Who Needs Captains of Erudition?

Long before “corporatization” became synonymous with higher education, Thorstein Veblen, the early twentieth-century American sociologist who coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” dismissed American universities as little more than “competitive businesses.” In On the Higher Learning in America (1918), published fewer than forty years after Johns Hopkins was founded as America’s first research university, he described the contemporary university as a “business house dealing in merchantable knowledge, placed under the governing hand of a captain of erudition, whose office it is to turn the means in hand to account in the largest feasible output.” The modern American university president wasn’t a scholar, an intellectual, a scientist, or even much of a leader. He was the manager of systems, the chief of a concern, the captain of erudition.

Thorstein Veblen, by Edwin B. Child, 1934. Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Associates of the Sitter. A protege of J. Laurence Laughlin, the first head of political economy, Veblen began his uneasy passage through the University in 1892.

Thorstein Veblen, by Edwin B. Child, 1934. Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Associates of the Sitter. A protege of J. Laurence Laughlin, the first head of political economy, Veblen began his uneasy passage through the University in 1892.

Botstein and Bard

Leon Botstein, the charismatic conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and president of Bard College, is no captain of erudition. “Botstein’s voice,” writes Alice Gregory in the New Yorker,

telegraphs a wizardly moral authority. Everyone responds to it, but parents, primed to be proud of their children, are especially susceptible. ‘We live in a time where people don’t really believe in education. That doubt is something we struggle with,’ he said. ‘Your enthusiasm, your determination, your idealism about education gives back to us a reminder of why we should fight for what we do.’

For Botstein, the “quantification of American higher education,” introduced by university administrators who just want to keep their jobs and facilitated by spineless faculty who have given up on the liberal arts, is a moral affront.

Botstein’s earnest and tireless defense of an ideal, however, might just doom this small, liberal arts college, 90 minutes north of New York City. Bard, where all those black-clad kids who read Sartre in high school wound up, is the singular creation of Botstein’s will and personality. But in December 2013, Moody’s Investors Service lowered its credit outlook to “negative.” And now some of its trustees are worried. Susan Weber, a trustee and donor, said:

Everyone says, ‘Oh, he’s the most amazing fund-raiser,’ Well, I wish that were so, because we wouldn’t be so underfunded if he were that amazing. I think he’s good at it—he works hard at it—but his real strength is building an institution.

“But”?  If one word can be said to embody the confusion over the purposes of higher education, that but might be it.

Botstein built an institution with a vision, but only a captain of erudition can, it seems, sustain it.

Weber’s resigned admission of what Bard needs after Botstein has become the assumption of many university boards. University presidents shouldn’t lead national debates or make moral claims; they should alleviate political pressures and mollify the idiosyncracies of donors. Ours is the age of the competent commander-in-chief—we need accountants, not idealists.

Veblen’s Prescience—in Our Own Backyard

On June 10, 2012, my colleagues and I at the University of Virginia (UVa) learned that Veblen had been all too prescient. Helen Dragas, Rector of UVa’s Board of Trustees, briefly and matter-of-factly informed us that our president had been fired:

On behalf of the Board of Visitors, we are writing to tell you that the Board and President Teresa Sullivan today mutually agreed that she will step down as president of the University of Virginia effective August 15, 2012. For the past year the Board has had ongoing discussions about the importance of developing, articulating and acting on a clear and concrete strategic vision. The Board believes that in the rapidly changing and highly pressurized external environment in both health care and in academia, the University needs to remain at the forefront of change.

Over the following weeks, my colleagues and I, joined by an international audience, speculated about these unspecified “philosophical differences” between President Sullivan and the Board of Visitors; we wondered about the “clear and concrete strategic vision” for which the Rector called. Hadn’t we already been subjected to years of strategic planning?

After ten days of increasing frustration and concern from faculty, students, and alumni, Dragas sent a second email. This one listed a number of “challenges” that UVa faced for which Sullivan, as Dragas implied, had no plan to deal with: the long-term decline in state funding for public universities, the disruptive effects of new technologies, rising tuition costs, increasing enrollments and an aging faculty (with no money to replace it), increasing demands for faculty and curricular assessment—not to mention the increasingly expanded roles that the contemporary university plays of health-care provider, entertainment center, sports venture, industrial and government research center, and, by the way, educator. In short, the university faced a whole host of challenges, none of which were unique to UVa.

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UVa President Teresa Sullivan speaks on the steps on the Rotunda after addressing a closed session of the Board of Visitors, June 2012; photo © Norm Shafer

But between June 10 and Sullivan’s ultimate reinstatement on June 26, something else happened on Grounds, something that most stories and accounts of the summer’s events missed in their efforts to chronicle the process. Not only did it surprise me; I still struggle to  make sense of it. (Talbot Brewer also tried to make sense of this series of events in the summer issue of The Hedgehog Review.)

For about two weeks, UVa faculty members paid scant attention to the myriad problems that the Rector identified; they didn’t demand political intervention; they didn’t split up into conservative and liberal corners and revive culture-war arguments (the liberal faculty against the conservative administration). For two weeks, my colleagues condemned the Board of Visitors’ actions by making explicitly ethical arguments, arguments grounded in claims about the moral purposes of the university: What the university was and ought to be. Some colleagues defended and invoked an honor code with which we usually engage, if at all, only ironically. Others celebrated founder Thomas Jefferson’s commitment to higher education as a public and democratic good, but without the ironic winks that usually accompany such discussions. There was even an impassioned defense of peer review as an ethical practice. Whatever their particular content, the arguments led to a broad consensus: This wasn’t right, this wasn’t how a university ought to be run.

With our backs to the wall and overcome by the sense that our university was imperiled, we faculty members made arguments that were not, in the first instance, financial, technological, or political. We made normative claims about what a university ought to be. That is, the arguments that my colleagues mustered focused on the moral character and purposes of the university. Faculty were engaged and motivated by a general and rather vague sense that the moral authority of the university had been threatened.

Can We Afford Our Future?

My colleague Siva Vaidhyanathan has continued to make these arguments. Recently, while writing of another attempt to oust a public university president, this time at the University of Texas, Vaidhyanathan defended the increasingly beleaguered notion of the university as a public good:

The tuition increases and the realization that the payoffs from universities are deferred and unquantifiable pushed legislators and “reformers” to demand accountability and radical administrative transformations. This has only served to make it harder for faculty to teach and conduct research. It has made the richest nation in the history of the world act like it can’t afford to believe in its own future, respect its own culture, or foster the experimentation and knowledge that might serve the entire planet.

The university is more than than an “inefficient and outdated information delivery system.” It is a public good because it advances, conserves, refines and shares knowledge for the world. And it does so most basically by forming people who believe that knowledge is a public good.

Leon Botstein may at times be bombastic. And he is always, without question, idealistic. At a moment when the very purposes and values of universities are being reshaped in the name of efficiency and disruption, we don’t need captains of erudition. We need leaders who embody the true ethos of our institutions.

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