Education, training, and the research university

Is the job of the university just to provide new knowledge from its research activity and trained workers from its students? Where does education fit in?

Two weeks ago, the University of Virginia’s governing body, the Board of Visitors, fired the president of the university. The move, of which there had apparently been no foreshadowing whatever, was accompanied by a statement about the need to “develop, articulate, and implement a concrete and achievable strategic plan to re-elevate the University to its highest potential” and some mutterings about something called “strategic dynamism.” In addition to the word salad, there was other evidence that the firing was part of a coup by business school alumni on the board, including the appointment of the undergraduate business dean as interim president. The faculty and students went ballistic.

Today word came out that the president will be reinstated: I guess when the Governor ordered the board to resolve the matter by today or be dismissed en masse, the message was clear, since the faculty and students had made it clear that they wouldn’t accept any other resolution.

I’ll be visiting the University of Virginia this fall, teaching the introductory course in the Batten School’s new undergraduate major in public policy. Last week I was in Charlottesville for a curriculum meeting, with the board’s ouster of the University’s popular president looming in the background. As it happens, the conversation at the meeting overlapped with what I suspect was the deeper issue between the president and the board.

No doubt U.Va., like the rest of the world, has been slow in adapting the processes of higher education to new economic and technological realities; like every other sector of the service economy, higher ed is caught between the Baumol Cost Disease and Moore’s Law. Learning how both to capture what goes on in its classrooms for export to other institutions and individual students and how to substitute other inputs for teacher-hours in the educational process will be a necessity for the survival of U.Va., and every other university. And learning how to do so at minimum sacrifice in other values is going to be an extraordinarily hard task. (My own institution has been astoundingly – but not unusually – slow on both counts, even in the midst of the existential threat created by badly diminished state funding.)

That said, the surprise firing of a university president is almost always a bad idea, so I’m glad the board backed off, especially as there seems to be no evidence that the president was dragging her heels on technological change, as opposed to being reluctant to abolish the Classics department.

The reference to Classics – which the board president disowned in a classic non-denial denial– points to what I suspect is the deeper debate here: about the purposes of the university. Everyone agrees on the research mission: elite universities are factories for producing new knowledge. (Whether “publish or perish” is a good universal rule even in research universities, and how far down the status chain it makes sense to push the research mission, are important but subordinate questions.) But the nature of teaching mission is more controversial. The governor’s statement cites “greater access at reasonable cost, training people well for the great jobs of tomorrow in an increasingly competitive global economy, and the advancement of knowledge to aid the human condition” as his three goals.

But training people for jobs, even “great jobs,” isn’t the same as offering education. (The governor’s statement mentions “higher education” as a category of activity three times, but the word “education” never occurs by itself.) Training provides “know-how,” and I don’t disparage it at all. But education provides knowledge, and the capacity and desire to acquire more knowledge, and inculcates the values of the love of truth and of integrity in its pursuit and communication. That’s a different goal, and a different activity. You can train a dog or a pilot or a surgeon or a chemical engineer; you can’t train an original thinker, or a robust citizen.

That brings me back to the curriculum meeting. The Batten School’s master’s programs are frankly professional: they don’t offer mere training, but they do offer training, in skills such as memo-writing and spreadsheet calculation. Their primary goal is to prepare people for active full-time participation in government and related activities. At their best, the style of analytic thinking they teach has greater reach than that, but if their graduates fail to get jobs in or related to the activities of government the schools aren’t doing what they intend to do. By the same token, if there’s something decision-makers and their advisers need to know, then the schools of public policy have a responsibility to teach it; if you don’t know what a House Appropriations subcommittee does or what a rule-making is, or can’t define the difference between benefit-cost analysis and cost-effectiveness analysis, we shouldn’t send you out into the world with an MPP.

But the undergraduate program is different, and different from an undergraduate degree in education or nursing or accounting. Everyone at the meeting in Charlottesville was clear on this point: a U.Va. BA in public policy is not intended to be a professional credential, but rather a liberal-arts degree. The students will emerge with some know-how to go along with their knowledge, but if the job is done right they will have learned a way of thinking about the world, not a mere skill-set.

