Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The Consumer University: The Concept of Institutional Corruption

The conversation about universities today are defined by two extreme views: One says that the universities are failing their mission by failing to serve their students, by failing to connect them to jobs, and therefore, failing to make them successful; the other says that the universities are failing their mission as they have abandoned their traditional values, they have become 'marketised' and are engaged in a struggle to fit into badly fitting form as education can't be a market activity. Two polar opposites, united in the agreement that universities are failing their mission - they are not doing what they are supposed to do.

I have admittedly oscillated between these two views as I 'blogged' (rather than systematically researched) about the universities. I did see the problem of disconnectedness, the teleological view of the universities in some quarters that the universities have a purpose of their own, rather than being an institution to serve contemporary needs of the society. Indeed, this is a very false view of history - universities have always served the contemporaneous social requirements, producing learned men of various hues to maintain the social structure, as Stephen Collini has argued. The ivory tower, if anything, a relatively recent phenomenon, a direct effect perhaps of the cutting of the umbilical chord between the State and the Universities, symptoms of a drift, an institution in search of a purpose and of sustenance - a view entertained by those who have not yet accepted the new master, the Market. However, this view is flawed not just because it is historically false, but also because the 'purpose in itself' is not articulated or substantiated, except for a romantic reference to Newman's lectures, a view that no one was courageous enough to actually put into practice.

On the other hand, however, there is the problem of another false view, this time of the future. Those who argue most vehemently that the universities should serve the contemporary demands of the market and prepare the students for the immediately available employment, are ill at ease with their own proclaimed views about jobs, knowledge and the future. They seem to sleepwalking, except for the fact that they are not sleeping at all, to the world that jobs that we do now will mostly be extinct in two decades. As Information Technologies come of age and Robotic abilities expand, given the purely economic imperatives that we expect to run our societies with, 47% of our professions, and a much greater proportion of the actual jobs (because taxi drivers, who have to make way, are more numerous than psychologists, who are relatively safe) will not exist. So, it is either of the two parts of their prescription for the universities is problematic: Either you can't prepare with certainty for 'uncertainty', because one does not know what the emerging jobs and professions will be like, or that our societies will not be governed by the market principles as we know now, without being unduly oppressive. 

In summary, both views somewhat contradict themselves: The university having its own purpose view fails to reconcile with the loss of state entitlements and that it is loss of that sponsorship that they are complaining against; the university to serve the employers advocates fail to reconcile with their own faith in market and progress, and that great progress in technology is making the educational requirements of more human beings redundant. And while both complain about the universities failing their purpose, that runs in the face of worldwide expansion of students going into universities, though, as one CEO of a student loan company (one particularly bitter CEO, truth be told, after being cut out of the market by the Federal programmes to provide student loans) puts it, this is all false demand, fed into by policy-makers' penchant for overselling university education by effectively subsidising the costs.

Against this rubric, my approach to understanding the universities is to use the concept of 'Institutional Corruption' that Lawrence Lessig, a great personal hero, is working on at the Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at the Harvard University (See an introduction to Lessig's ideas here) To be sure, Lessig's idea of 'Corruption' is not about bribery or any illegal act of any kind, but rather the changes in the 'economy of influence' of an institution, which may in turn create a 'improper dependence', which may both undermine the effectiveness of the institution and undermine the public trust in the institution. Lessig's expositions are pointedly focused at the US Congress (on the fact that the steep increase in the campaign costs force a Representative or a Senator to spend 30% to 70% of their time on fund-raising, and on 'relevant funders', who are a tiny fraction of the US population, equivalent to those with a first name 'Lester' - and hence, Lessig's coining of the term 'Lesterland') but this concept may apply to any other institution which performs a public duty and whose 'economy of influence' is undergoing a change. And, on both counts, universities satisfy the criteria.

I am, therefore, not so much complaining about either the 'ivory tower' or 'marketisation' but rather trying to explore whether the changing context of the university life, where 'accountability' seems to become one and the same with 'accounting', to use Bill Reading's expression, does indeed represent an 'institutional corruption', an undermining of its effectiveness to fulfill public role and the public trust in its effectiveness. Indeed, what this 'public role' is, and whether we can, and should, have a normative judgement about this public role, are two related questions that I must seek to answer eventually. 

I am indeed trying to develop my argument and this post is an initial attempt to do so. I see 'institutional corruption' as an useful prism, as it leads to the questions whether the universities can play any public role at all once its economy of influence has undergone a change, and whether the current premonitions about an impending crisis are really about this lack of public trust, left in suspended animation by the policy-makers' subsidies towards the costs and the universities' own efforts of making themselves more attractive to the student-consumers by making it easier to attain a degree. In summary, the whole gamut of issues that we face regarding the functions and effectiveness of the universities can be addressed using the idea of 'institutional corruption', which directly leads to the concepts such as 'financialisation', that I plan to turn to next.

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