Not too long ago, I received a quotation via email from a colleague at one of the other UC schools that read: “Nothing we have said about the teacher's primary responsibility for defining the intellectual purpose of the university should obscure the fact that American teachers in the recent past have shamelessly abdicated this responsibility.
[We] have allowed the course of higher education to be determined by the most sinister influences in American life.” The quote was from Eugene Genovese and Christopher Lasch, in their scathing 1969 piece, “The Education and the University We Need Now,” published in The New York Review of Books. There, they diagnose the mid- to late twentieth century vision of the university as one that has shed its traditional role of providing a space in which free inquiry and the synthesis of a world-vision might take place, and instead, has become a kind of managerial, bureaucratic, and industrial training site. Genovese and Lasch write, “Instead of training men of general culture who govern society through the elaboration of a unified world-view that makes sense of experience and to which all activities can be related, the university now trains men who govern through the application of specialized skills to the solution of technical problems.”
One need not make a detour through Heidegger’s critique of modern technology as instrumental and exploitative, to see how Genovese and Lasch are setting up the terms of their argument. What the university has become, through increasing disciplinary specialization, is a fragmented space in which no over-arching vision is present. Of course, as the authors point out, the old vision was one that served the aristocratic elites who were also the primary constituents of top-tier academic institutions. However, the new lack of vision is now subject to new elites, ones who are comprised not of the old clans, but of the new industrial classes. To speak of “new industrial classes” is to be caught in the nineteenth century, since the industrial classes had long displaced the aristocracy in all other segments of society. Yet somehow the university has managed to stay medieval in its composition and its stated values, and so the transition to a capitalist world, one that saw the university as a training ground for its technicians, jarred with the rhetoric of a broad “liberal arts” education.
In many ways, the loss of consensus over the contemporary university’s purpose (beyond a general, and meaningless, claim of “excellence”; cf. Readings, The University in Ruins) points to a kind of suspension or interregnum within the university’s claims to autonomy and self-governance. What Genovese and Lasch point out is how we, as a faculty, have largely abrogated the responsibilities that the faculty have towards the adminstration of our own institutions. It is true that much of our service, when we render it, exists at the departmental level, where we still largely retain the old medieval rights to determine who has the power to teach and what it is that is taught. Yet it is also true that institutional pressures have warped these rights to a significant extent. There are changes to the composition of who is doing the teaching—increasingly, those that Clark Kerr once called the “unfaculty,” which is to say, temporary faculty who simply do not have the time or the vested interests in contributing to the administration of the university. There are also changes to what is being taught, though these are more indirect, mainly through attempts to measure the relative worth of majors according to future salaries and economic productivity, the rise of business-related majors, and the increase in class sizes due to overenrollment. If faculty governance at the departmental level has been essentially transformed—and without question, not for the better — then what of faculty governance at higher levels of the university? More on this later.