Public Higher Education and Its Consumers: Ethical Implications of Multiple Images of the University


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At the heart of the dilemmas of the modern educational marketplace lie several related questions: What are colleges and universities selling that is of value? Who is the consumer (buyer)? And who should be responsible for (or share) the costs of providing the product/service?

The Role of the University

Some say the business of the university is the production of new knowledge. Others say it is training of a new group of workers to go forth to companies that will convert their skills and knowledge into profits for their owners and shareholders. Still others say it is the ability to instill appreciation--the cultivation of taste for the finer things of life. At one time some postsecondary programs for young women were called "finishing schools," which were designed to add a bit of polish to young ladies, preparing them for a more civilized and mannerly lifestyle. Some private schools still attract students because the students can bring their horses, board them, and ride them while attending college. For men, "military schools" provided polish for the traditional male gender role. Some people even see the auxiliary enterprise of watching young men and women compete in intercollegiate athletics as central to public higher education--and there are fans who see intercollegiate sports as providing greater entertainment than professional sports because the athletes are closer to amateur status. At the heart of each of these stances lie knowledge, techniques, and the perfection of skills.

Today students are interested in how their accumulated knowledge and skills will enable them to get jobs, preferably ones they like and that pay good salaries. More to the point, many students come to the public college or university with the expectation that, if successful, they will achieve a better life than that of their parents. For these students, learning new knowledge and skills is a way up the ladder of social mobility. Achieving economic success is seen as the most important goal and well worth the sacrifice that it takes to purchase instruction.

Taxpayers and government officials are interested in determining what the citizens of the state gain by funding education instead of some other area that needs funding. How does allocating money to higher education move the state ahead in attracting new sources of income, in making the state a more attractive place to live, and in dealing with the variety of social and economic problems that confront the modern American state?

Employers are interested in knowing whether or not qualified people are graduating who will go to work for them. They do not always need managers. Sometimes they need skilled workers. Sometimes they need computer specialists. Always they need persons equipped with the knowledge and skills to compete successfully with other firms that are offering comparable goods and services. Some say that they simply need people with superior training in basic skills and knowledge whom they may educate further for the specific tasks their firms need.

A small portion of the persons who enroll in institutions of higher education will decide to remain in that area as a work location. These students are those who form the core of our teachers, scholars, technicians, and others who find a place in the higher education industry. The colleges and universities themselves have a stake in the values taught and preserved with regard to passing on various forms of knowledge, techniques, and skills.

The values of the university as discussed within the academy are focused on intellectual property, scholarly integrity, and preservation of a place where knowledge and the perfection of technique and skills are important for themselves rather than what profit they can produce. This position appears to be in conflict with the values of the other groups with legitimate interests in the university. Furthermore, the place of the university as an ivory tower for slow and thoughtful inquiry about the direction and currents of the larger society often is denigrated by the larger society as useless and wasteful of valuable resources. As many have pointed out, different groups have different timetables against which they evaluate progress toward goals. For example, politicians know that they must face the public at the next election after their term is complete; managers know they must face the owners or stockholders and report on profitability; and students know that they must have some distinct set of knowledge, skills, and experiences to offer employers.

The image of the university presented to the public by development officers, research center directors, and other administrators often appears to differ from the image described above. Is it ethical for these groups to be "selling an image" that differs from the ideal or from the reality? Are the official representatives of the university aware of the image that the faculty holds and supports? Do they and should they care? For example, if most individuals in the state think of intercollegiate athletics as their major interest in and a strength of the public university, should this image be discouraged or encouraged by the representatives of the university? And as for students, what image of the institution are they encouraged to have by the faculty and by the administration?

To whom are faculties accountable for the published and hidden curricula of the university? Who is to say whether a course is what it should be? Who should determine how much instructional time is allocated to each student? Should administrators perform this task, or should it be done by peers/colleagues? Should faculty members have primary responsibility for assessing what students learn? What role should the state or perhaps future employers have in determining the course of study? How much power should professional accreditation groups have in determining the curriculum? Do students have the knowledge or perspective to tell professors what should and should not be included in courses?

Should the direction of public higher education be determined in accordance with the familiar saying that the one who "pays the piper calls the tune"? Public education is paid for by tuition, by tax dollars, and by contributions from future employers. Salaries of faculty are paid by tax dollars, tuition, grants, and contracts. Equipment and money for buildings may be donated by industries that stand to benefit from the research they make possible. Do students and those who are paying tuition have a right to evaluate the curriculum and its effectiveness? How much claim do they have on the time of a faculty member? Do potential employers who contribute to the school have a right to determine curriculum? Should companies that supply research grants and contracts have a say in determining promotion, salary, and tenure--or research priorities? These are only a few questions raised by the idea that education should be accountable to those who pay for it. In the area of public education, "Are the customers always right?"

The central issue revolves around the question of "What is the vision of different groups about what the mission of the public university should be?" Our focus is limited deliberately to the public university for a specific reason: A major portion of a public university's budget is derived from tax dollars. Thus, every taxpayer may ask the public university, "What are you doing (or planning to do) with my money?"

