Tertiary Education: three models
A few years ago, when I was working at the University of South Africa, I went with a colleague to listen to a lecture by a visiting professor or docent (I can’t remember now whether “docent” was his name or his academic title) from the Open University of the Netherlands. I noted in my diary at the time
[He] spoke on management of distance education universities. What he said was both exciting and alarming. He said that there were three types of universities – the professorial, the democratic and the managerial, and he favoured the third, especially for distance education. He advocated a strong top-down management style that was both decisive and flexible. Some of the things he said sounded positively fascist, though when he said the university needed to be more market driven, I tended to agree – too much of what is taught is based more on what the lecturers want to teach rather than what the students want to learn, and to that extent Unisa is “professorial”. But there is a fourth category he seems to have ignored – the bureaucratic university, and Unisa was more bureaucratic than “professorial” in the old days. Management was top-down, and that was precisely the problem.
At that time Unisa (the University of South Africa) was talking a great deal about “transformation”. Unisa as a distance-education university had been shaped entirely within the apartheid era and the apartheid system, and so this lecture was part of the attempt to find a new model.
The visiting professor (or docent) represented a trend that had apparently swept the Western academic world as a result of the Reagan-Thatcher years of the 1980s, when the “free market” was in vogue, and neoliberalism was punted as the solution to every problem. I suspect, however, that his idea of “market-driven” may have been slightly different from mine. I think for him it meant that the university should become a profit-driven institution, and that the main task of the management should be to maximise profits. For me it meant that the “customers” of the university were the students, and that the university should, at least to some extent, enable students to learn what they wanted to learn, rather than simply the pet hobby horses of the professors. I believed that in the 1970s to 1990s Unisa was actually perpetrating fraud in the courses produced by the education faculty (who had a captive market of teachers who wanted to improve their qualifications) and produced absolute rubbish, based on a pseudo-scientific theory called “fundamental pedagogics”. Because it was taught nowhere else in the world, the professors also wrote their own text books, and maximised their profits by making them compulsory and forcing the students to buy them.
I’ve been out of Unisa for a while now, and am not au fait with the current academic politics, but it seems to me that the Dutch professor was speaking of something that was the subject of a world-wide debate, and I was reminded of it when I read about an instance in a small American college that seemed to bring some of these issues into sharper focus. You can tead about it at A Little College Scores a Big Victory
Shimer College, the “Great Books College of Chicago,” has just thwarted a hostile takeover attempt and fired its president.
The small liberal arts school has weathered numerous crises since its founding in 1853, but it has never come as close to destruction as during the last few months, when newly hired president Thomas Lindsay packed the Board of Trustees with 13 additional members who had a different agenda in mind for the college. With the support of his narrow majority on the augmented Board, Lindsay initiated an increasingly dictatorial administration, contemptuously challenging Shimer’s tradition of shared governance and intimating that faculty and staff who did not go along with his program would soon be obliged to seek employment elsewhere. Investigation by concerned students and alums revealed the extreme right-wing background of all the new Board members and of Lindsay himself, as well as the fact that most of them were closely tied to a very wealthy anonymous donor.
It seems that what nearly happened at Shimer College was the kind of thing being advocated by the Dutch professor for Unisa, and possibly other universities as well. It isn’t new; it has been going on for a long time, and in part forms the plot of C.S. Lewis’s novel The hideous strength. So anyone concerned about higher education, or indeed any education, might find that story of Shimer College interesting. Perhaps it is a paradigm case.