisting of a selection of departmental
courses, each worth a certain number of credits.
The standards may vary, and there may be some minor differences
in prerequisites and course combinations, but the basic arrangement
remains the same. So far as
coping with the curricular organization is concerned, in North America
few students or faculty have any difficulty in moving from one
university or college to another.
Research Centres: Some Observations
major effects of these decisions are well known.
Our universities have become the centres for an enormous amount
of specialized research, often with amazingly successful results. Important research discoveries have increasingly been made in
university departments rather than in research and development centres
elsewhere or by private citizens, and the major prizes for pioneering
research (especially in medicine and science) are routinely awarded to
university professors. We
look to our universities to provide the innovations which will keep our
economy dynamic and position papers which will keep our leaders
emphasis on research has led, in many quarters, to a very effective
partnership of the universities (who provide the research teams), the
business community (which provides massive amounts of money), and the
government (which provides money and facilities and, where necessary,
appropriate legislation). Whatever
questions we used to raise forty years ago about the probity of these
arrangements and their effects on what a university is or should be seem
to have disappeared. There
was a time when people worried about the close connections between, say,
the drug companies, federal legislators, and university postgraduate
courses or between the Pentagon and various academic departments doing
research on how to conduct the war in Vietnam or develop Star Wars, but
we seem to have grown accustomed to such arrangements now.
After all, the learned pate has always ducked to the golden fool.
Interestingly enough, the phrase Academic Freedom, which
originally was supposed to mean protection for faculty to pursue
independent research and to speak out openly on public issues, has in
recent decades as often as not come to mean protection from having to
answer potentially embarrassing questions about sources of funding.
Hence, the once popular notion that the modern university will
act as society’s disinterested conscience has become something of a
transformation of the university into the research engine for modern
society did not happen all at once. It met considerable resistance,
particularly in parts of Europe and Canada, where a much older tradition
continued to insist on different priorities, and research qualifications
and productivity were often not as essential a part of a university
professor’s work. But in recent years European leaders have recognized the
economic cost of this tradition and, as a central part of their
so-called Lisbon strategy to make the European economy the most
competitive in the world, are promoting the Bologna process, an effort
to streamline and standardize European universities so as to maximize
their research output and their economic effectiveness.
Canada made that transition forty years ago.
all the obvious benefits this transformation has brought, there are some
equally obvious problems. First
is the enormously disproportionate amount of meretricious research,
studies which make no significant contribution to the discipline or to
the “search for truth,” whatever that means exactly, and which are
read by hardly anyone, not even by those in the same discipline.
Since every professor is required to produce a steady stream of
articles for publication in peer-reviewed journals, there has been a
staggering proliferation of what is little more than academic busy work,
much of it incomprehensible to anyone outside the immediate and often
very narrow academic speciality.
staggering is the cost. If
we remember that a university professor teaches for about six hours a
week for six months of the year, with generous time off for research
every few years, and that his position brings with it a healthy salary,
research facilities, and enviable fringe benefits, then we can
understand easily enough that we are, in effect, spending massive
amounts of public money to subsidize intellectual mediocrity (to use the
politest term available). What
is the total cost, I wonder, of those thousands and thousands of
articles written by professors in education, literature, social science,
history, and even science which disappear without a ripple.
What would happen if we directed that money elsewhere, for
example, into undergraduate education?
research imperative is responsible for some very odd results, too.
Outsiders are frequently astonished at the sheer drivel produced
by some university researchers, especially those under the influence of
the latest intellectual fad (like deconstructionism or the most
fashionable psychobabble). But
in some disciplines the only way one can say anything apparently
original is to find a new vocabulary to re-describe an old work or to
redefine the subject to include something considered too insignificant
to explore up to this point. Unlike
the sciences, where research tends to move in a much clearer direction
and there is an important sense of immediate priorities, many literary
scholars, for example, are always circling around the same texts, and
how does one contribute something new about, say, Shakespeare or
Dickens? Well, one answer
is to find a new theoretical framework and language, so that one can
present old ideas in a new vocabulary.
As the fashions change, the language changes, and new
possibilities for published articles arise.
But this is not progress, merely variety, trivial and short-lived
intellectual play, as often as not characterized by a jargon
incomprehensible to general readers (including undergraduates).
