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The topic that this conference addresses, institutional ethics, might be thought to beg the question of whether more is involved in the moral evaluation of institutional policy beyond determining the degree to which the actions of those who people the institution are ethical people. Although I am thoroughly enough imbued with Western enlightenment individualism to have a distaste for concepts of group mind, group conscience and the like, I will argue that institutions or organizations in modern industrial society exhibit tendencies against which we should guard and which can be evaluated in moral terms. Taking this tack has at least the advantage of calling attention to sin, a project that is almost always more interesting than calling attention to virtue.

In what follows, it will become clear that I have been influenced by the writings of Ivan Illich, who, in the 1970's published a stunning series of critiques of contemporary social institutions including schools, medicine and the transportation industry. Illich argues that these institutions are insidiously corrupted and corrupting. Below, I will be applying his notions to the institution which is most familiar to most of us: the large university. I will argue that the equivalent of original sin for institutions, the Old Adam that is intrinsic to their nature, can be thought of as a form of perversity. I mean, alas, not the pursuit of sexual pleasure in forms unsanctioned (at least explicitly) by the larger society, but the wresting of behaviors ostensibly intended to serve one purpose to serve another, one that is, less explicit and often less healthy.

Most of us are aware of the strains that have resulted from the grafting of the German research university onto the British liberal arts college that constitutes the dominant model of the American university. The complications of the shotgun wedding between undergraduate education and research have been further complicated by a proliferation of functions and an increase in scale. What Clark Kerr called the multiversity is now often the megamultiversity. Not only has the notion of a universum of internally ordered knowledge assimilable by individuals given way to an information explosion that seems exponential, but student bodies numbering in the tens of thousands are not uncommon and faculties are more likely to resemble squabbling Balkan principalities than communities of scholars. Even when they profess a commitment to what used to be called liberal education: knowledge pursued for its own sake, the most prestigious universities value research, especially, need it be said, funded research, and publication. They also value the vocational preparation of professionals in a variety of occupations from pharmacy to bookkeeping to lawyering. To this complex, possibly explosive or even poisonous mix, state universities are required to (and private schools often choose to) add some variety of public service, ranging from agricultural agencies to public policy advising.

None of this is likely to change, and that being the case, when we refer to "institutions of higher education" we will be constrained to put that phrase in quotation marks (and perhaps our tongues in our cheeks) and to acknowledge that these institutions are forced to develop and to sanction and to reward activities on the part of their "faculties" (also in quotation marks) that are not entirely educational in nature. In fact, the circumstance of the word "doctor" being etymologically derived from the Latin "docere" seems to have diminishing contemporary relevance.

Higher education is under tremendous pressure today. The signs of change are unmistakable; the pressure is massive and inexorable. We all note, and some regret, an increasing attenuation in the role of faculty in university and college governance, increasing tension between the governing elements (trustees and/or administrators) and the faculty, shorter and shorter terms for university presidents, the proliferation of an underclass of teachers working without benefits on a piecework basis, unchecked decay in library and teaching facilities and, too often, irrational allocation of critical resources. All of this in the social context of a victory in the cold war, a growing economy and higher education budgets that have outpaced inflation for decades. What can be wrong? I suggest that higher education, as an institution, has lost its way and insensibly begun to serve purposes and ends that are unnatural and inhumane--that it is becoming perverted.

Perhaps the most insidious trend has to do with what we might call the industrialization of education. The paradigm of highly personalized relationships between teacher and learner has been replaced by technologies that focus on the rapid and efficient storage and transfer of data. Even the classroom, the actual collection of a body of learners in real contact with their teacher is being challenged by "distance education" in which learners and teachers who have never met have a virtual relationship mediated by television cameras and/or computer screens. The focus is no longer on the individual relationship, but on the ease, the "efficiency" with which information can be dispensed to larger and larger, more and more dispersed and peripheral audiences. Some modern textbooks are no longer unified views of the subjects they treat but modular selections of elements from authors unknown to each other whose units can be combined in any order to suit....what end? The metaphor is the assembly line, whose efficiency of interchangeable parts, specialized workers and uniform products delivered cheaply to the maximum number of consumers displace the inefficiency of individual craftsmen , cottage industries and local markets. In this metaphor we are to produce the maximum number of student credit hours at the lowest cost. The dangers of an unreflective commitment to this metaphor are obvious: a focus on cost efficiency can (and has, as the American automobile industry attests) become perverse, ignoring the overarching intent of the effort. Just as teachers are thought of as credit hour producers, students become purchasers of grades and credit hours and the purpose of the activity fades from view.