Perceptions of the University

Table Representation of Following Discussion

As a basis for examining the issue of the multiples images of the public university, we identified nine groups that in some way see themselves as "constituents," or groups to which the university should be accountable: alumni, legislators and other government officials, parents, potential employers, professional disciplines, public service clientele, research sponsors, students, and taxpayers. Because faculty are the primary work force of the university but are not supervised directly by any of these constituent groups, the direct supervisors--university administrators--was added to the list as a tenth interest group. Each of these groups appears to have somewhat different perceptions of the university.

Alumni tend to expect that the programs from which they graduated will be recognized favorably in the field and that the strength and integrity of these programs will be maintained. They expect the university to keep in touch with them--and not just through appeals for their money. They tend to respect tradition, and some of their most vocal expectations are for successful sports teams, perhaps partly because of the media attention attracted by athletic programs.

Legislators and other government officials may be characterized by an expectation of cost-efficient operation of the university, with a focus on accountability rather than "featherbedding." They expect relevant information to be provided in response to their requests, and they seem to expect that faculty and administrators, because they are employees of the state, always will be available to them.

Parents typically view the university as a custodial institution that will take care of their sons and daughters as well as giving them marketable skills. They want the best possible education for their children, with programs available in the students' (and perhaps the parents') areas of interest. At the same time, they want an education that they can afford, supplemented by financial aid for the students, and public universities are attractive because of their comparatively low cost. Although parents tend to see public education as secular, they want their children to have an education that is consistent with the parents' values. They tend to want a geographically proximate institution so the children can stay close to home. And they tend to favor institutions of which they are alumni.

Potential employers perceive the university as a source of new information and knowledge, such as new techniques, and a point of contact with potential future employees. They expect universities to produce graduates who have basic skills in their field, communication skills, problem-solving skills, and a work ethic (e.g., dependability, acceptance of responsibility). Some of them also seem to view the university as a source of tickets to athletic events.

Professional disciplines perceive the university as a source of new knowledge and the socializer of new members of the discipline or profession. It is for them the place where the conceptual/theoretical basis for the discipline is created, critiqued, and revised--and perhaps as the place where the ethical code of the field is discussed and instilled. The university is contrasted with the applied world; that is, it is characterized in terms of the ivory tower image. There is unqualified support for tenure as protection for knowledge/research that represents a departure from existing paradigms.

Public service clientele (such as the participants in programs of the various extension services) expect help with existing problems in the form of practical information and referral to other people or institutions who can help solve their problems or answer their questions. They expect to get prompt responses to an inquiry or request, some personal attention from the service provider, and services at little or no cost.

Research sponsors perceive the university as a source of cutting-edge knowledge and a place to field-test ideas. They identify the university as a provider of access to resources, libraries, research facilities, computing equipment and services, and consultants in various disciplines--and perhaps as a source of low-cost research (cheap labor). They expect to retain ownership or rights to discoveries, patents, and ideas generated in a project. They also expect a quick turn-around on investments with projects completed in a timely fashion, with outcomes that are directed toward specifications in the RFP and preferably that have applied value that can be realized easily.

Students, perhaps because of the immediacy of their relationship to the university and their developmental level, have a particularly extensive and potentially discrepant set of expectations of the university. Of great importance to them is low cost of tuition and other expenses, particularly in comparison to private institutions. They also expect availability of programs in their areas of interest, leading to job training through development of marketable skills and knowledge that they see as useful (for which they see specific application). They expect social and recreational opportunities as well as intellectual challenge and stimulation during their time in residence. They want sympathetic faculty members and good grades, to which many appear to feel entitled. In fact, many students seem to prefer not to have to work too hard to get an education--for example, not to have to take the initiative in learning, to have schedules that do not interfere with their work and social activities, and to be "spoon-fed." They want independence in their style of living, and increasing numbers of students want out-of-the-classroom experience in their fields of interest and to receive credit for these experiences. They want opportunities for awards and distinctions and financial aid--and most of all, they want to receive degrees.

Taxpayers (the citizenry of the state) vary in how important they see postsecondary education being to the state, but there seems to be agreement that the university should not undermine the values of the supporting culture. The taxpayers want the university to contribute to the economic development of the state through technology transfer and production of an educated work force (or at least a cadre of workers with skills). Some also see the university as responsible for producing an educated electorate. Many taxpayers want public institutions that have public prominence, which may be determined by the overall reputation of the school; by scholarly achievements (e.g., presence of Nobel laureates); or, for some, by distinction in athletics. However, they do not want expenditures on higher education to disrupt or reduce the quality of other public services (e.g., medical care, roads, police protection, prisons).