And the New History, which claims that all aspects of life are
equally important historically, that, in effect, Mickey Mouse is just as
vital a subject of study as World War Two, has opened up an infinite
number of scholarly research possibilities from, say, courtship patterns
among medieval Languedoc peasants to the invention of the cheeseburger
in Louisville, Kentucky.
issue here, let us be clear, is not whether or not such academic
research is personally stimulating or intellectually demanding or a
contribution to knowledge or whatever.
The issue is whether we should be spending massive amounts of
public money earmarked for undergraduate education to subsidize it.
Is the result worth the cost?
I won’t explore an answer here, but whenever I have to listen
to another lament from the universities about their lack of funding,
I’m tempted to remind the complainer that the greatest
financial problem in our universities is the sheer waste of money spent
on insignificant research and publication.
Why not try a “No-more-dollars-for-dreck” policy which
supports the relatively few demonstrably excellent researchers to the
hilt and insists that the rest of the money be spent in the classroom?
Professional Myth of Faculty Culture
faculty themselves are aware that most of what they produce as a group
is without merit (how could they not be?), and since the vast majority
of them cannot defend what they do by an appeal to its quality, they
have come up with a frequently reiterated and almost universally shared
research and publication, they assert, is essential to good teaching.
Unless a university professor is actively engaged in such
scholarly activity, no matter what its value, she cannot be an effective
instructor of undergraduates: she won’t be up-to-date, intellectually
engaged in the discipline, mentally alive, or whatever.
This claim is enshrined in faculty handbooks and solemnly recited
every time there’s a plea for more research time or money.
only one problem: no one has managed to demonstrate that this claim has
any validity. All empirical
studies into this issue over the last few decades (and there have been
several) have come to the same conclusion: there is no demonstrable
connection whatsoever between conventional research and publication and
teaching quality. And so
what holds faculty culture together in the modern university is a myth,
a wish-fulfilling assertion needed to justify light teaching loads and
generous research funds. Most
faculty reject this unpleasant truth out of hand, and over the years
I’ve been pointing it out, I have met with a good deal of abuse and
outright denial, a reaction not unlike that of Caliban when he looked at
his face in the mirror and was unhappy with what he saw. He smashed the
you think about it, there’s more than a little irony in all this.
Research is apparently essential to good teaching, except
research that indicates such a claim is unproven.
And given that the most important task facing almost all teachers
of undergraduates is helping students learn to construct good arguments
and to recognize shoddy ones, it is interesting, to say the least, that
faculty culture rests on an argument so shoddy that it invites
comparison with claims that something is true if anyone believes it or
that creationism is just as scientifically valid as Darwinism.
fact, university teaching is the only profession I am aware of where the
extensive training and professional evaluation and promotion have
nothing to do with one of the major requirements of the job.
It’s as if we hired and promoted our hockey coaches on the
basis of their knowledge of the crystalline properties of ice or tensile
characteristics of rubber or paid trial lawyers on the basis of their
demonstrated expertise in some specialized area, like the history of
Carthaginian maritime law, without regard to their courtroom
What About the
surprisingly, the most deleterious effects of this transformation of the
university into a research factory are experienced by those
undergraduates who have no intention of becoming academic researchers
(and these people make up approximately 90 percent of the student
population). In many cases,
they have to cope with enormous class sizes (an important way of keeping
faculty teaching loads low), a bewildering range of options, increasing
pressure to specialize, a lack of coordination between one course and
another, and teachers who lack some of the most basic requirements for
effective instruction. Given
that the vast majority of them have come to the university in order to
prepare for a profession or to explore different career possibilities or
to learn more about life, it’s not surprising that there is frequent
tension between them and an environment defined by professors with very
narrow research interests and a fragmented curriculum catering to
faculty research priorities.
been lost to a large extent in these developments is the sense of an
undergraduate education as an important transition from youth to
adulthood, a time to explore intellectual choices, to gather a more
intelligent sense of one’s history, to read widely, without the
constant pressure of a training in a specialized discipline to the
exclusion of almost everything else, and to develop the social and
academic skills necessary in professional life—something that used to
be called (in what now sounds distinctly outdated) a general education
as a preparation for citizenship.
benefits of such a non-specialist education are widely recognized, but
here again the tributes are often more empty rhetoric than principles
which professors are eager to put into action.