It would be a sentimentally satisfying indulgence to argue that the purpose of contemporary higher education is or should be Cardinal Newman's pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. But to most contemporary ears, the notion of a higher education purified of practical relevance, aimed exclusively at largeness of mind and cultivation of a reflective temper seems not so much idealistic as quaint, suggestive of a commitment to a leisure class of gentlefolk who are engaged in a Foucaultian exploitation of the less well educated but busier. Universities, are after all, social institutions, shaped and reshaped by the needs and values of the society in which they are embedded, and the contemporary commitment to vocational/professional training, to "meaningful" research and to entertaining mass spectacles have their unmistakable, and for the moment unshakable, claims.

However I will insist that the element of all education--higher and lower--the vital heart that makes teaching a calling as opposed to an occupation or a trade is the extent to which it is a project of changing minds. That the changing of minds is inherently both personal and passionate, involving an emotional engagement between the parties to it is testified to by the persistence of its erotic component. The sense of connection and excitement when a student's eyes widen as a mental vista previously unknown to him or her suddenly explodes in their awareness (even a student in a large lecture section) is a deeply stirring and personal one. To forget that in planning for and managing universities is perverse.

A second perverse trend: as universities have become more complex, their management has more and more been assigned to beaurocrats. The necessity of such a development is defended on the grounds that the organization is complicated, requiring specialist management, an argument that the faculty's specialist bent assigns an unspoken and unexamined plausibility; it also is a less direct result of the faculty's specialization. As academics become more and more specialized, they become less and less interested in the work of their colleagues and more and more suspicious of the interest that others might take in their work. This isolation from others on campus is reinforced by the dependence of promotion and raises on reputation with the external community of like specialists rather than on the opinion of campus colleagues. The most certain way to earn a promotion and/or a raise even in difficult financial times is by being offered a position at a competing institution, an offer that is likely to be precipitated by publication of one's work, not by teaching or other forms of campus service. These powerful centrifugal forces attenuate the opportunities for the kind of cross disciplinary discourse that builds community, and instead of a community of scholars bound together by mutual interest and mutual respect, we move toward a congeries of competing individuals or small specialist programs. Members of the thus balkanized group are unwilling to defer, on the basis of community good, their self-enhancing specialist activities, and are even less likely to trust other, competing scholars, with allocating the universities resources. Hence, the argument for a new specialist, the bureaucrat, who will understand the complexities of administration and be impartial in the allocation of resources. But, as we all know, bureaucrats have their own self-interest, which leads them more and more to enhance their claim to power by progressively isolating the faculty from the sources of information that would make them accountable to the faculty. With the failure of accountability, the bureaucratic elements find it easy to consume a larger and larger share of the community's resources. Lacking information, the faculty, especially in times of diminishing resources, becomes querulous rather than constructively critical, and a dynamic is established in which the bureaucrat increasingly regards the faculty as naive and childish while the faculty regards the administrative bureaucrat as more concerned with accumulating salary, perks and other forms of status than with the real work of the institution. All too often, both claims are justified. And as that becomes more and more the case, the energy and resources that could enhance the university's function as a center of independent thought and criticism gets perversely dissipated into administrative bloat and faculty divisiveness, selfishness and political apathy.

And now for a third perversion. When Robert Hutchins wrote the critique of higher education in the United States that was simultaneously the defense of his reforms at the University of Chicago, he cited the love of money as one of the chief sources of the problems that plague universities. He described in painful detail the degradation, the perversion that results when the leadership of the university tries to shape the institution by sending it on a chase after dollars rather than on the basis of philosophical and moral reflection. Sometimes the dollars are pursued by courting big donors, private or governmental, sometimes they are pursued by overvaluing the crotchets of legislators or trustees, sometimes they are pursued by marketing a university education as conducing to the financial success of graduates. Hutchins argues that we should begin with a clear view of the university's central function: to be a community of scholars that functions as a center of independent thought and criticism, and then proceed to develop academic programs that serve that end, and earn support for those activities by rational discourse. To our sophisticated and pragmatic ears, his arguments may seem admirable but impractical. On the other hand, our more mercantile approaches seem failed to prevent the painful deflation in higher education by which we are now besieged.

