Sunday, February 27, 2005

Are we the university?

Two fellow (and slightly better known) Chicago professors Gary Becker and Richard Posner run a joint weblog on various social issues. This week they tackle the question of whether the faculty "own" a university. Becker says yes and Posner says no. I have to go with no. I believe the board of trustees acts as the owners on behalf of the "shareholders" known as alumni. Many professor do act for the betterment of the university but professors come and go are no more owners than players on a baseball team.

Another question that comes up in discussions is who are the university's customers? Some possible answers:

  • Students. But why is their success based on their performance?
  • The Government who give the grants for research.
  • The employers of the students.
  • Society at large.
Perhaps the mistake is in making the analogy between university and corporation.


  1. The analogy is indeed all wrong. A university is a unique institution, aimed at acquiring and distributing knowledge. I think that the cooperation in recent year between universities and hi-tech industry made some people forget this simple fact...

  2. A supplementary question: Does the answer to this question depend on whether the institution is a public or private institution? I'd say not.

    In their original form, universities were founded by monarchs, often as law schools. The top faculty received highly lucrative contracts from individual wealthy parents to educate their children (sons). There was a huge competition among major institutions for the prestige of the top faculty and these faculty drew huge salaries. Often these contracts explicitly indicated which menial duties and punishments ought to be given to the student. (These
    institutions accrued considerable prestige for a monarch.)

    This suggests a combined answer to the question: the prime customers are not the students but rather their parents who pay the bills (and those students who are sufficiently independent of their parents to do so). The value of the product is
    in part based on the rigor, which explains why students are evaluated.

    A corporate analogy is inadequate however. The whole set-up is a little like a combination of a law firm and a chartered company. There are the different levels of partners: assistant, associate and full professors instead of junior, senior and managing partners. The faculty senates play this role in the modern university. However the management of the modern university is closer to that of a chartered company, with a board of trustees/alumni or by a city/state-appointed board of governors. The presidents, provosts, and vice-presidents play the role analogous to the executives of companies.

    The bottom line is that a university is BOTH the faculty and its management board. It isn't anything with both.

  3. "Perhaps the mistake is in making the analogy between university and corporation."Emphatically, yes!

    -- Amit C.

  4. Indeed, whereas the purpose of a corporation is to sell goods and services, the purpose of a university is to perform immediately applicable research that collects grant monies.

  5. This is a fine and fascinating question, one that could be the subject of an entire semester course, I imagine! (Just consider the rich history of how universities have developed, and the many changes in recent times.)

    I agree with the posters who say that the analogy between universities and businesses is (while natural) not correct, and would lead one to the wrong conclusions.

    The university does seem to be first and foremost a collaboration among the students, faculty, and alumni. Of course, the unpleasant issues of funding and administration come into play, bringing parents, the government, and administrators into the mix.

    I think faculty have an idealized view that they are the university. And perhaps until recently that was primarily true -- until recently, I think most university administrators came from the faculty, and government involvement in the institutions was limited. It seems to me what has changed a lot in recent years is the rise of professional university administration, and the increasing role of goverment funding for universities in order to turn them into research labs for defense needs and economic growth.

    It seems to me that these changes are fairly recent -- WWII on, but having an increasing impact today. Perhaps that is an incorrect perception. But if it is true, no wonder we are still trying to come to terms with the changing identity of the university in modern life.

  6. This may be only tangentially related to Mitzenmacher's comments. There's a lengthy essay by Stephen Leacock titled "Oxford As I See It" that contains, among other things, musings about the differences between English and American academia. It was written in 1922. A relevant excerpt:

    [BEGIN QUOTE] But even with us in older days, in the bygone time when such people as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were professors, one found the English idea; a professor was supposed to be a venerable kind of person, with snow-white whiskers reaching to his stomach. He was expected to moon around the campus oblivious of the world around him. If you nodded to him he failed to see you. Of money he knew nothing; of business, far less. He was, as his trustees were proud to say of him, "a child."


    All this is changed in America. A university professor is now a busy, hustling person, approximating as closely to a business man as he can do it. It is on the business man that he models himself. He has a little place that he calls his "office," with a typewriter machine and a stenographer. Here he sits and dictates letters, beginning after the best business models, "in re yours of the eighth ult., would say, etc., etc." He writes these letters to students, to his fellow professors, to the president, indeed to any people who will let him write to them. The number of letters that he writes each month is duly counted and set to his credit. If he writes enough he will get a reputation as an "executive," and big things may happen to him. He may even be asked to step out of the college and take a post as an "executive" in a soap company or an advertising firm. The man, in short, is a "hustler," an "advertiser" whose highest aim is to be a "live-wire." If he is not, he will presently be dismissed, or, to
    use the business term, be "let go," by a board of trustees who are
    themselves hustlers and live-wires. [END QUOTE]

    Apparently the various "non-academic" activities of an American professor were being felt even back in 1922.

    The full essay can be read hereBeware! It contains shockingly sexist opinions in its last third.

  7. > In their original form, universities were founded by monarchs, often as law schools.

    Really? I thought their original form was people getting together and studying the classics, often as some form of private-tutoring, with official founding and the imprimatur of any civic bodies or monarchs happening much later.

  8. Yeah, I also thought universities were started by the students, who paid the professors directly. (I.e., I don't buy that monarch story.)

    As for the corporate analogy, I don't have a knee jerk reaction against it. Obviously it's not the soul crushing type of corporation. It's more like a semi-public good corporation: i.e., educating people brings larger value to society than just the benefits to the students and faculty, and thus it makes sense to susbsidize universities in order to encourage consumption of that good.

    But given that going to a university is entirely voluntary, it makes sense to ask "who is the consumer?" Given the source of subsidies, the government is the consumer; but the parents or students are as well. To act like nothing of value could come from a corporation is to miss a huge part of the very means by which we live.

  9. I can't resist pointing to a speech by
    our own Edsger Dijkstra about this.
    It's EWD 1175.

    Quote: "Just for being different and doing things the uneducated cannot understand, the academics are hated and feared, vide Socrates, executed in 399 BC, Archimedes, killed in 212 BC, and, more recently, Hypatia, AD 415 barbarously murdered by a Christian mob."

    - Wim van Dam

  10. Dijkstra's speech is amazing.
    Indeed, I think that, while both of this comparisons are faulty, the university can be better compared to the church than to a corporation.