On the University

“Except perhaps for big time soccer, the university seems to have become the most nearly universal manmade institution in the modern world.” – Jaroslav Pelikan, The Idea of the University: A Reexamination

I’ve been resisting posting about this, but here goes anyway. Funmi Arewa, guest blogging at Conglomerate, raises a set of questions about the purposes and functions of the university that has been percolating around the blogosphere recently in the wake of Larry Summers’ resignation from Harvard. Geoff Manne posted some thoughtful comments, and some helpful links, at Truth on the Market. Posner and Becker both weighed in as well.

I was going to write about how the focus on the instrumental aspects of university governance, which is implicit in each of these posts (and more explicit in some), overlooks what I regard as the hugely important symbolic economy that surrounds them, and that lies at the core of Jaroslav Pelikan’s book. (Above, I’ve quoted Pelikan’s opening line.) The members of the Harvard Corporation and the Yale Corporation don’t really “represent” anyone or any group so much as they “represent” the values embedded in the concept of the university — whatever those still are.

But I’m largely preempted by William Stuntz‘s apocalyptic critique of the Harvard affair in TNR Online (reg. required). (HT: Rick Garnett, Prawfsblawg.) Professor Stuntz writes:

Summers was brought down not because he was politically incorrect or bad at soothing academic egos, though those things contributed far more than they should have. The core problem is that he wanted to shake up the comfortable world of higher education. Most Americans think of universities as a bastion of the political left, and in one sense they are. But in a deeper sense, institutions like Harvard embody a particularly blind sort of conservatism: All change causes discomfort, and so must be resisted. In this deeper sense, Summers was and is very much a man of the left–the best kind of left. Good for him. Harvard’s governing board has now chosen, publicly and emphatically, the status quo. Bad for them, and before long, bad for all of us. A friend of mine who runs a small business likes to say that the last move of a failing enterprise is to fire all those who want change. It’s hard to imagine another such reform-minded president in a top university anytime soon. From now on, the forces pushing change will all come from the outside. Inside, we will see only denial and resistance, in equal measure. The downward spiral will accelerate.

This is mostly right. He’s right to see the issue in symbolic terms, and he’s right that American research universities have to confront an “Innovator’s Dilemma” moment. He’s wrong, though, in one respect. He’s wrong to jump from that premise to the conclusion that as Harvard’s inertia takes it over the precipice, the rest of American higher education must follow. Compare the follies in Cambridge with the flourishing in New Haven. Is it time for Harvard to concede that Yale knows something that it doesn’t?