But I want to take Hutchins' concern about the perverting potential of the love of money in another direction. We have remarked above how widespread specialist tendencies are and how they lead to a diffusion and diminution in concern with the good of the campus community and to an increasing concern for academic reputation built upon the good opinion of off campus fellow specialists. It is on the basis of this development that publication has become the hall mark of academic merit and almost the exclusive basis upon which academics and academic programs compete for university resources. If one were to follow this tendency to its extreme, the most prestigious university or department would be a research institute, unfettered with the distractions of students. But universities are not research institutes, they are, or should be, educational institutions, and if we are to cultivate research as a university enterprise it must be on the basis of its contribution to education. It is not enough to say that research and teaching support one another. If that were really true-- or even plausible-- we wouldn't have to repeat it so often. The reality is that at the most prestigious universities, being a bad researcher precludes tenure; being a bad teacher does not. It is also true that those of us who do research do so to earn the respect of fellow specialists (and perhaps that offer that will earn us a matching raise) not because the research that we do translates into better undergraduate lectures. And finally I have to say that most of the graduate students with whom I have spoken over the decades understand that publish or perish means just what it says, and that it is a career mistake to let teaching distract one from publishing.

Having said all that, I will also say that a strong research program, if it is not perverted, can make an educational institution stronger. Although it is crucial to find means of valuing academic activities other than publication in the allocation of university resources, including promotion and tenure, it is also true that a strong research program can help strengthen the university. It can attract exciting pioneers pressing the boundaries of knowledge; however these pioneers must have a commitment to sharing their discoveries with on campus colleagues and with students as well as with journal editors. Strong research programs make for strong graduate programs and graduate students are tomorrow's teachers. But graduate training should include support for teaching and avoid the exploitation of graduate (and undergraduate) students that results from their use as cheap if less adequate substitute for more experienced teachers. Such exploitation is bad in and of itself; it is also perverse in that it persuades tomorrow's teacher on a very deep level that teaching--not to mention involvement with students-- is to be avoided. What is crucial is that we be scrupulous about when we as faculty are arguing for research as a good for the university and when we are arguing for it on the basis of self interest.

For a final example of perversion, I could cite the substitution of alumni loyalties based on the performance of athletic specialists for loyalties based on mentorships mind changing and mutual intellectual adventures....I could, but I won't.

I am not so naive as to hope that the problems in higher education that I have sketched, the perversions that beset it, are easily remedied. However, there are glimmerings of attempts to recover some of what has been lost. Some campuses are beginning, for example, to re-establish communities--houses--in which faculty and students live together and form relationships based on mutual intellectual interests in an attempt to simulate the British college. And we could go further. We could move in the direction of deprofessionalizing university leadership. We could be more scrupulous in evaluating the role of research in the university. We could try to reach out across disciplinary boundaries. But it seems to me that the solution, to the extent that one exists, is more moral and conceptual than logistical. I believe that we must resurrect a conception of undergraduate liberal education that transcends the vocational and informs what it is that institutions of higher education should try to do with undergraduates. We must look to the definition of a canon, not a canon of authorities, but a canon of epistemological issues which the liberally educated person returns to confront again and again: stability and change, repetition and progress, meaning made and meaning discovered, idealism and empiricism. We should construct an undergraduate curriculum that gives students a sense of the awesome sweep of knowledge and of the means by which knowledge is acquired. This perspective of vastness strongly challenges the narcissistic illusion of being at the center of the stage and opens the door to a post-modern acknowledgment to the recognition of otherness that is humbling and compelling. And in a paradoxical way, it also nourishes a very modern search for connections and homologues in substantively disparate fields. We should work to acquaint students with the consistencies and paradoxes of human nature, to understand the variations over time and from place to place of the human condition. We should encourage students to reflect on their responsibilities to their fellows and to their successors. In short, we must struggle to make undergraduate education meaningful again. We should try to change minds.


Hutchins, Robert Maynard, The higher Learning in America. Transaction: New Brunswick, 1995.

Newman, John Henry, The idea of a University. University of Notre Dame: Notre Dame, 1982.

Illich, Ivan, Deschooling Society, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1976.
_________, Energy and Equity, Calder and Boyars, London, 1976.
_________, Limits to Medicine: Medical Nemesis, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1975.
_________, Celebration of Awareness, Penguin, Hamondsworth, 1976.
_________, Tools for Conviviality, Calder and Boyars, London, 1973.


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Last updated: July 22, 1997