The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 2 (Summer 2015)

A Diminished Thing

Higher Education in America

Derek Bok

Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 2)

The University of Virginia, where I teach, does many different things. It runs a medical system with a 631-bed hospital, twenty-three research centers, and a medical school. It manages an entertainment business that hosts everything from Pearl Jam concerts to monster truck rallies. It supports a start-up incubator for new business ventures. It coordinates a community-wide sustainability effort. It feeds thousands of people every day. It serves as an industry and government research center. It fields twenty-five varsity sports teams. And in addition to all that, it educates more than 20,000 students a year, while supporting the research of some 2,000 fulltime faculty members. Like most universities today, the University of Virginia isn’t just an educational institution. It’s a conglomerate.

In 1963 in the middle of the post–World War II higher education boom, when college enrollments were surging and federal research dollars were flowing, Clark Kerr, then-president of the University of California, christened this new institution the “multiversity.” During the twentieth century, he argued, the university had ceased to be a unified community harnessed a single purpose. It had fragmented into several communities. This new institution, Kerr noted, was to be neither loved nor loathed; it was to be managed. Like any other modern institution, it was to be run by organization men and women, administrators who managed a panoply of corporate enterprises. The new, modern multiversity wasn’t the quaint collegiate community of the past; it was a “mechanism held together by administrative rules and powered by money.” And its leader, as Thorstein Veblen had put it a half century earlier, was not an intellectual leader but rather a “captain of erudition.”

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Chad Wellmon is an associate professor of German Studies at the University of Virginia and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He is the author most recently of Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.2 (Summer 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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