In some occupational settings, a liberal education has tremendous practical value. The capacity to read a text, to say what’s in it, to reason about why it was written, to be able to compare it to other texts and say where the disagreements lie; to listen to two people arguing about something and be able to define their argument in a way both will agree to; to examine claims about knowledge and judge to what extent they are warranted; to identify what facts, or what analysis, would be required to resolve some dispute: these are, indeed, job-relevant “knowledge, skills, and abilities.” But that’s not all they are: they’re a passport to the past and to the world, and to the life of the mind, and tools for living well and for functioning well as the citizen of a republic.

Not every middle-class eighteen-year-old wants an education, and those who want university-based job training should have access to it. But it is a political task of the highest importance to identify those who want, and are capable of, “higher education” in its fullest sense, and to make it available to them. Not coincidentally, teaching those who want to be educated rather than merely trained is an activity that many people who also generate new knowledge find congenial, and – at least arguably – that sort of teaching adds to the accuracy and originality of what comes out of the research pipeline.

Yes, this is a deeply elitist mode of thinking. (Bordieu is not to be denied.) Yes, a “liberal-arts education” is also a badge of class membership: a license to wear a suit. And some of those who come to value education do so only because they first want the suit-license and only then discover that there is something of real value underlying the credential. But it’s also a defense of civilized values, without which a society, and most of all a republic, cannot function.

That’s what’s at stake when a bunch of rich folks and their professional servants (the U.Va. board does not seem to include anyone who has ever written a book or who currently engages in any activity not primarily about wealth acquisition) want to apply business-school principles and business-school buzz-words to managing a great university. This time the money-changers failed to take over the temple, but by no means have they been driven out of U.Va. or anywhere else.

As Susanne Lohmann points out (in a book we’re all breathlessly waiting for) the task of university management consists of keeping internal and external barriers – between departments, and between the university and the outside world – semi-permeable, while at the same time running a massive set of cross-subsidies.

Teresa Sullivan can now turn back to handling that problem. Better her than me.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

17 thoughts on “Education, training, and the research university”

  1. FWIW, I think the German and Classics stuff has been (deliberately?) misunderstood. I do not think it was ever a question of abolishing the departments: rather a question of dropping the PhD programs. The German PhD program is NRDC-ranked near the bottom of German PhD programs; the Classics program is unranked. Both are small — UVA awarded 5 PhDs in German between ’05 and ’09, 8 in Classics — but absorb a great deal of faculty attention. But the BOV is inarticulate and the attack more easily fended off if presented as an attack on undergraduate liberal arts education.

    1. Thank you jim and a very interesting insight to the merely casual observer.

      In which case the Board of Regents is right. There’s a movement (it was in the New York Times, so it must be so;-)) to address the problem of turning out Phds with no realistic prospect of academic jobs in their chosen field. For the lower ranked Phd programmes, that’s not a justifiable use of resources.

      It is perfectly reasonable for a top 10 Phd programme to turn out scholars, even if they have no realistic prospect of a tenure track position in their chosen field. They may go into high school teaching, other industries that use liberal arts Phds (publishing etc.), to emerging markets. The study at that advanced level is a good in and of itself.

      But for lower ranked programmes (perhaps below the top 25 or so) it’s just deceit of the individuals so accepted, and is often extracting rent from the public purse (student loans & grants). The case for continuing that activity is just much weaker.

      We might make an exception for the study of certain subjects with a national strategic purpose: Indo-Aryan languages (like Persian), Chinese history etc.

  2. Consider the following two alternatives: an eighteen-year-old in his parent’s house, perched in front of a computer for a few hours a day for two or three years, learning calculus or a language or why the Roman empire declined and fell (or chatting on Facebook?); or getting the kid out of the house for a few of those rebellious (revolting?) years. I think that sending one’s kids off to college has not lost its appeal.

    That there are other good reasons for learning in a college setting just adds to the plus side of the ledger. No, although colleges are going to have to adapt, I don’t think that on-line learning is going to supplant them. [And I’m glad I retired before all these changes began.]

  3. Further proof of the nonidentity of conservatives and Republicans. Conservatives conserve. They treasure heritage and origins, sometimes inordinately so.

    Allan Bloom, where are you when we need you?

    (Of course he’d probably carp how Classics has been destroyed by letting women in, etc….)

    1. You mention Bloom; I immediately thought of Wm F Buckley.

      Can you imagine him championining a cost-benefit analysis of teaching the Classics?

