Universities Change, Core Values Should Not

Faculty cooperation, intellectual independence, and research quality must remain hallmarks of higher education.

Half a dozen years ago, as I was looking at the research university landscape, the shape of the future looked so clear that only a fool could have failed to see what was coming, because it was already present. It was obvious that a shaky national economy, strong foreign competition, large and escalating federal budget deficits, declining federal appropriations for research and state appropriations for education, diminished tax incentives for private giving, public and political resistance to rising tuition, and growing misgivings about the state of scientific ethics did not bode well for the future.

Furthermore, there was no obvious reason to expect significant change in the near future. It was plain to see that expansion was no longer the easy answer to every institutional or systemic problem in university life. At best, U.S. universities could look forward to a period of low or no growth; at worst, contraction lay ahead. The new question that needed to be answered, one with which university people had very little experience, was whether the great U.S. universities had the moral courage and the governance structures that would enable them to discipline the appetites of their internal constituencies and capture a conception of a common institutional interest that would overcome the fragmentation of the previous 40 years. Some would, but past experience suggested that they would probably be in the minority.

So that is what I wrote, and I did not make it up. For the purposes of a book I was writing at the time, I had met with more than 20 past and present university presidents for extensive discussions of their years in office and their view of the future. The picture I have just described formed at least a part of every individual’s version of the challenge ahead. Some were more optimistic than others; some were downright gloomy. But to one degree or another, all saw the need for and the difficulty of generating the kind of discipline required to set priorities in a process that was likely to produce more losers than winners. As predictions go, this one seemed safe enough.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the world of limits: The need to set limits apparently disappeared. Ironically, it was an act of fiscal self-restraint on the part of a normally unrestrained presidency and Congress that helped remove institutional self-restraint from the agenda of most universities. The serious commitment to a balanced federal budget in 1994, made real by increased taxes and a reasonably enforceable set of spending restraints, triggered the longest economic expansion in the nation’s history. That result was seen in three dramatic effects on university finances: Increased federal revenues eased the pressure on research funding; increased state revenues eased the appropriation pressure on state universities; and the incredible rise in the stock market generated capital assets in private hands that benefited public and private university fundraising campaigns. The first billion-dollar campaign ever undertaken by a university was successfully completed by Stanford in 1992. Precisely because of the difficult national and institutional economic conditions at the time, it was viewed as an audacious undertaking. However, within a few years billion-dollar campaigns were commonplace for public and private universities alike.

To be fair, the bad days of the early 1990s did force many institutions into various kinds of cost-reduction programs. In general, these focused on administrative downsizing, the outsourcing of activities formerly conducted by in-house staff, and something called “responsibility-centered management.” It could be argued, and was, that cutting administrative costs was both necessary and appropriate, because administrations had grown faster than faculties and therefore needed to take the first reductions. That proposition received no argument from faculties. The problem of how to deal with reductions in academic programs was considerably more difficult. I believed that the right way to approach the problem was to start with the question, “How can we arrange to do less of what we don’t do quite so well in order to maintain and improve the quality of what we know we can do well?” Answering that question was sure to be a very difficult exercise, but I believed it would be a necessary one if a university were to survive the hard times ahead and be ready to take advantage of the opportunities that would surely arise when the economic tide changed.

As it happened, the most common solution to the need to lower academic costs was to offer financial inducements for early retirement of senior faculty and either reduce the size of the faculty or replace the more expensive senior people with less expensive junior appointments or with part-time, non-tenure-track teachers. These efforts were variously effective in producing at least short-term budget savings.

All in all, it was a humbling lesson, and I have learned it. I am out of the prediction business. Well, almost out. To be precise, I now believe that swings in economic fortune–and present appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, there will surely be bad times as well as good ones ahead–are not the factors that will determine the health and vitality of our universities in the years to come. One way or another, there will always be enough money available to keep the enterprise afloat, although never enough to satisfy all academic needs, much less appetites. Instead, the determining factors will be how those responsible for these institutions (trustees, administrations, and faculties) respond to issues of academic values and institutional purpose, some of which are on today’s agenda, and others of which undoubtedly lie ahead. The question for the future is not survival, or even prosperity, but the character of what survives.

