Transparent Universities

(cc photo by Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden)

(cc photo by Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden)

Dave Mazella, like most people I encounter who are affiliated with American universities, doesn’t much care for my take on US higher education, which he deems unduly “neo-liberal.” But I think his alternative is very much along the same lines as what I’m arguing for:

The other part of Newfield’s argument, which I am becoming more and more persuaded of, is that universities will need to become much more transparent about where their money comes from and where it goes: the public imagines that tenured professors sit around all day long teaching a handful of students and producing hoity-toity research that no one sees. The structural imbalance between the costs of humanities and scientific research is never brought to the public’s attention, and humanities research itself disappears from view in most of these accounts. So putting the institution’s focus squarely back on enrollments and teaching would actually benefit the humanities both internally and externally. And I believe that universities would sound more plausible describing themselves as longer-term investments in the public good, if they behaved this way more often.

We could try to debate the difference between this kind of “transparency” and the dream “accountability” model, but I think they amount to the same thing. Universities—meaning each specific institution individually—need to do a better job of explaining to donors and taxpayers what it is they’re doing. That means being transparent about what money is being spent on, and articulating a theory about why that’s a good allocation of resources. I think a fair amount of accountability would directly fall out of adopting that kind of practice since we’ll see clearly that different institutions are doing different things and be able to tell if some of them are outliers of underperformance.

The thematic point about all this I would make is simply that the current dynamic creates perverse incentives for universities to measure themselves based on inputs. To be “the best” means to have the most fundraising (i.e., the highest operating costs) and to be the most selective (i.e., to have the most promising students) with nothing said about what you’re accomplishing. What’s needed is a paradigm in which a modest-sized school with modest resources and average students can obtain recognition for doing an excellent job if it is, in fact, doing an excellent job.