  4. One other thing to add here: increasingly, the mission of even high caliber institutions has been to maximize profit through research dollars, grants, and intellectual property. The core mission of the University, dating back to the middle ages, of being a kind of independent think tank for knowledge and exploration, is waning. Instead, universities are being treated as the de facto research arms of pharmaceutical companies, biotech companies, etc.

    We are seeing the totality of capitalism at work. Everything must be profitable, or it is not worth doing. Everything must make a profit, or it has no value. Classics, the legacy of ancient knowledge, cannot be monetized so we should abolish it. Not only that, but because it cannot be monetized it is worthless, crap, unimportant.

    This is the sickness we suffer from. To bring it back to politics: the monomaniacal focus of Republicans on reducing everything to money and profit will infect even those things that are divorced from questions of profit.

    1. Well said. Businessification… datafication… the emphasis is on reductionism in a world of epistemic simplicity. You might be able to put the squeeze on manufacturing to get cheaper pickles, but you can’t put the squeeze on human enlightenment.

  5. Worth noting that the training provided by business schools – the paradigm and background of the disgraced UVA Booard – is deeply problematic in a way that training in other professional fields like law and engineering is not. Beyond accountancy, what exactly is the target set of skills? Simulating an amoral buzzword generator isn’t enough.

    1. Being an MBA, I respectfully reply that you don’t know what you’re talking about. There most definitely is a skill set and an academic set of standards (think back to Alvy Singer’s hilarious discussion about photography with Annie Hall in Woody Allen’s film) in the study of marketing, management, finance, IT, economics, and especially statistics, as every professional social scientist should know.

      There is an issue however, as to how often newly minted MBA’s will ever put these learnings to good use in their ultimate field of endeavor. Again, I think what we learn in statistics has the most direct application, and largely the rest serves as good background similar to what a liberal arts eductation does for a journalist or an architect.

      All that having been said, and stipulating that there is value in all of these approaches, the question really becomes how much are we willing and able to pay for higher level education? The paradigm that “there is no limit” is being proven unsustainable.

      1. The point is that the boards of regents of universities are increasingly packed with businesspeople, many with MBAs. Their model of the world has to do with maximizing profit and efficiency, and increasing endowments. You can spin an MBA as “similar to a liberal arts education”, but you’re being disingenuous. Case studies and coursework in MBA programs are problem solving exercises whose ultimate goal is to maximize profit–however cool and liberal-artsy the topic is.

        When MBA values rule a university board, the historical orientation of the university as a place for the creation and dissemination of knowledge begins to fail. We see drastic increases in tuition (in order to keep endowments “healthy.”) We see a drive to cut worthy areas of inquiry (philosophy, classics, comparative literature, art history) in favor of profitable ones (bioengineering, electrical engineering, MBAs.) We see a mercenary, corporate attitude masked by stock imagery of students happily being educated. This mission–making universities useful to the market economy–frequently works against a mission of inquiry and education.

        1. Nonprofit management is much harder than for-profit management. A manager of a non-profit must be obsessed with net revenues, because non-profits can’t exist with a negative revenue stream. In other words, a non-profit manager needs a full set of management skills, of the kind that an MBA program purports to teach. Nonprofit managers also must be obsessed with the mission of the non-profit, which is not net revenue maximization. And they must somehow reconcile these two obsessions, imbue their business staff with the mission, imbue their service staff with a sense of business, and accept compensation far below that of similarly skilled for-profit managers. I don’t envy their lot.

          Given all this, Matt has a point. Universities seem to be losing their sense of mission–or perhaps are viewing themselves as mere vocational trainers. I happen to think that universities are lousy at voc ed, with the exception of engineering and the apprenticeships offered by Ph.D. programs. If they wind up competing with other sources of voc ed, they will ultimately lose, or at best survive as engineering schools that might offer suit licenses as a sideline.

    2. These are all good points (though I would quibble with any assertion that there isn’t something seriously wrong with law school ed as currently practiced … I think it is *too* eggheady.)

      It seems to me though that it is the public that is stepping back from the value of liberal arts, and the public universities are essentially panicking. If we cut their funding, I’m not sure what else they can do besides a) raise tuition or b) sell themselves to the private sector/donors. As the old saying goes, you can’t eat prestige.