Most degree programs have some breadth requirements, but these
are minimal and dealt with early on (if they are adhered to at all).
The important direction is always increasing specialization,
treating all students as if they are potential research colleagues.
So we routinely produce scientists with no knowledge of
philosophy or politics or, for that matter, the history of science,
business graduates lacking any intelligent sense of the importance of
ethics, and Arts or Education graduates who squeal in fright at the very
mention of science or mathematics.
And in almost all cases, none of these graduates will have been
encouraged in their classes to acquire the general skills referred to
above (in spite of repeated demands from employers for attention to
there are genuinely successful programs of general education, these tend
to be confined to the first year (as in Arts I at UBC or King’s
College Foundations program). Curiously
enough, although faculty have long acknowledged that these programs are
extremely useful educationally and universities feature them prominently
in their advertising as a mark of their excellence, such programs have
had little effect on transforming the curriculum in the later years of
undergraduate study, mainly because faculty teaching higher-level
courses insist upon the prevailing specialist ethic.
Yes, there are some exceptions (like the Liberal Studies program
at Malaspina University-College, an upper-division program of General
Education based on the Great Books approach), but these are rare indeed.
Our curriculums are far more decisively shaped by what
research-oriented faculty want to teach than by what students need to
that reason, the best known and most successful alternatives to the
modern public university, like St. John’s College or Evergreen State
College, are offered in institutions which began by rejecting specialist
research qualifications and productivity and the conventional
departmental structure and which insist upon a much more integrated
curriculum in which instructors and students work together through a
number of different disciplinary materials—an approach that is not so
much interdisciplinary as non-disciplinary.
Such an alternative recognizes an important fact of university
life: function (what happens in class) is a product of structure (how
the place is organized). For
obvious reasons, any institution based on a conventional university
structure will have great difficulty in creating and sustaining any
significant alternative to the standard curriculum organized by
independent departments. Even
if some faculty are keen to introduce such alternatives, the imperatives
of their professional culture will quickly snuff out their attempts or
render them ineffectual.
too, is the reason why so many attempts to reform the undergraduate
curriculum, from the famous Harvard Red Book (1945) on, have been
largely unsuccessful. Since
they fail to address the conventional structure of the institution, they
amount to little more than minor tinkering—a new list of books, a new
combination of first-year electives, a new breadth requirement, and so
on. As well intentioned as
these often are, they leave untouched the features of faculty culture
which create the problems they are trying address. Ringing endorsements of lofty principles are no match for the
entrenched realities of life in a specialized research department.
course, in assessing the value of an undergraduate education one needs
to be careful not to overestimate the importance of what goes on in the
classroom. For no matter what the quality of teaching or the structure
of the curriculum, the most valuable educational experiences have always
tended to take place in the surrounding campus culture—in the
fraternities, sports teams, debating societies, drama clubs, study
groups, and so on, those places where young students have opportunities
to socialize with each other. There’s
abundant evidence that in the traditional nineteenth century colleges,
the teaching was often (perhaps even generally) extremely bad.
The value of the experience emerged from the way it gave students
so much generous access to each other.
That’s just as true today.
It’s no accident that magazine polls which produce a ranking of
the universities based on student responses routinely favour the smaller
institutions. And the high
reputation of the elite private educational institutions in the United
States has nothing to do with better facilities or more intelligent
teachers and everything to do with the ways in which these colleges
encourage or require students to interact outside the classroom in all
sorts of ways.
point is worth emphasizing because in recent years the surrounding
campus culture in the public colleges and universities has withered
factors, including the need to work to meet the rising costs of
postsecondary education, the increasing numbers of mature students with
outside responsibilities, the rise in part-time students, the pressure
to take extra courses or achieve higher grades, and so on, have
significantly decreased the number of students who have the leisure time
to sample the wider cultural possibilities of campus life.
Thus, the social experience of going to university is being
increasingly defined by what goes on in the classroom, a forum not
usually set up to encourage any conversation which is not firmly
controlled by the all-powerful professor at the front.
sign of this trend is the increasing concern about various problems on
campus—drugs, alcohol, suicide, sexual aggression, and so on.
