Skip to content

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.