Universities are Not Startups

Welcome to Wisconsin, aka Wississippi, aka Ground Zero of the battle for the soul of American higher education. My colleagues and I have ringside seats, and this fight is coming to a university near you. So pull up a chair.

You may have read the headlines already. If so, you’ve seen that the state legislature has introduced a bill that will remove tenure protections from state statute, and water down the robust shared-governance protocols that have so successfully prevailed throughout the UW System for many decades. Faculty are up in arms, and many, including myself, are beyond disappointed with the rhetoric of our so-called leaders. Several blogs that I greatly admire have called them out on this, so I won’t rehash all of that here. But for smart, readable, sometimes scathingly funny, and often heartbreaking assessments of this situation, get yourselves over to the blogs written by my UW colleagues Rachel Buff, Nick Fleisher, Richard GrusinChuck Rybak, and Kelly Wilz.

For this first post, I’d like to focus not on the attack on universities itself, but on what’s being attacked and how little sense the attack makes.

Contrary to the rhetoric that often surrounds us about higher education, universities are not startups. They have been around for at least a millennium, depending on how one defines a university, and arguably much longer. Having accumulated all those centuries of experience, we as a society have a pretty good idea as to the ingredients that make them successful. Hire the most accomplished scholars you can. Put them through a rigorous review process of their research, teaching, and service, but also invest in their efforts, financially and otherwise. Support their efforts to improve the minds and lives of their students, to whom almost all the faculty I’ve worked with for the past quarter century are passionately committed. Teach those students to think critically, creatively, and independently. Search for truth wherever it leads, whether in the arts, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, or professions.

In Wisconsin, the recipe has been remarkably successful. This is most apparent in Madison, where the flagship of the UW system is, by anyone’s reckoning, one of the top universities in the world. Exactly where it falls varies a bit depending on whose list you consult. It might be 27th30th, or 41st  (tied with New York University), but regardless, UW-Madison is in elite company. So why “fix” something that not only isn’t broken, but works better than almost everything else of its kind? Legislators, the university regents, and campus leaders have been asked to explain this over and over. They have yet to give a coherent answer, though–or to answer the related question of how they expect the radical changes they are proposing will make the UW System any better. Instead, we get neoliberal mumbo-jumbo, endlessly parroted by System President Ray Cross and chancellors like Rebecca Blank (Madison) and Mark Mone (Milwaukee), about the splendors of greater “flexibilities” and “efficiencies.” As if those are the pillars on which intellectual greatness stands. As if those were the key ingredients in helping expand students’ minds. As if one can’t tweak an institution’s purchasing rules while preserving tenure and shared governance.

Despite the record of distinction that institutions in the UW System have accrued over the 150-plus-years’ existence, despite the fact that they help put the state on the international map, despite the countless ways they contribute to knowledge, and to the economy, so-called conservatives want to tear down the universities and replace them with–well, it’s not entirely clear, but apparently with something that looks like a corporation. And not a particularly well-run corporation at that, at least judging from what’s going on in Wisconsin. Rather than an open and transparent discussion, we are offered lies, evasions, subterfuges, and weasel language. We also have a system president who has not only conspicuously failed to stand up for the principles of tenure and shared governance, but in fact thanked the legislature for tearing the heart out of the very system he governs. Or was supposed to govern. Or so we thought.

The battle for the University of Wisconsin has been by turns infuriating, depressing, and, dare I say, energizing. Why energizing? Because when a precious resource and a cherished institution are under assault, we are reminded–if we ever needed reminding–how precious it is. Because while we are facing enemies who have nothing but contempt for everything that universities represent, we also have allies, among the many amazing people who work and study in universities, and in the wider world beyond the college campus. Because those allies care not just about this battle, but other battles to which it’s linked: for K-12 education; for compassion for the vulnerable and underprivileged; for the environment; for nothing less than what the Workmen’s Circle, the progressive Jewish organization for which I once worked, sums up as the fight for a shenere un besere velt: a more beautiful and better world.

Regardless of how the present battle plays out, in a vote that will presumably be held at some point this summer, those battles will go on. Part of me wishes that they didn’t have to be fought. Part of me would rather be in the library right now, working on my next article or book chapter. I’ll get back there soon. But in the meantime, fight we must.


About Joel Berkowitz

Center director, teacher, theatre historian, translator, co-founder of yiddishstage.org. Proud supporter of the Wisconsin Idea.
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One Response to Universities are Not Startups

  1. The first comment in an entire blog. Cool!

    Two years ago, I left my first academic job, in Cambridge, Mass., for my second, in Dallas, Texas. Your post reminded me of one of the most salient differences between my life pre- and post-move. In Cambridge, every other person on the street is either employed at a major research university, is related to someone who is, or at least has a research-focused graduate degree. Everyone I knew in Cambridge had at least a general idea of what a research university is, and what academics do. My friends in Dallas are just as successful and thoughtful, but when it comes to what I do all day, no one has a clue. They certainly don’t understand how I can go six months without teaching. I think this is because an undergraduate’s interaction with the academic function of the university exists only in the classroom. Most undergraduates at research universities have never thought about why it’s valuable to learn from scholars who are continuing to advance their field. Their conception of “teaching quality” does not include “knowing what should be taught.”

    My undergraduate university had a requirement of two *years* of independent research, culminating in a senior thesis. You had to be exposed to research in some way, or you didn’t graduate. All of my classmates have at least a general understanding of what academic research is all about. Think of how rare that is among American universities, and then consider that only about a third of Americans have college degrees, and it should not be surprising that terms like “academic freedom” and “tenure” are not even understood, let along held in contempt.

    Collectively, we, as academics, have made ourselves easy targets by not communicating the value that academic research brings to students. So it is no wonder that arguments along the line of “we must defend tenure because the university must have academic freedom” will ring hollow among decision-makers, and their patrons, who have neutral or negative affect towards an “elite scholarly class.” It is not enough to say that changing university governance is a bad idea, or that at “precious resource” is under threat. Why is it a bad idea? Why is the resource precious? Even the most sympathetic citizens probably have no idea.


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