Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: What We’re Reading Now

September 27

The Reading List: Three Thumbs Up and a Meh

It’s been awhile since I updated the reading list, so, without further ado:

Science in the 20th Century and Beyond by Jon Agar. Less a history of scientific discovery as it is a history of contexts and manners in which science was practiced over the past century. In this interpretation, what gave American science the edge in the 20th century was less the massive inflow of talent from Europe than it was (a) the closer integration of scientists and engineers (the latter being very important in instrumentation) and (b) the ability of Americans to manage the discovery process in an industrial fashion (e.g., Bell Labs, the Manhattan Project). It’s also enlightening on the subject of how commercial problems, in one way or another, have always had a decisive factor in shaping the scientific agenda. For such a broad and important topic, it’s a very well-written survey.

The Roots, Rituals and Rhetorics of Change: North American Business Schools after the Second World War by Mie Augier and James March. This is intellectual history the way it is supposed to be written. It’s the story of how a few key individuals and institutions (RAND, the Ford Foundation, the University of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon University) managed to create an intellectual movement in favour of changing and upgrading an entire field of university activity. Though you’d never know it now, the move to create a modern business school was consciously based on the process of reform that had swept through the field of medicine forty years earlier. The last third of the book could have used a better edit, but it’s still worth a read.

How Economics Shapes Science by Paula Stephan. This book, which looks at the economic incentives which face individuals and institutions engaged in science is almost certainly the best book on public policy and higher education published anywhere in the world this year. For obvious reasons, it’s fairly U.S.-focussed, but even that is in some ways enlightening; I for one had absolutely no idea the extent to which American universities were built on soft money (being a V.P. Finance at one of those schools must be absolutely terrifying). It’s a lucid sweep over an enormous literature which isn’t often tackled in a systematic way. If your job in any ways relate to making policy on science and research, this needs to go on your reading pile.

Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President by William Bowen. Presidential memoirs are rarely very entertaining. Bowen’s is mercifully short, but far too Princeton-centric to be of interest to most. Plus it’s suffused by that seriously pompous tone that male American university presidents tend to have. Why can’t they be more like Josh Molina in The Big Bang Theory?

June 21

Higher Education Beach Reads

We’re coming up on summer, so it’s time to think about what to read at the cottage. Here’s some advice on higher ed books:

Good campus novels are kind of thin on the grounds these days. My all-time favourite is David Lodge’s Small World  (which has survived a little bit better than his other two campus novels, Nice Work and Changing Places), though Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim is still probably the genre-defining work.

One that came out last year to some modest acclaim was Something for Nothing  by Michael Klein. It is notable because of Klein’s background: he’s an economist. Not all campus novels are written by academics – Tom Wolfe, for instance, managed to brilliantly nail Duke University in his frankly awesome I am Charlotte Simmons  without needing tenure – but those that are, tend to come from Literature specialists.

Unfortunately, while Klein’s outsider status makes for the occasional plot gem (I kind of dig novels which turn on the minutiae of econometric estimation techniques), he’s not much of a stylist. The prose is didactic, most of the characters uni-dimensional, and page 86 contains one of the worst sex scenes since Tony Blair described what happened the night John Smith died in his autobiography A Journey. Re-reading Lodge is probably more rewarding.

What about non-fiction? Well, one good book I read this year was In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic, by “Professor X”. It’s seriously refreshing because it’s written by a sessional professor who works at two fairly down-market colleges, rather than one of the usual higher ed suspects. I’m generally unimpressed by the economic arguments about higher education being “a bubble”, but Professor X gives an excellent, from-the-trenches view of why higher education might have expanded too far. Thought-provoking but not dense, short without being insubstantial, it’s a good one to pack for the beach.

On innovation, two books worth a glance are Phillip Auerswald’s The Coming Prosperity: How Entrepreneurs are Transforming the Global Economy and Erik Brynjolfsson & Andrew McAfee’s Race Against the Machine (e-book only). It’s kind of interesting how all of a sudden the wonk crowd isn’t viewing academic research as a particularly important driver of future innovation and prosperity. Read these to understand why. Pay attention to this shift: it could be a really big deal for universities.

Finally, let me recommend again David Weinberger’s Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts aren’t the Facts, Experts are Everywhere and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room. Simply brilliant.

June 18

Uniquely Universal

Universities are astonishing, unbelievably resilient entities. Clark Kerr once noted that of the 75 Western institutions founded before 1520 (and which have survived intact to the present day), sixty of them are universities.

