From the outside, universities look like a single united entity, with many administrative subdivisions – kind of the organizational equivalent of the United States. However, the closer political analogy is actually early 1990s Yugoslavia: at a very basic level, universities are the sites of permanent civil wars between central authorities and the disciplines whose interests they purportedly serve.
Disciplines – which, except for law and theology, mostly started their existence outside universities – allowed themselves to be subsumed within universities over the course of the early 20th century. They did so for administrative reasons, not intellectual ones; bref, it seemed like a good bargain because universities offered a way for disciplines to obtain much larger amounts of money than they could get on their own. Governments (and to a lesser degree, philanthropists) found it easier to do business with universities than with, say, random groups of anthropologists or chemists. Similarly, banding together within a university made it easier for disciplines to attract the ever-growing number of students and, with them, their tuition dollars. The deal was that the anthropologists and chemists would lend their prestige to universities, and in return the university would take care of raising the money necessary to meet academics’ need for space, students, and steady pay cheques. The idea that the university had any corporate interests that superseded those of the disciplines at an intellectual level was simply a non-starter: disciplinary interests would remain supreme. As far as academics were concerned that was – and is – the deal.
Thus, there is little that drives academics crazier than the idea that a university might deign to choose between the various disciplines when it dispenses cash. If an institution, in response to an external threat (e.g. a loss of government funding), says something like, “hey, you know what? We should stop spending so much money on programs that lose money, and redistribute it to programs that might attract more outside money”, they are immediately pilloried by academics because who the hell gave the university the right to decide which disciplines are more valuable than others? When you hear people bemoaning universities acting “corporately”, this is usually what they’re on about.
This attitude, which seems so normal to academics, provokes absolute bewilderment from the outside world (particularly governments and philanthropists), who believe universities are a single corporate entity. But they’re not. As ex-University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins said, universities are a collection of warring professional fiefdoms, connected by a common steam plant. A more recent formulation, from the excellent New America Foundation analyst Kevin Carey, is that the modern university is just a holding company for a group of departments, which in turn are holding companies for a group of individual faculty research interests. In other words, Yugoslavia.
But the actual point of a university, the reason for its existence beyond sheer administrative convenience, is that it serves the advancement of knowledge by getting the disciplines to act together to tackle problems in ways they would not do so independently. And that means that the university’s raison d’etre is, in fact, to continually make choices on resource allocation across disciplines, to the areas that make the most sense, both financially and intellectually.
Yet there exists within universities a substantial and determined constituency that claims it is immoral for institutions to make such choices. Much of the incoherence, idiocy, and sheer weenieness of university “strategy” documents come from senior managers trying to square this circle: appearing to make choices, while acting in deference to the autonomous disciplinary republics, to avoid actually making any.
In short, strong disciplines are necessary and important to insure academic quality. But letting them run the university is madness.