We’ve all heard about the corporatization of the university, the crisis in the humanities, and the claim that students only want job skills. Complaints about higher education are wellworn these days, and they don’t seem to vary much. Where should we look for constructive responses to these complaints, for informed analysis of the deeper causes of these problems, for possible solutions?
We published an issue over a decade ago asking, “What’s the University for?” (Fall 2000), and it seems time to address the question again. In that issue, we noted that “it is unclear just what an education is meant to do for (or to) its recipient,” that “the life of the mind” seems “irrelevant to the larger American society,” that technological advances are beginning to make “the old delivery systems [seem] obsolete.” Over the last decade, these problems have only worsened, compounded by the severe economic constraints that affect what universities can do, who can go to college, and what counts in decision-making at institutions of higher education.
In this issue, we want to move beyond complaint, the standard set of clichés, and what seems like a stale impasse in discussions about higher education. But where might we turn for answers? Each of the essays here suggests that if anyone should be able to resist the bureaucratization of the life of the mind, the pursuit of wisdom, and the education of students into the ways in which people have engaged the most pressing questions of human life, it should be professors themselves. However, the essays here argue that professors are just as caught in the system as anyone else.
This issue focuses on “the corporate professor,” that is, on the ways in which professors themselves have bought into or been shaped by the corporate culture of the university and seem strangely inarticulate about the purposes and worth of higher education. Mark Edmundson laments that he “sometimes think(s) that there are more potential intellectual idealists among the administrators than among the faculty.” Gaye Tuchman finds professors anxiously trying to fulfill the metrics of productivity and impact, in many cases, more eagerly than the administrators. And Frank Donoghue focuses on the fact that most students and classes are taught by instructors—either teaching graduate students or adjuncts—who are woefully underpaid, often work multiple jobs, and have little if any time for writing and publishing, much less resisting the corporatization of the university.
If professors can’t articulate what they do or why it matters in terms not beholden to the market, then who can? What resources are there for re-envisioning and re-articulating the purposes of higher education in a way that responds to the rapid and far-reaching cultural changes taking place in our world today and that resists the commodification of knowledge, scholarship, attention, and reflection? Exploring these questions is vital to a deeper sense of just what the problems are and how they might be addressed.