University administrators include two general types: (a) those who are "career administrators" (a kind of professional or technical support staff in areas such as student services and financial management) and (b) those who have been faculty and have moved into administrative positions. The perceptions of these two groups often differ, but they share a common role of standing at the interface between the university and the public. Administrators tend to perceive the university primarily as their employer and to want job security in their positions. They tend to perceive the university as a business that has a number of assets, that needs to be accountable, and that can be sold to the public as a place to do good deeds (for which a tax write-off may be earned). Some administrators (i.e., those in some positions) appear to have lost their focus on students. Many administrators have a sense of responsibility for the actions of faculty, however, and believe that faculty should do a good job with students. They tend to be focused on solving problems through a chain of accountability. Administrators in areas of student services do appear to understand the need for the safety and security of students. Administrators also appear to ascribe power to parents and may even place greater value on students' talking to their parents than their talking to faculty. Administrators tend to be the spokespersons of the institution and to represent the institution to the various constituent groups.

From consideration of these different perceptions, several areas emerged as particularly important to consider. These include perceptions of what should be the primary mission of the university; the highest good provided; the focus of accountability; the way knowledge is viewed; and the roles of students, faculty, and administrators. These perceptions of how the public university should function are presented in the attached table.

Comparison of Perceptions of Various Interest Groups

It is evident from looking at the perceptions of the various interest groups of the university that there are many images of the public university. Not only do the perceptions differ, but many of them appear to be inconsistent with each other. This poses ethical as well as logistical implications for the university as it relates to these various groups.

Areas of disagreement seem to occur in every category. However, these differences in the perceptions of the various interest groups can be summarized in five major categories:

    1. To what extent is the education of students the primary mission of the public university?

    2. How important is the production of new knowledge and technology as a time-consuming activity of university faculty?

    3. What priority should be given to the funding of higher education with tax dollars?

    4. How much time should faculty should be expected to devote to service to the general public in addition to the time they spend in the classroom?

    5. How effective is the university in producing competent employees?

Discussion of these areas of difference is essential if the university is to function responsibly and effectively.

The best foundation for constructive resolution of these differences is likely to be established through identification of areas of agreement. Such agreements do exist and can be summarized in seven major areas:

    1. Programs of the university should be perceived as reputable.

    2. The percentage of graduates who are able to obtain jobs in their areas of study is important.

    3. The quality of life of a graduate should be enhanced by the university experience.

    4. The graduates should contribute to the community both economically and socially.

    5. Programs should make wise use of resources.

    6. Postsecondary public education should be available to all qualified citizens.

    7. Knowledge has a central role in the mission of the university.

These areas of agreement can provide the basis for moving toward development of an integrative perspective. Such a perspective can transcend the seemingly inconsistent images of the university that appear to exist among different constituent groups.


This consideration of major interest groups of the university has not included one very important group--the faculty. The differences in the perceptions of the other groups often seem to make it difficult if not impossible for faculty to fulfill the expectations of all these groups. This situation often leads the faculty of the contemporary university to find themselves at odds with each other--depending on the group to which they have decided to give priority--and to create internal conflict for faculty who try to address all of them. Like the politician whose horizon is the next election, some faculty see the horizon as the tenure decision or the promotion to the next rank to which they aspire. Other faculty who feel secure in their positions may see the horizon as the next research grant or contract or the completion of a book in progress. Some may see the horizon as the graduation of a doctoral student being mentored or as the end of the semester and completion of grade reports for that term. In large public universities, there are few faculty who see the horizon as the successful placement of baccalaureate degree graduates in graduate school programs or in entry-level jobs in their major fields of study. However, there are some faculty whose faces light up when students seem to show the love of knowledge and study that brought many individuals into teaching careers in postsecondary education.

Where are we left after considering areas of potential agreement and disagreement across the various interest groups? We have a view of the contemporary public university as an institution that is defined in enough different ways that it may be fragmenting. As an organization fragments, new institutions may be born that coalesce around the different views of knowledge. Daniel Bell's vision of a postindustrial society has knowledge in its various forms at the center of the emerging institutions. Given the central place assigned to knowledge and the idea that different uses of knowledge exist, it seems plausible to expect increased differentiation in institutions that create and transfer knowledge. In the area of knowledge transfer, the public university may have to change its strategy to compete for state support with emerging institutions that take advantage of television and computer networks to teach and transfer knowledge to large groups of students more economically than through traditional classroom teaching. In the area of knowledge production, the state may reconsider the subsidy that it provides to the private sector for research and development activities at the public university. And in the service area, the state may continue to view these activities as a public good or service that cannot be terminated.

Conflicting perceptions typically produce a sense of anxiety, and the prospect of change also is unsettling to most people. However, such conflicts can result in change that is constructive and moves the participants (individuals and institutions) to higher levels of functioning. The question is not whether such conflicts exist or whether change will occur but how we will address them. A thoughtful and respectful discussion is a good place to begin.


1 Order of authorship is alphabetical. Contributions by the two authors were equal.

2 Jo Lynn Cunningham is a professor in the Department of Child and Family Studies (College of Human Ecology), and Thomas C. Hood is a professor in the Department of Sociology (College of Arts and Sciences).

3 Discussants for this paper will be Tom Ballard, director of the Institute of Public Service; Lee Magid, professor in the Department of Chemistry (College of Arts and Sciences); Norma Mertz, professor in the Educational Leadership unit (College of Education); and Ralph Norman, professor in the Department of Religious Studies (College of Arts and Sciences).


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Last updated: July 22, 1997