It’s not hard to link these to some extent with the stress and
bewilderment experienced in the setting of a modern university,
especially a huge and complex campus, like the University of Toronto or
the University of British Columbia, and with the absence of a socially
supportive network of friends (this is especially true, of course, in
programs where students are not part of a core group which takes all its
classes together). Attempts to alleviate these problems typically fail to
address the root cause (the nature of the university itself) and instead
appoint a Dean of Substance Abuse or a bevy of new counsellors or
organize a workshop or distribute posters all over campus proclaiming a
slogan or two.
often impoverished social quality of the modern campus has in some
quarters led to demands for a change in the standard teaching
style—the lecture with the professor fully in control and a large
group of students passively and obediently listening.
If the opportunities for students to socialize outside the
classroom are rapidly declining, some have asserted, then it’s time to
give them that opportunity inside the classroom, by a adopting
seminar-style instruction and letting student conversation carry the
weight of the class (a much more active learning process). Such a style is basic to the education of those applauded
programs of general education I referred to earlier. In spite of the
demonstrated effectiveness and popularity of such a style, however, it
is hardly likely to have much effect generally for any number of reasons
(it requires the professor to share power with the class and to redefine
his approach to teaching, it cannot process the huge numbers of students
needed to boost departmental numbers, it requires special physical
arrangements, and so on).
Issue Three: The
Stranglehold on Professional Certification
of these problems would matter nearly so much, however, but for the
third of the three factors I have referred to, the decision to give the
universities a virtual monopoly on entry into the professions.
Whereas, not so long ago there used to be a number of professions
one could select and train for without going to university, now, thanks
to what Michael Katz has called the biggest and quietest take over in
the history of capitalism, the universities have a stranglehold on
preparing for professional life, and a student aiming at a profession
has little choice but to sign up for the expensive and long sequence of
undergraduate and professional certification courses at a university.
this happened is something of a mystery.
There seems to be no compelling reason why many professionals
need to be educated at a university rather than at a professional school
with no commitment to research (e.g., nurses, engineers, lawyers,
chartered accountants, therapists, librarians, teachers, and so on) or
why such professions should not offer alternative routes, the way many
of them used to do. Perhaps it has something to do with the curious notion that a
university degree somehow enhances the credibility of the profession.
Whatever the reason, one might well ask, as many university
professors who objected to this trend did ask, what on earth a
well-qualified researcher is doing teaching students aiming at a
practical profession? How
is training for the professions compatible with the university’s role
as a research centre and with the professor’s qualifications as a
objections were, of course, brushed aside in the interests of enormously
augmenting the social power and size of the university and the social
prestige of the professions, so that what we have created, sadly enough,
is a direct contravention of John Stuart Mill’s eloquently liberal
recommendation that while the government or its designate had the right
to set the examinations needed to certify someone for a profession,
there should be no monopoly on how a student prepares herself to take
should this matter? Well,
first of all, putting all professional training in the hands of people
paid to do research is very expensive.
After all, if we make teacher certification, for example, a
postgraduate university program, then every teacher in it has to have a
professorial contract insisting on a minimum number of teaching hours
and a host of research perquisites.
Once we insist that all entry into the nursing profession must go
through the university, we have guaranteed that the cost of training
nurses will be significantly higher than it was before. One might make similar claims for, say, programs in business
or computer science or engineering, among others.
addition, given the enormous social power this monopoly conveys, the
universities, in conjunction with the professional certifying boards,
have not been slow to milk professional training as a cash cow by making
such training excessively long. Does
someone preparing to be an elementary school teacher really require five
or six years of university training? What about the enormous length of
time required to get qualified to become a teacher of undergraduates?
