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.”
In 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?