January 4, 2010

A university is like a university

Filed under: POV — dhi @ 2:02 pm

by Keith Watenpaugh, Assoicate Professor of Religious Studies

In a recent proposal to the Gould Commission, which is charged with “developing a new vision for the University,” Berkeley physics professor emeritus, Charles Schwartz, asked that this new vision “reject the corrupting language [of business] in the University: the Market rules; the Entrepreneurial professor; Competition.” and instead use  “a learning community; a calling for teachers and researchers; a public service.”

It took a physicist to point out that in this moment words, and the ideas behind those words matter and what we call ourselves and our university has a role in the defining the unique value of who we are and what we do — and not just for the public, but for ourselves, as well.

At the core of Schwartz’ proposal is that if we conceive of ourselves as a business, drawing from the corporate world words to define what we do when we teach and do research, that we will rightly be perceived by the public as a business.  His point that this has a corrosive and corrupting influence on members of an academic community and ill serves the nexus of the university and the communities it serves is well taken, but more importantly, if we are seen as a business, then we’ll be judged as a business.

I’d rather our university be judged as a university.  The university is unique. It fulfills a basic human need to make sense of the world around us, and the university embodies our collective confidence that we can indeed make that world knowable. We don’t produce a commodity to package and sell to customers.  We serve the ends of that collective need to know.  And that is a good in itself, the “public” to whom I don’t think we give enough credit in these discussions also understands this, especially in the case of the University of California.

I bristle when I hear our students called “consumers” and what we teach them “products,” and the importance of “customer service.” Students are much more than consumers, they are students.  Again, it is a unique and special category that has no analogy in the world of commerce, nor should it. I’ve always thought that the root  behind the Arabic word for student, talib (also the root for Taliban) captures it better: it means someone who seeks, in this case knowledge, with enthusiasm.

In the end, if we use the metaphysical language of the marketplace to explain what the UC is, we’ll lose and lose big.  Instead we need to confidently embrace the uniquely human and humane thing we do.


  1. Hi Keith, Thank you. I’ve been noticing that physicists appear good at talking in this manner, myself.

    Comment by Timothy Morton — January 19, 2010 @ 10:59 pm

  2. Thank you for popinting this out and taking this on! This is also happening in the K-12 schools, where business language has crept in and shaped (or mis-shaped) the conversation about K-12 education. So now schools can be condemned for not “producing results” or for not “raising student performance” or making schools and teachers “accountable” and measured by a set of “standards” that talks in terms of “results.” (Standards devised by the business rountable, not educators.) Teachers “deliver instruction,” students “receive instruction,” much like an assembly line. This then leads to targeting teachers and schools in order for private engterprise to overtake them. It’s no surprise, that it is starting to happen at the University level as well. How distressing!
    Oakland educator

    Comment by Naomi Katz — April 23, 2012 @ 10:17 pm

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