Three issues stand out as indicators of the kind of universities we will have in the next century: the renewal of university faculties as collective entities committed to agreed-on institutional purposes; the terms on which the growing corporate funding of university research is incorporated into university policy and practice; and the future of the system of allocating research funding that rests on an independent review of the merits of the research and the ability of the researcher. All three are up for grabs.

Faculty and their institutions

Without in any way romanticizing the past, which neither needs nor deserves it, it is fair to say that before World War II the lives of most university faculty were closely connected to their employing institutions. Teaching of undergraduates was the primary activity. Research funding was scarce, opportunities for travel were limited, and very few had any professional reason to spend time thinking about or going to Washington, D.C. This arrangement had advantages and disadvantages. I think the latter outweighed the former in the prewar academic world, but however one weighs the balance, there can be no dispute that what followed the war was radically different. The postwar story has been told many times. The stimulus of the GI Bill created a boom in undergraduate enrollment, and government funding of research in science and technology turned faculty and administrations toward Washington as the major source of good things. The launching of Sputnik persuaded Congress and the Eisenhower administration, encouraged by educators and their representatives in Washington, that there was a science and education gap between the Soviet Union and the United States. There was, but it was actually the United States that held the advantage. Nevertheless, a major expansion of research funding and support for Ph.D. education followed.

At the same time, university professors were developing a completely different view of their role. What had once been a fairly parochial profession was becoming one of the most cosmopolitan ones. Professors’ vital allegiances were no longer local. Now in competition with traditional institutional identifications were connections with program officers in federal agencies, with members of Congress who supported those agencies, and with disciplinary colleagues around the world.

Swings in economic fortune are not the factors that will determine the health and vitality of our universities in the years to come.

The change in faculty perspectives has had the effect of greatly attenuating institutional ties. Early signs of the change could be seen in the inability of instruments of faculty governance to operate effectively when challenged by students in the 1960s, even when those challenges were as fundamental as threats to peace and order on campus. Two decades after the student antiwar demonstrators had become respectable lawyers, doctors, and college professors, Harvard University Dean Henry Rosovsky captured the longer-term consequences of the changed relationship of faculty to their employing universities. In his 1990-91 report to the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Rosovsky noted the absence of faculty from their offices during the important reading and exam periods and the apparent belief of many Harvard faculty that if they teach their classes they have fulfilled their obligations to students and colleagues. He said of his colleagues, “. . . the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has become a society largely without rules, or to put it slightly differently, the tenured members of the faculty–frequently as individuals–make their own rules . . . [a]s a social organism, we operate without a written constitution and with very little common law. This is a poor combination, especially when there is no strong consensus concerning duties and standards of behavior.”

What Rosovsky described at Harvard can be found at every research university, and it marks a major shift in the nature of the university. The question of great consequence for the future is whether faculties, deans, presidents, and trustees will be satisfied with a university that is as much a holding company for independent entrepreneurs as it is an institution with a collective sense of what it is about and what behaviors are appropriate to that understanding. I have no idea where on the continuum between those two points universities will lie 20 or 50 years from now. I am reasonably confident, however, that the question and the answer are both important.

Universities and industry

In March 1992, the presidents of five leading research universities met at Pajaro Dunes, California. Each president was accompanied by a senior administrator involved in research policy, several faculty members whose research involved relations with industry, and one or two businessmen close to their universities. The purpose of the meeting was to examine the issues raised by the new connections between universities and the emerging biotechnology industry. So rapidly and dramatically have universities and industry come together in a variety of fields since then that reading some of the specifics in the report of the meeting is like coming across a computer manual with a chapter on how to feed Hollerith cards into a counter-sorter. But even more striking than those details is the continuity of the issues raised by these new relationships. Most of them are as fresh today as they were nearly two decades ago, a fact that testifies both to their difficulty and their importance.

