“Wannabe U” and the Future of Higher Ed

It looks like Gaye Tuchman’s Wannabe U will be the next higher education book to make a big splash. Tuchman, a sociologist, spent six years observing the inner workings of a large public university (she keeps the name secret, but Inside Higher Ed speculates rather convincingly that it is UConn) and interviewing its faculty and administrators, and came away convinced that all is not well:

In her concluding chapter, she calls Wannabe “a conformist university,” with an emphasis on “doing what must be done to elbow its way up the rankings.” She writes that the administration is imposing “an accountability regime” on faculty members. And she notes that while professors still have much more freedom than most American employees, “as the decades pass, working at a university will become more and more like working in the corporate world” and administrators will be hired for their ability to carry out corporate-style management. (While the book’s barbs tend to find administrators as targets, it also criticizes professors, particularly for their lack of interest in teaching issues as compared to research agendas.)

The examples in the book portray an administration much more concerned with making the university look outstanding than actually becoming outstanding. And measures that Tuchman writes are of dubious value (U.S. News & World Report rankings, for example) appear to count much more than the vibrancy of intellectual life or the student learning experience.

It sounds like a damning book, but there was one excerpt that didn’t seem quite right to me:

Universities are no longer to lead the minds of students to grasp truth; to grapple with intellectual possibilities; to appreciate the best in art, music, and other forms of culture; and to work toward both enlightened politics and public service. Rather they are now to prepare students for jobs. They are not to educate, but to train.

It sounds like she’s setting up a bit too neat of a division here. There are still plenty of schools where students grapple with the Big Questions and engage with profound pieces of culture, because there are still plenty of incredible professors out there. Amazing intellectual moments in higher education don’t come because the “university” itself provides them from on high, but rather because the university provides a venue in which individual students can be affected by great professors (or by conversations with their peers).

Sure, it’s thin comfort, but even if everything Tuchman says is true, a dysfunctional, status-obsessed administration and great professors who care about teaching aren’t completely mutual exclusive—though the former will certainly make life tougher for the latter in the long run.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.