Why thirty-five years ago were my professors adequately educated
with three years of undergraduate work at Oxbridge; while now my
children have to go through anywhere from five to ten years of
postgraduate work to meet the minimum qualification for a similar job
(in a very expensive program which roughly half of the students who
start fail to complete)? Here
one might note, in passing, that, given the extensive use many
universities make of teaching assistants, faculty tacitly acknowledge
that the lengthy research qualifications required of teachers of
undergraduates are unnecessary. While
insisting on the importance of such qualifications, departments
routinely waive them in their own courses in order to make use of a pool
of serf labour, grossly underpaid graduate students, who, in some
places, carry up to a third of the undergraduate teaching load.
obtaining professional certification nowadays is not so much a matter of
demonstrating one’s competence (in the way Mill had in mind) as of
accumulating the required number of credits (and these are clearly not
the same thing), it’s hard to resist the notion that many of these
professional programs are set up to maximize the university’s
enrolment and the income from fees (along with a guaranteed supply of
bodies for specialized upper-division and graduate courses, which
professors much prefer to teach) rather than to meet commonsense demands
for entry into a profession. Well,
those with a monopoly can, I suppose, erect as many expensive barriers
as they wish, without caring about the debt a student must assume or how
many competent people they are excluding from the professions because of
the excessively high cost of getting certified.
arbitrariness of decisions about the length of professional training is
evident enough in the way universities and professional associations,
working together, are quick to waive what they previously had claimed
was essential in order to meet a shortage in the supply.
I was supremely lucky in being able to get my high school
teaching certificate in fourteen weeks over two summers (at OCE in
1956-7) and an MA (from the University of Toronto) in six months (in
1968-9), because the demand for teachers and professors was high.
Looming shortages in some of the professions nowadays have
already led to suggestions for drastically shortened undergraduate and
professional programs, or arrangements whereby young professionals can
start work and complete their certification part time, once they have an
income. Implementing such suggestions is long overdue.
point here, however, is not the optimum length of time it takes for this
or that professional certification.
The issue is the monopoly itself.
Given that faculty organizations are quick to discipline any
institutions which depart from the conventional arrangements (for
example, by withdrawing accreditation or refusing to accept their
graduates or blacklisting them), what we have is a system which acts in
its own interests to oppress students and stifle alternatives.
We promote competition in many aspects of our lives, recognizing
that competition promotes excellence and variety and lowers costs.
And we are quick to attack monopolistic business practices. With the universities, however, we permit competition for
students but tacitly prohibit significant competition between the
standard model of the research university and other alternatives.
issues are well known. Writers
inside and outside the academy have been calling attention to them for
decades. But the
universities and colleges for the most part continue with business as
usual—an increasing emphasis on specialization and research, more
fragmentation, larger and larger undergraduate classes, higher fees,
longer programs, and so on. Experiments in various alternatives, like the BC college
system, which often begin by trumpeting their potential for significant
change, end up being quietly assimilated into the conventional
Where Do We Go
however, may be on the way. According
to James J. Duderstadt’s A
University for the 21st Century (University
of Michigan Press, 2000), the conventional model (“a Balkanized
tyranny”) is very poorly equipped to deal with a wide range of modern
developments, so that the pressure for significant adjustments is
becoming irresistible. There
is a growing disconnect between what universities actually do and many
of the social, economic, and educational needs the institution is meant
to address. And certain
people who matter are grumbling more and more about the cost of
maintaining the public university system in its present form and the
crushing load of debt students are having to assume.
course, there is, as there always has been, plenty of brave talk about
ways in which the universities can reform themselves.
But no one, it seems, is offering a significant challenge to the
way in which the modern university is organized, and so such reform
sentiments will, no doubt, go the way of all previous attempts in the
past fifty years (at least) to improve undergraduate education.
For a large college or university structured in the conventional
manner is incapable of the reform necessary to achieve significant
changes, particularly in undergraduate education and professional
training. Our best hope for improvements lies in the development of new
institutions with very different organizations and purposes.
this hypothetical scenario, we should encourage the universities to
continue to do what they do best—valuable cutting-edge research and
graduate programs for would-be researchers—and offer new alternatives
which are wholly committed to student learning in a congenial
environment and which reject the research ethic and the various features
which arise out it (e.g., departmental structure, narrow specialization,
fragmentation, overqualified faculty, excessive cost, and so on).
given the university’s tyrannical power over postsecondary education
and the ways in which various alternatives routinely get swallowed up or
stifled by the conventional structure, I don’t hold any sanguine hopes
that such obviously beneficial changes will happen soon.
For the time being, alas, we will remain prisoners of the model
our own decisions brought to life, for better and worse, all those years