These enduring issues have to do with the ability of universities to protect the qualities that make them distinctive in the society and important to it. In the words of the report, “Agreements (with corporations) should be constructed . . . in ways that do not promote a secrecy that will harm the progress of science, impair the education of students, interfere with the choice of faculty members of the scientific questions or lines of inquiry they pursue, or divert the energies of faculty members from their primary obligations to teaching and research.” In addition, the report spoke to issues of conflict of interest and what later came to called “conflict of commitment,” to the problems of institutional investment in the commercial activities of its faculty, the pressures on graduate students, and issues arising out of patent and licensing practices.

All of those issues, in their infancy when they were addressed at Pajaro Dunes, have grown into rambunctious adolescents on today’s university campuses. They can be brought together in a single proposition: When university administrators and faculty are deciding how much to charge for the sale of their research efforts to business, they must also decide how much they are willing to pay in return. For there will surely be a price, as there is in any patronage relationship. It was government patronage, after all, that led universities to accept the imposition of secrecy and other restrictions that were wholly incompatible with commonly accepted academic values. There is nothing uniquely corrupting about money from industry. It simply brings with it a set of questions that universities must answer. By their answers, they will define, yet again, what kind of institutions they are to be. Here are three questions that will arise with greater frequency as connections between business and university-based research grow:

  • Will short-term research with clearly identified applications be allowed to drive out long-term research of unpredictable practical value, in a scientific variation of Gresham’s Law?
  • Can faculty in search of research funding and administrators who share that interest on behalf of their institution be counted on to assert the university’s commitment to the openness of research processes and the free and timely communication of research results?
  • Will faculty whose research has potential commercial value be given favored treatment over their colleagues whose research does not?

I have chosen these three among many other possible questions because we already have a body of experience with them. It is not altogether reassuring. Some institutions have been scrupulous in attempting to protect institutional values. Others have been considerably less so. The recent large increases in funding for the biomedical sciences have relieved some of the desperation over funding pressures that dominated those fields in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but there is no guarantee that the federal government’s openhandedness will continue indefinitely. If it does not, then the competition for industrial money will intensify, and the abstractions of institutional values may find it hard going when pitted against the realities of the research marketplace.

Even in good times, the going can be hard. A Stanford University official (not a member of the academic administration, I hasten to add) commented approvingly on a very large agreement reached between an entire department at the University of California at Berkeley and the Novartis Corporation: “There’s been a culture for many years at Stanford that you do research for the sake of doing research, for pure intellectual thought. This is outdated. Research has to be useful, even if many years down the line, to be worthwhile.” I have no doubt that most people at Stanford would be surprised to learn that their culture is outdated. I am equally certain, however, that the test of usefulness as a principal criterion for supporting research is more widely accepted now than in the past, as is the corollary belief that it is possible to know in advance what research is most likely to be useful. Since both of those beliefs turn the historic basis of the university on its head, and since both are raised in their starkest form by industry-supported research, it is fair to say that the extent to which those beliefs prevail will shape the future course of research universities, as well as their future value.

Preserving research quality

Among the foundation stones underlying the success of the U.S. academic research enterprise has been the following set of propositions: In supporting research, betting on the best is far more likely to produce a quality result than is settling for the next best. Although judgments are not perfect, it is possible to identify with a fair degree of confidence a well-conceived research program, to assess the ability of the proposer to carry it out, and to discriminate in those respects among competing proposers. Those judgments are most likely to be made well by people who are themselves skilled in the fields under review. Finally, although other sets of criteria or methods of review will lead to the support of some good research, the overall level of quality will be lower because considerations other than quality will be weighed more heavily in funding decisions.

It is remarkable how powerful those propositions have been and, until recently, how widely they were accepted by decisionmakers and their political masters. To see that, it is only necessary to contrast research funding practices with those in other areas of government patronage, where the decimal points in complicated formulas for distributing money in a politically balanced manner are fought over with fierce determination. Reliance on the system of peer review (for which the politically correct term is now “merit review”) has enabled universities to bring together aggregations of top talent with reasonable confidence that research funding for them will be forthcoming because it will not be undercut by allocations based on some other criteria.