      In essence, the left is failing to make the case for the value of these institutions. (The right doesn’t believe in them in the first place?) And, to do my usual broken record routine, *who* will free us from Prop 13? Has there ever in the history of people been a 2/3rds-plus vote for the value of liberal arts??? (I doubt if we’d get a vote that high to keep our water systems.) If so, it probably wasn’t here in the US. Or in Cali? And if you could make that sale, you’d have to do it based on the STEM programs, is my guess. And during a recession, this shouldn’t shock anyone.

    3. James

      Anyone honest who attended a North American law school will tell you at least half the education is irrelevant. That last year in particular serves no earthly purpose in the life of legal practitioners (but sustains law schools as relative high profit enterprises within academe, so to write more unread papers for Law Reviews).

      The English system, of a 1 year conversion course followed by a common single year, then a 2 year training contract, is much superior.

      You might be right about MBAs, but saying somehow that North American legal education is much more justified in being highly scholastic and irrelevant to practise, is not a good argument.

      A better analogy might be to MDs, because N American medical school is now, as I understand it, practically and clinically oriented almost from the first year.

      Engineering is tricky. You don’t as an engineer use much of what you learned in undergrad, unless you go very technical and specialized. But conversely even in England they are 4 year degrees now (vs 3 for most degrees). There’s a common body of maths, sciences and principles of each discipline that needs to be taught.

  6. Why do you say “those who want university-based job training should have access to it”? When I taught at a mid-level state school, my department’s stereotypical placement was in a job the student could have handled just fine with a 2-year degree; weren’t we wasting their time and taxpayer money if all they were getting was training.

    1. I think a strong distinction needs to be made between “job training” and a university education. Universities do not exist for job training; they exist to educate thoughtful, well-rounded humans in a liberal arts or sciences tradition. And to perform basic research that might not happen in the context of a corporate culture.

      The problem, to my mind, is the expectation that every American must go to university. Some people are simply not cut out for it–and yet not having a college degree is stigmatized in America as lower class. More options should be available to graduating high schoolers. The German Berufsfachschule system of technical training is an interesting model, providing specialized education in everything from cabinetmaking to IT work. Oddly, the American university has taken on the role of a four year catch-all, after which people decide what their actual profession will be.

      I’m a case in point. I have a dual degree in political science and humanities, but I went back for a masters’ in architecture, and now practice as an architect. My broad undergrad education was entirely worth it, since architecture is a generalist profession drawing on many different fields. But if I had gone back for a masters’ in, say, information technology, could I say the same?

  7. Prof. Kleiman, I think you’ve just proven that eloquent blog post is not an oxymoron. Since you’re teaching at UVA next fall, would you be open to coming down to UNC-CH to give a talk about criminal justice policy, etc.? We could really use your knowledge–in general!–but especially considering what our state legislature is doing with regard to death-penalty policy.

    *I’m just writing as an admirer, not a representative of UNC in any capacity whatever.

  8. The ultimate problem here may not be the BOV (although it behaved with a spectacular level of myopia and incompetence that is nothing short of astonishing), but with the original “design” of Virginia’s public universities, and especially, their relationship to the General Assembly. When I came to UVA as an out of state student more than 30 years ago, I would guess that the population of Virginia was no more than 2/3 of what it is today, and perhaps it has grown even more than that. But the growth in higher education has been concentrated in other public universities: George Mason, James Madison and VCU. There is NOTHING wrong with that, but if UVA is supposed to be the flagship institution of a growing state, it can’t simply stay static — not in funding, not in vision, and not really in the number of in-state students. The difference in attitude by the GA toward UVA compared to say the NC legislature to the UNC system, and especially UNC-CH (where I was also a student, albeit briefly), is significant. UNC really is considered a state asset and treated like one. UVA has to deal with relatively low levels of state funding that makes private funding even more important, leading to the need to maximize the kinds of activities that preserve its reputation as a “private public” kind of institution — which many people just love, but which, I believe, ultimately disserves the university because of the way it marks it as off-limits to too many Virginia taxpayers.

    I agree with many other comments about the unfocused nature of our expectations of universities and higher education in general, but the problems at UVA go beyond that in many respects, and have been long in the making, and were percolating even when I was a student lo these many years ago.

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