U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Insufficiently Attractive” Academic Programs

I want to pick up on the statement I made at the end of my blog post from last week.  I said, “The market-driven – or market-serving – changes to publishing described in Schiffrin’s memoir have their parallels, it seems to me, in analogous changes to the university.  And these twinned transformations – changes to the structure of publishing, changes to the structure of the university – are acting like a pincer to narrow not only the conceptual horizons of intellectual discourse for writers and readers but also the professional horizons of intellectuals both within and beyond the academy.”

fridayIn this post, I’d like to think about some historic changes to American universities, or some historic roads not traveled…yet.  And because I am all about my dissertation research now, this post will take as its point of departure a road not taken in the institutional history of Stanford University.

I want to reflect on this passage from Creating the Cold War University: The Transformation of Stanford, by Rebecca S. Lowen (Berkeley/Los Angeles: UC Press, 1997), p. 71:

By the 1930s, the notion that universities should be run according to good business principles was being promoted eagerly by some university administrators as a partial solution to universities’ financial troubles; for example, Robert G. Sproul, president of the University of California, was a consistent advocate of achieving economies by eliminating small classes and the elective curriculum.

[Paul] Davis’s recommendations for reorganizing [Stanford] university operations were drawn chiefly from the ideas of Lewis Terman, a Stanford psychologist and contemporary of [Herbert] Hoover who had devoted most of his professional life to developing tests to quantify personality traits and intelligence. The Stanford-Binet I.Q. tests had been used in the First World War to identify those considered unfit for military service.  After the war, Terman had encouraged businesses to adopt testing as a way to sort and channel employees.  To Terman, who also advocated the use of testing to determine admissions to Stanford, the university might best be thought of as a factory.  As did a factory, the university dealt with ‘raw materials and with processes’ and produced ‘something that is bought and paid for by the consuming public.’ But unlike a factory or business enterprise, universities were poorly organized and managed….

Davis thus urged [Donald] Tresidder [president of Stanford’s board of trustees] to consider eliminating all small classes, which, however conducive to learning, represented an inefficient use of Stanford’s buildings.  “Surely no commercial business would tolerate the luxury of such low load factors,” Davis objected.  He also advocated eliminating those university programs and departments that were insufficiently attractive to students and patrons or that were not contributing to making Stanford appear as a ‘pacemaker in education.’ Thus, the journalism and the history departments might go, he offered, and the economics department could be placed within the business school, where its professors might properly focus on issues of concern to industry.  This would both save the university money and also increase Stanford’s attractiveness to potential patrons.  Additionally, Davis encouraged Tresidder to reduce drastically the authority of the department chairs. The president should instead rely on deans, to whom he should allocate money according to the eminence and productivity of the faculty members under their supervision.  ‘To put the university funds into departments or fields at a more or less regular pace is a common University fault,’ Davis advised Tresidder.

Lastly, Davis suggested that Stanford should move into new fields, all of which might attract attention from industrial concerns….Such innovations, Davis hoped, would encourage faculty members to increase the effort they devoted to ‘applied knowledge’ in fields of interest to state and local governments and to business; this increased participation in ‘the affairs of the region,’ he believed, would ‘greatly increase the sales opportunities’ to business.

These recommendations were made in 1942.  According to Lowen, Tresidder took them seriously — as seriously as he took the recommendations of Frederick Terman, who also advocated a closer alignment with both government and private industry in order to fund university research and increase the university’s prestige and influence.  Indeed, Lowen’s study explores how Stanford administrators implemented these ideas — some of them, anyhow — in the decades following World War II, turning the sometime financially troubled and status-anxious school into one of the nation’s leading research institutions, an exemplar and archetype of the “Cold War university.”

As it turned out, this transformation did not involve eliminating the history department.  Indeed, it does not seem that a formal proposal to eliminate the history department was ever proffered, and it seems somewhat unlikely that it would have been seriously considered, since such austerity measures would hardly have increased any university’s prestige as an institution of higher education.  Not in 1942, anyhow.

It’s possible that, had things been bleak enough in terms of university finances, history would have been put on the chopping block.  But things never got that bleak.  The university was able to secure some modest defense-related contracts during World War II, and — as Lowen shows — managed to attract substantial funding and support from both government and industry after the war.  While some of this funding went to the social sciences, most of it went to applied sciences, emerging technical/research fields, and so forth.  However, because of how contracts were structured — including not just the funds needed to pay for equipment, staff and run laboratories, and cover the salaries of professors and the stipends of graduate researchers, but also an (often generous) award for overhead expenses — the outside funding secured by some departments indirectly benefited all the departments of the university.  Money for some meant some money for all.

But did the logic behind Davis’s recommendations — cut the departments and programs that are “insufficiently attractive” to (tuition-paying) students and “patrons” (donors) — ever really go away?  The idea that consumer choice (what students want to major in) and corporate demand (what skills industry is looking for, what research it’s willing to fund) can best dictate what knowledge is “worth” pursuing and preserving and passing down — was this idea simply held at bay, at Stanford and in American higher education more generally, because universities were so flush with Cold War funding that they had no reason to consider such options?  Is it logical that in times of “austerity” — coincidental or contrived — this logic would re-emerge?  Or is the logic of “the market,” carried to its competitive extreme — each book must be profitable, each department must attract more grant money than it costs the university in overhead, each professor must attract more funding and tuition dollars than s/he costs the university in salary and benefits — a truly new order of the day for universities, for publishing, for everything else?