The future of research universities will continue to be determined by the extent to which they are faithful to the values that have always lain at their core.

Notwithstanding the manifest success of the principle that research funding should be based on research quality, the system has always been vulnerable to what might be called the “Lake Woebegone Effect”: the belief that all U.S. universities and their faculty are above average, or that given a fair chance would become so. That understandable, and in some respects even admirable, belief has always led to pressures to distribute research support more broadly on a geographic (or more accurately, political-constituency) basis. These pressures have tended to be accommodated at the margins of the system, leaving the core practice largely untouched.

Since it remains true that the quality of the proposal and the record and promise of the proposer are the best predictors of prospective scientific value, there is reason to be concerned that university administrators, faculty, and members of Congress are increasingly departing from practices based on that proposition. The basis for that concern lies in the extent to which universities have leaped into the appropriations pork barrel in an effort to obtain funds for research and research facilities that is based not on an evaluation of the comparative merits of the project for which they seek funds but on the ability of their congressional representatives to manipulate the appropriations process on their behalf. In little more than a decade, the practice of earmarking appropriations has grown from a marginal activity conducted around the fringes of the university world to an important source of funds. A record $787 million was appropriated in that way in fiscal year 1999. In the past decade, a total of $5.8 billion was given out directly by Congress with no evaluation more rigorous than the testimony of institutional lobbyists. Most of this largesse was directed to research and research-related projects. Even in Washington, those numbers approach real money.

More important than the money, though, is what this development says about how pressures to get in or stay in the research game have changed the way in which faculty and administrators view the nature of that game. The change can be seen in the behavior of members of the Association of American Universities (AAU), which includes the 61 major research universities. In 1983, when two AAU members won earmarked appropriations, the association voted overwhelmingly to oppose the practice and urged universities and members of Congress not to engage in it. If a vote were taken today to reaffirm that policy, it is not clear that it would gain support from a majority of the members. Since 1983, an increasing number of AAU members have benefited from earmarks, and for that reason it is unlikely that the issue will be raised again in AAU councils.

Even in some of the best and most successful universities there is a sense of being engaged in a fierce and desperate competition. The pressure to compete may come from a need for institutional or personal aggrandizement, from demands that the institution produce the economic benefits that research is supposed to bring to the local area, or those and other reasons combined. The result, whatever the reasons, has been a growing conclusion that however nice the old ways may have been, new circumstances have produced the need for a new set of rules.

At the present moment, we are still at an early stage in a movement toward the academic equivalent of the tragedy of the commons. It is still possible for each institution that seeks to evade the peer review process to believe that its cow can graze on the commons without harm to the general good. As the practice becomes more widespread, the commons will lose its value to all. Although the current signs are not hopeful, the worst outcome is not inevitable. The behavior of faculty and their administrations in supporting or undermining a research allocation system based on informed judgments of quality will determine the outcome and will shape the nature of our universities in the decades ahead.

There are other ways of looking at the future of our universities than the three I have emphasized here. Much has been written, for example, about the effects of the Internet and of distance education on the future of the physical university. Much of this speculation seems to me to be overheated; more hype than hypothesis. No doubt universities will change in order to adapt to new technologies, as they have changed in the past, but it seems to me unlikely that a virtual Harvard will replace the real thing, however devoutly its competitors might wish it so. The future of U.S. universities, the payoff that makes them worth their enormous cost, will continue to be determined by the extent to which they are faithful to the values that have always lain at their core. At the moment, and in the years immediately ahead, those values will be most severely tested by the three matters most urgently on today’s agenda.

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Cite this Article

Rosenzweig, Robert M. “Universities Change, Core Values Should Not.” Issues in Science and Technology 16, no. 2 (Winter 2000).

Vol. XVI, No. 2, Winter 2000