But universities aren’t merely unique in their reach across time – they are also unique in their reach across space. Few if any institutions are as truly global as a university. The basics of a campus are instantly recognizable whether you are in Nairobi, Tianjin or Regina. Give or take some nomenclature, administrative structures are essentially the same everywhere, and as David John Frank and Jay Gabler put it in their book, Reconstructing the University, they increasingly teach the same subjects and categorize knowledge the same way as well.

I was reminded of this the other day while reading James Fallows’ new book China Airborne, which examines both China’s enormous progress to date and its enormous challenges through the lens of the aviation industry. It’s an interesting book if you’re interested in innovation because it shows how tough it is to compete in so-called “apex” industries (that is, ones in which success requires the mastery of enormous numbers of different technological fields).

What caught my eye was Fallows’s discussion of how the Chinese reacted to having to adapt to new air safety regimes in the 1990s. They couldn’t be told they were adopting “American” standards, because that would have been humiliating. Being told they were adopting “international” standards was better, but what worked best of all was being told they were adopting international standards “with Chinese characteristics.” Being an ancient civilization (and they do genuinely think of themselves as a civilization rather than as a nation-state), it’s important for them to put their own imprimatur on things.

And yet, when it comes to universities, they don’t. China does have its own tradition of higher study dating back almost 1,400 years to the Great Academies of the Tang Dynasty which prepared students for imperial examinations; but while today’s gruelling Gaokao (i.e., university entrance) exams owe something to its imperial predecessor, there’s no pretence that universities are native Chinese or have Chinese characteristics. It’s all “global standards” and “world-classness” – without any modifications.

For all the criticisms and dissatisfaction which universities face in the West, it is in some ways the West’s most successful cultural export. Even the most virulent anti-colonialists never rejected them; indeed, they usually opened more. They have reached every corner of the globe and everywhere have a central place in the formation of the new middle classes. For all their faults, they have become the one universal and indispensable organization.

So if naysayers are getting you down, just remember – we must doing something right.

May 10

What We’re Reading Now: Creating the Market University

If you’re interested in reading about the major events that shaped the evolution of universities in the twentieth century, then you could do a lot worse than invest a few hours in reading Elizabeth Popp Berman’s Creating the Market University: How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine.

Most histories of science rightly point to Vannevar Bush’s 1945 essay “Science: the Endless Frontier” as the point at which the U.S. government definitively committed itself to funding university science in a big way. The logic was that academic science, which acted as a reservoir of ideas on which industry could draw, was a public good and needed to be supported as such. Berman argues that from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, the science-as-reservoir was replaced by a science-as-economic-engine logic that pushed American scientists to look at how the market valued their research and to seek out opportunities to work with outside partners to increase the value of their knowledge.

What distinguishes Berman from others looking at similar phenomena is her refusal to simply label this as an exercise in neo-liberalism. To be sure, she grants that some of the developments that pushed universities in this direction – notably the 1978 tax changes that favoured venture capital, the Chakrabarty Supreme Court decision – were rooted in free-market logic. But many others of them were rooted in the thinking of economists like Kenneth Arrow, who pointed out that markets on their own could produce suboptimal investments in R&D.

In fact, she points out the real shift in thinking happened not in universities but in governments. Dismayed by U.S. economic performance in the 1970s, state and federal governments began to focus on innovation as a key driver of economic performance. This led them to incentivize institutions to get their knowledge into the hands of American industry so as to make better products and produce more jobs. Far from the shift to the market being a result of government cutbacks (cuts, for the most part, happened in physics and chemistry, whereas the push to market was led by academics in biology and engineering), it was in fact the result of a shift in how governments thought about economic growth.

It’s a very American history, of course, but Canada went through a very similar process ten years later in the 1980s and 1990s, and most of the rest of the world followed suit as well. Indeed, thirty-five years on from the events Berman recounts, good market-focussed academic science is now the gold standard for universities everywhere. Well-written and admirably succinct, this tale of how the modern university acquired these market ideals is definitely worth a read.

April 03

What We’re Reading Now – Too Big to Know

Unless you’re an Atlantic subscriber and read the January issue, you probably haven’t heard about David Weinberger’s new book Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now that Facts Aren’t Facts, Experts are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room because it hasn’t yet attracted a lot of reviews. But forget that: go to your bookstore or Internet bookseller. Buy it, download it, whatever: this is an important book which deftly outlines the real challenges faced by anyone in the business of supplying expertise, now that science has – in Weinberger’s beautiful turn of phrase – gone from being a form of publishing to a network.

