Wednesday, October 1, 2014
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Kentucky Fried University?

Academics are easily flattered by talk about "knowledge management" and the "knowledge society." They often think this phrase highlights the central role of universities in society. In fact, it signals the opposite--that the wider society itself is a hotbed of knowledge production, over which universities do not enjoy any special privilege or advantage.

This has caught academics off-guard, because they have traditionally treated knowledge as something pursued for its own sake, regardless of cost or consequence. Now they face increasing global pressure to open universities to the wider public, typically for reasons unrelated to the pursuit of pure knowledge. Today's universities are expected to function as dispensers of credentials and engines of economic growth.

Consequently, academics are losing control of their performance standards to "knowledge managers." Universities, according to former Fortune editor Tom Stewart, are "dumb organizations" with too much "human capital" but not enough "structural capital."

A fast food chain, on the other hand, is supposedly a "smart organization" because it makes the most of its relatively low-skilled staff through the alchemy of good management. Academia proceeds almost exactly in reverse, as department heads and deans struggle to keep track of what the staff are doing. McDonald's, unlike a university, is much more than the sum of its parts.

Academics remain largely in denial about the impact of knowledge management. But the sheer increase in the number of university presidents drawn from business and industry implies that McDonald's and MIT may, at least in principle, be judged according to the same operational and performance standards.

At the same time, it is unreasonable to expect the increasing number of academics on short-term contracts to defend the integrity of an institution that cannot promise them job security. Indeed, many academics--not just professional knowledge managers--have endorsed recent steps to disaggregate the "unity of teaching and research" that has defined the university since the early 19 th century.

With the establishment of each new on-line degree program and science park, universities appear more vulnerable to this mindset. The two types of "post-academic" university that they represent--the one a diploma mill, the other a patent factory--share an overriding interest in benefiting those who can pay at the point of delivery. But universities have always been hard-pressed to justify their existence in such immediate cost-benefit terms.

It would be a mistake to blame knowledge managers, or, for that matter, neo-liberal ideology, for this instrumental view of universities as "service providers." Even in the heyday of the welfare state, service provision was precisely what lay behind academia's appeal to policymakers. The public would pay higher taxes because either they or their children might qualify for a course of study that would improve their job prospects, or because researchers' discoveries might improve the quality of life.

The same mentality operates today in an increasingly privatized funding environment. But this need not mean that universities become thoroughly commercialized. The corporate origin of universities is of more than historical interest here. Universities, along with churches, religious orders, guilds, and cities, were the original corporations. Commercial ventures came to be regularly treated as corporations only in the 19 th century.

What originally entitled a university to corporate status under Roman law was its pursuit of aims that transcend the personal interests of any of its current members. Corporate status enabled universities to raise their own institutionally earmarked funds, which were bestowed on individuals who were "incorporated" on a non-hereditary basis, through examination or election.

The oldest and most successful US universities were founded by British religious dissidents, for whom the corporate form remained vividly alive. From the 17 th century on, American graduates were cultivated as "alumni" who regard their university experience as a life-defining process to be shared, and thus worthy of receiving financial support from them.

The endowments built through these donations allow successive generations to enjoy the same opportunity for enrichment. "Ivy League" universities like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton still charge the world's highest tuition fees, but only one-third of students pay the full amount.

Universities are not, in fact, such dumb organizations. True, they must endeavor to be much greater than the sum of their parts. But this means that a university's value must not be measured only by the short-term benefits it provides for immediate clients. The ideal of uniting teaching and research promised just such a breadth of organizational vision, one worth updating today.

After all, universities are distinctive in producing new knowledge (through research) that is then consolidated and distributed (through teaching). In the former phase, academia generates new forms of social advantage and privilege, while in the latter phase, it eliminates them. It is this unique brand of creative destruction that marks the university as one of our greatest entrepreneurial organizations.

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