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. L.D., it’s great how this sheds light on the longer history of the corporate university model and shows how the ideology you describe is not specific to the neoliberal era. I look forward to responses from the experts here who would know more about the historical context you allude to. Thinking of the Cold War context, there was of course a state and corporate interest in funding humanities and social sciences research–the rise of area studies programs such as Latin American studies–that could be utilized against the spread of leftist ideology.

    If there’s something clear is that the logic of the market is the dominating logic now; the key question, for me at least, is to imagine and build sites of intellectual production beyond higher ed as it is defined now by both government and capitalist interests. It goes without saying that this question connects with the issues raised in this website this week regarding the direction (or better, multiple directions) of the left in the 2010s.

  2. Thanks Kahlil. I really should have given more space to one of the key points that Lowen makes, and a key reason that she focuses on university administrators throughout her account: these developments/changes in university structure/mission were not the result of some “natural” or “impersonal” force, not an inevitable consequence of the Cold War. The transformation of Stanford into a certain kind of university (and the transformation of other universities at this time) was intentional, and involved thinking about (or re-thinking) what “the university” is for, and who it is for, etc. As it turns out, Tresidder (who became president of Stanford shortly after he got this cheery advice from Davis) was far less influential in this regard than Terman, under whose leadership the university was significantly transformed.

    On the connection between this and earlier discussions from this week — yes, I think it’s worthwhile to explore the links. However, I think that would mean taking seriously the idea that there may be a place for a certain kind of “conservative” (as in, interested in conserving some things) sensibility — i.e., contending for the (always idealistic?) idea of the university as a space that should not be governed by market logic. That is a radical idea (especially now), but perhaps in some ways a “conservative” idea too. Indeed, it seems to have been a positively antiquated idea for some time — which makes its persistence as an ideal, or as a vague notion (especially among academics) of “how the university used to be” all the more interesting.

    • I agree with your take on conservatism here; it points to how radicalism and conservatism are not always in opposition, depending on the context. In my view, what you point out is connected with a continued romanticization of newness and rupture as historical ideas (of course, there is no absolute rupture nor an absolute continuity).

      I am interested in what you point about about the intentionality behind the transformation of the Stanford model. It is perhaps too easy, like I suggested, to frame this narrative as economically determined. At the same time, I wonder if said intentionality can be conceived beyond the market logic: what other elements could be in play, beyond Cold War ideology and economic interests?

  3. Kahlil, great question!

    One of the issues people were sorting out/rethinking — and this is a long sorting, though Lowen begins the story very helpfully in the 20s and 30s — was the relationship of the university to society as as whole, including the extent to which scholarship could/should be disinterested or independent from the pressures exerted by other social institutions, especially the government. This conundrum also touched on the distinction between public universities and private institutions, where the leaders of private institutions could portray themselves (in somewhat elitist and myopic fashion) as keeping the light in the ivory tower burning no matter who was in power politically, whereas public universities would be beholden to serve the political powers that be. As you can imagine, many leaders of public universities (and some leaders of private universities) pointed out that business interests were hardly “disinterested” sponsors of research, and the need to solicit funds from private patrons rather than rely on public funds had problems of its own.

    This not such a big issue in the 1920s, perhaps, but it became a real problem in the 1930s, during the depression, when government spending on public universities AND business/industry donation/sponsorship for private universities both dried up, tuition income was down, etc., etc. FDR came through with federal aid for students, which some universities were glad to accept, though others with bigger endowments (Harvard) turned it down. Stanford’s administration was very leery of participating in the federal aid program (tuition subsidies for lower income students) because of their political distaste for “statist”/planned economy (which they feared was in the offing). But they needed the money badly, so they took it.

    So there was a rethinking of this relationship between the university and other institutions — government and business. But also, as I mentioned above, a status anxiety connected with that. As it became more important for universities to be seen as contributing to / serving society — through research, through the training/supply of experts and expertise — it became more important to secure the funding and grow the research disciplines that would demonstrate the university’s importance, raise its profile, etc. This was a matter of seeking prestige and influence.

    As Lowen points out in her book — and this is really why it has been so helpful for me — “Stanford did not emerge as a prestigious academic institution until the 1960s, when it appeared on lists of the ‘top ten’ universities in America as well as on lists of the handful of universities receiving the most support from the federal government” (7). One of the things I am dealing with in my dissertation is the “reception history” of the canon debate at Stanford, and much of the conservative (!) reaction to the “multiculturalist turn” at Stanford was couched in terms of this great university of longstanding prestige, influence, etc., sacrificing its heritage/tradition as a “top” university for the sake of some passing academic/cultural fad. But, as you note above, that kind of narrative depends on a (negative) romanticization of newness and rupture. What was still quite new, even circa the mid 1980s, was Stanford’s institutional prestige.

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