This book isn’t just another extended essay of the good/ill caused by the Internet, though that issue does receive some excellent, even-handed treatment. It’s also a much more profound meditation on how the economics of data collection, storage and transmission have profoundly altered not just how we look at expertise and knowledge, but even what we think of as “facts.” Massive increases in computer power have allowed us to look more easily at system-level problems which were undreamt of even a decade ago (systems biology, for instance, barely existed in 2002), but at the same time have made it clear that systems like living organisms or social structures are so unbelievably complex that they may never be understood.

Though Weinberger is writing about expertise rather than universities per se, there’s plenty in here for HE nerds to ponder. Most directly, Chapter 7 is a fantastic tour d’horizon of what the economics of data and the network-ification of science are doing to scholarly publishing. But indirectly, nearly all the issues he raises have implications for how we think about education. Take humanities and social sciences for instance. The growing realization about the degree to which knowledge is contextual rather than absolute scores one for the humanities (especially the po-mo folks). But at the same time, if broader access to information and networks is eroding the value of credentials as a signal of expertise, what’s the purpose of keeping doctoral students in six- or seven-year programs to demonstrate greater expertise in ever-smaller circles (especially in largely interpretation-based disciplines like English and philosophy)?

But the most fundamental challenge is simply this: if networks are better than experts at solving problems, it presumably means that a modern undergraduate education should be at least as much about learning how to tap an expert network as it is about developing expertise. I’m not completely up on the latest in the teaching and learning field, but I’m guessing there aren’t nearly enough people thinking about that one.

Buy it. You won’t be disappointed.

February 03

What We’re Reading Now: The Fall of the Faculty

Remember the nineties, when books like Tenured Radicals and Illiberal Education appeared? All that formulaic bad journalism masquerading as social critique? Cookie-cutter stuff, really: just find a couple of examples of people in group X doing something ludicrous/criminal, and then use this as a justification to vilify all people in group X, preferably while inventing a string of belittling nicknames for them. And of course you thought to yourself: this is Ezra Levant/Fox News stuff, not something a serious academic would ever write.

Well, let me introduce you to a little book currently making waves in the U.S. called The Fall of the Faculty: the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters, by Johns Hopkins professor Benjamin Ginsberg. It’s a first-class example of an academic – who may at root have a decent point – engaging in exactly the same kind of drive-by smear tactics.

The relationship between academics and non-academics is significantly more fraught south of the border. The faculty has significantly less power than it does in Canadian universities, both in the sense of unionization and in that the balance of power between presidents and senates is significantly more tilted towards the former. There’s also been a significant increase in the number of people in non-academic jobs in U.S. universities over the last couple of decades. That’s true here too, of course, but not to anything like the same extent (I’m guessing a bit of a data void in Canada, but I think this is true).

There are reasons to lament both of these things, of course. But what Ginsberg does is conflate the two. Basically, anything going on in academia which he doesn’t like, or which impinges on his view of academic liberty, must all be part of the same vast conspiracy. Stupid pointless memos? Waste and inefficiency? It’s because of “administrators” (or rather “deanlets” and “deanlings,” his preferred abusive diminutives). Political correctness? That’s administrators too, striking a deal with minority faculty to increase their power on campus. Presidents and provost have too much power? That’s administrators again.

His evidence for any of these charges usually amounts to telling a couple of anecdotes which he’s grabbed from some newspaper clippings plus a couple of his own war stories within academia. In many cases, I’m sure he’s identifying real problems. But his inability to distinguish issues of governance from issues of administrative waste, and his unwillingness to distinguish between non-academic positions which might actually be beneficial to the university (e.g., fundraisers, student services personnel) from the more obvious examples of bloat (e.g., assistants to the executive assistant to the vice-president) detract from his underlying points and give this book a distinctly crank-ish tone.

January 27

What We’re Reading Now: Higher Education?

With a title like Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids – and What We Can Do About It, you might assume this is another screed by a thirty-something with an axe to grind. But the authors – Andrew Hacker of Queen’s College and New York Times writer Claudia Dreifus – are anything but the usual suspects for ritual denunciations of higher learning.

What Hacker and Dreifus have managed is to fuse together a number of very different critiques of higher ed into a single, relatively slim volume. There are what some might say are “left-wing” (in the U.S., anyway) complaints about the academy: education is “too vocational” (basically a John Dewey critique of education, which says Liberal Arts are “real” education, and everything else in an ideal world would be banished to “mere” trade schools), too much is spent on intercollegiate athletics, etc. Then there is the “right-wing” critique: tenure, over-generous professorial compensation and teaching are being sacrificed at the altar of research. Finally, there are the critiques that don’t have a political home: too many non-academic staff, skyrocketing presidential salaries and the ludicrousness of the university committee system. Hacker and Dreifus combine the three fairly seamlessly into a single, pointed indictment.

