The modern university is a plantation.
I did, even without grant money on my curriculum vita. That's not the point. The structure of the social and economic systems are similar, and it creates negative consequences for society. For example, there are few more conforming people than university faculty, despite their job security. They often seem terrified to oppose the prevailing opinion of other professors, let alone their bosses. Don't believe me? Read these:
There's a lot of forelock-tugging going on there. It's hardly an environment where creativity can flourish, or one in which students can learn critial thinking.
Every plantation needs overseers, bosses who enforce rules and dole out the rewards and punishments. In universities these are department chairs and deans. They are rewarded in turn with money, position and power. Years ago, being a chair or a dean was temporary; scholars took the jobs on out of necessity and returned to their real work as soon as they could. Today they are career options, stepping stones to higher administration. Some overseers are better and more humane than others, of course, but their rewards are for "making the numbers" of grants, undergraduate majors, students graduated, costs contained and the like, not for promoting learning, independent thought, and necessarily rare intellectual accomplishments. After a while, the system has an effect.
Who are the "owners?" Really, the government, of state schools, and nonprofit entities, for private ones. A better question is who acts like a plantation owner? These are the high-level administrators, the chancellors, vice presidents and presidents. The university president gets a large income and a mansion. He (sometimes she) also gets deference, entertains dignitaries, raises money, determines policy, and adjudicates disputes. Yes, presidents and others can be fired for a variety of reasons good and bad. Graham Spanier of Penn State and
Having ranted on for this long, I ought to present some solutions. Sorry. I don't have any. I have opinions about what should happen but no clue how to make it so. Still, here goes:
First, there is too much college. Not everyone wants to be a scholar and not everyone should be, yet this is the fiction behind the "college for everyone" mantra. There is honor, dignity, deserved pride and a good living in learning to do something well, regardless of what that is. Being a carpenter, plumber,machinist, woodworker, salesperson or what have you also does not mean one is "uneducated." In fact, just the opposite, since lifelong learning is part of any successful career. Most universities today teach most students neither useful skills nor critical thought, nor do they promote a desire to learn.
Second, there is too much research. By that I mean that the contents of most journals are unimaginative and trivial, not adding anything to our knowledge. Publication is for career-building, not knowledge enhancement. Department chairs and deans count articles as they would sacks of cotton, the more the better. If funding agencies simply quit paying inflated overhead the pressure for grants would be reduced, talk at faculty lunches would be more about ideas and less about money and publication strategy. Just perhaps, what was published would have more solid content.
Third, the big plantations should be broken up and replaced with someting more akin to family farms. By that I mean smaller institutions that are free to innovate, developing new approaches to both research and instruction. They would compete in a marketplace of skills and ideas, where "diversity" would be a real and useful concept rather than the sham universities currently promote.
Fourth, perhaps governments should get out of the education business, including the student loan business, which is just another subsidy. Let a real market emerge in which students pay for value received. If governments need research let them build laboratories or contract privately. In short, let people freely develop and market their intellectual products. You know, that's so crazy it just might work...
** Two anecdotes:
In 1971 I interviewed at Purdue University. Talking with two eminent professors, I was asked what I would do if funding in my research area was cut. I said, given that I thought it was important, I'd find a way to do it without grants. They told me that was the wrong answer; the right answer was to switch areas. I responded that I didn't think research was a game. A few minutes later, introducing me to another faculty member, one said "This is Jack Feldman. He doesn't think research is a game." Then they laughed. I didn't get the job offer, which was too bad because I wanted to turn it down.
In 1986, shortly after coming to Tech, I was at a social event with a group of engineers. They were talking about a colleague whose grants had disappeared with a change in funding priorities. I asked why, given that he still had a lab and students, he didn't continue the work regardless. They looked at me as if I had grown two extra heads and then carefully explained, as if to a slow-witted child they didn't especially like, that one didn't do research unless some outside agency paid for it.
*** Although I'll admit in Summers' case it was fun to watch a mob of liberals turn on one of their own. They really do eat the wounded.