Goodnight, Poor Harvard??

File this under the “I just can’t resist commenting on Harvard, again“: Talking about Harvard, Larry Summers, universities, markets, and ideals, Jonathan “there are ideals associated with a profession” Zittrain and Geoff “let the market constrain the faculty, too” Manne are talking past each other.

More after the jump.

Defending the idea of the university as ennobled and constrained by non-market ideals, Jonathan writes:

The idea behind a profession — law, medicine, journalism — is that it exists as something other than simply a raw market-responding entity. There are ideals associated with it, and members of the profession are to see those ideals as influencing their behavior independently of market forces (while also having good arguments about what those ideals should be).

Geoff responds:

This strikes me as dangerously naive. It means one of two things:
1. We can and should rely on the idealism and self-restraint of professionals untainted by market incentives.
2. Someone or something other than the market can and should police the professions (hmmmmm . . . who could it be . . .? Why, the government, of course!)

The fact that the proposition is naive, and even dangerously naive (at least in some contexts — say, medieval chivalry — but universities?), doesn’t necessarily mean that groups of people and institutions don’t recognize idealized constraints and use them frequently to guide their conduct. They do, and have done, for thousands of years.

Geoff recognizes that; he’s opposed to uncritically encouraging more reliance on those ideals, as opposed to checking them via market discipline. Which seems fine except — how do we know when ideals should stop, and markets should start? And who’s to make the call? Geoff, rightly, is suspicious that the government should step in to police the professions; I assume, therefore, that he should be equally suspicious of the government telling, say, the Harvard Corporation (or the New York Times) that “the market” has a better idea of the public good for the university or for the newspaper than the institution’s managers do. I have a hard time believing that we shouldn’t let Harvard be Harvard, whatever that is, as defined by the Corporation (and not, by the way, by the faculty), whatever errors in judgment some believe the Corporation may make.

There is, in other words, a kind of market for ideals at work in the professions. “Harvard” is an idea and ideal, as well as an actual institution. For more than a century, Harvard has represented what higher education in this country “should be.” (Grant McCracken has a take on this point, comparing Harvard and Yale, that gets the Harvard-envy right but the Yale-absent-from-the-world wrong.) Look around universities and higher ed generally: there are a lot of universities, both public (this might include the so-called “public Ivies”) and private (Yale, Stanford, Duke, Hopkins) that emulate the Harvard model. They compete on the terms that the model defines, at its edges, for faculty and students and research dollars and prestige. Some do better; some do worse. (Right now, Harvard seems to be on a downward vector; Yale, Stanford, and Duke all seem to be doing pretty well.) And there are lots of universities and colleges, that don’t aspire to be Harvard, which reject the “idea” of Harvard and its “idea” of a university and embrace something else, even somethings else — perhaps not an integrated “idea,” but concepts of higher ed that are more or less oriented towards undergraduates, or towards teaching, or towards professional or career-oriented training, towards particular normative commitments, or towards the integration of teaching and scholarship and service.

The same can be said of newspapers and journalists, and lawyers and law practices. So I think that Jonathan’s right and Geoff’s right, too, but on different points and from different perspectives, and I don’t think that they disagree with one another quite to the extent that Geoff, perhaps, believes.

3 thoughts on “Goodnight, Poor Harvard??

  1. Great post Mike. Universities can compete and be checked by competition along many vectors. I have been writing about this issue in the context of university research systems (The Pull of Patents piece), and in the end, my conclusion is that universities ought to think strategically about how to compete (for faculty, students, grants, prestige, etc.) on the basis of their ideals (framed in terms of the mission / objectives behind their research system).

  2. I suppose at the end of the day and over a few glasses of scotch I would largely agree with your characterization of my position. I do believe that norms exist and can be beneficial, and that they may be shaped in competitive environments. I also agree that there is some competition among universities around the edges. But here are my quibbles.

    First, I think I disagree with everything in this paragraph except the first sentence:

    Geoff recognizes that; he’s opposed to uncritically encouraging more reliance on those ideals, as opposed to checking them via market discipline. Which seems fine except — how do we know when ideals should stop, and markets should start? And who’s to make the call? Geoff, rightly, is suspicious that the government should step in to police the professions; I assume, therefore, that he should be equally suspicious of the government telling, say, the Harvard Corporation (or the New York Times) that “the market” has a better idea of the public good for the university or for the newspaper than the institution’s managers do. I have a hard time believing that we shouldn’t let Harvard be Harvard, whatever that is, as defined by the Corporation (and not, by the way, by the faculty), whatever errors in judgment some believe the Corporation may make.

    It is precisely my point that “we” don’t have to “know” when ideals should stop and markets start. My aversion to government planning is animated by the fact that “we” can’t know. All organizations are subject to the problems of limited information; those problems should be efficiently minimized, not exacerbated. Government tends to opt for the latter path. Universities as organizations tend also to insulate “ideals” from market forces, to social detriment, but not, of course, to the detriment of the idealists.

    I am in no way arguing for a government fix to the problem; I’m merely suggesting that universities serve some ends better than others. And reliance on ideals may be a bad way to go about ensuring universities serve what I beleive both Jonathan and I (and you) think are the “right” ends.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: An environment that purports to foster Ideal A by removing the burdens of market pressures is also an environment where Ideal B may thrive. Ideal A might be devotion to students, commitment to knowledge, education and the free exchange of ideas. Ideal B might be laziness, self-promotion and intolerance. We’d all like to believe that Ideal A thrives to the exclusion of Ideal B, but why do we believe that? If I thought market forces were strong, I wouldn’t care; In schools where Ideal B predominated, I’d just figure that, for reasons I don’t know, Ideal B is better for students than Ideal A. But market forces are not strong here, as Adam Smith long ago made clear. Whether to do anything about it and, if so, what to do, of course, remain intractable questions.

    And of course “we” should let Harvard be Harvard. I make these comments only as an observer (and maybe as a parent, although as my daughter is only 11 months old, I heavily discount the relevance); I’m not in the business of dictating behavior to private organizations. Your reductio (“well, then, isn’t government also limited in its ability to ‘know’ when to ‘dictate’ markets?”) is inapposite.

    At any rate — as I said, perhaps the disagreements are slight. And, what’s more, perhaps no one really cares. Students don’t want better education; employers don’t need it; parents don’t care; etc. If it’s only the faculties who care anyway, then this may truly be the Best of All Possible Worlds.

    And, of course, Brett and I are destined not to agree on much short of matters like the best version of TLEO (5-26-73, Kezar or 2-9-73, Palo Alto). Competition on the basis of ideals is all well and good as long as it’s possible credibly to commit to a certain ideal. I think that’s exceptionally difficult here (but, of course, it probably doesn’t hurt to try, and the trying might even help to make the commitment more credible).

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