It’s a nice book in that the authors manage to make solid points without the over-the-top accusatory style that American publishers seem to like so much these days. The section on administrative sprawl is particularly deft, respecting the good intentions behind the creation of positions like “residential communications co-ordinator,” “co-ordinator for lifetime fitness”, etc., while calmly pointing out that these are, essentially, frills that substantially raise the cost of education.

The book’s back-flap, with contains rather effusive praise from darlings of the American left such as Barbara Ehrenreich and Joseph Stiglitz, is also a bit of an eye-raiser. In Canada, making similar points about research vs. teaching or professorial pay tends to provoke (from faculty unions, mostly) accusations of being some kind of foaming reactionary. Apparently, in the U.S., the debate has at least progressed to the point where there is cross-party agreement that there are reasonable conversations to be had about institutional priorities and spending habits.

Large chunks of this book aren’t particularly relevant to Canadian higher education and the Dewey fundamentalism is a bit irritating. But the basics of the argument about pay and tenure will definitely be reverberating here over the next few years, and so the book is probably worth reading for that alone. You might not disagree with the authors, but we can only a hope that future debates on higher ed policy are conducted with as much tact and good grace as Hacker and Dreifus have mustered here.

November 15

What We’re Reading Now: The Faculty Lounges

Let’s be clear up front: The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get The College Education You Paid For by freelance writer Naomi Schaefer Riley isn’t the most cogent book you’ll ever read. In fact, many of the links she makes between tenure and the various problems within higher education are questionable to say the least. But if you look past the tenure stuff and get down to the actual issues which she (mostly wrongly) thinks are caused by tenure, what you’ve got is a reasonable summary of some of the key issues in North American higher education today.

Tenure, for instance, does not cause the problem of publish or perish – rather, both are products of academic norms. Institutional financial crises can be exacerbated by tenure (in the sense that it makes the academic workforce less flexible), but they aren’t caused by it. Nevertheless, Riley writes cogently on the importance of those issues, even if she misdiagnoses the cause.

Where she is most persuasive, however, is in her description of what she calls the “Academic Underclass” – part-time faculty who just miss out on the tenured good life, leading highly contingent lives for low-pay. Whether or not you agree that they are “victims” of tenure, their plight is among those in most urgent need of redress, and she writes about them vividly.

You might think this an unconvincing review, given that I’m dissing Riley’s basic thesis that tenure is the root of all academic evils, but I actually think this book is worth reading even if only in a “know-your-enemy” kind of way. As budgets get tighter, tenure is certainly going to become a political target and arguments like Riley’s are going to be made – all the more so because the problems she points to are real and serious even if their link to tenure isn’t as tight as she makes out. People who care about tenure should take the time to engage with her arguments rather than dismissing them outright.

August 22

What We’re Reading Now – The Innovative University

If you’ve had the faintest contact with management theory in the last 15 years, you’ve probably heard of Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma and originator of the theory of disruptive innovation.  A couple of years ago, he teamed up with a co-writer to look at K-12 education in Disrupting Class, and now he’s done the same for universities with Henry Eyring in The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out.

There are a couple of reasons you’ll want to read this book.  One is because everyone else is doing it, and you won’t want to be clued out.  For instance, le tout Washington seems to have read it; various worthies including Assistant Secretary of State Ochoa seem to be dropping bon mots from the book at will.

And two is because the first hundred pages or so are a very interesting look at Harvard’s historical development, the innovations it undertook under Presidents Eliot, Lowell and Conant from 1869 to 1953 (that’s right – three presidents in 84 years) and how they formed the blueprint for higher education across North America ever since.  It’s as enjoyable a slice of educational history as we’ve ever read.

It’s also very instructive (if sometimes lacking in concrete detail)  on how certain ingrained traditions in academia – notably the way new courses  and programs are approved – have a way of radically escalating costs, and it shows some interesting ways in which institutions can reduce expenditures through better process.  Even if you don’t buy the theory that online providers pose some sort of existential threat to universities (and we don’t, by the way), or that Brigham Young University – Idaho represents some sort of new paradigm in education (it’s an interesting case study but probably not much more), cost containment is still an important issue and on that score this books provides plenty of food for thought.