[Paleopsych] Wilson Q.: Higher Ed, Inc. by James B. Twitchell
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Mon Feb 7 22:43:50 UTC 2005
Higher Ed, Inc. by James B. Twitchell
In the early afternoon of December 2, 1964, Mario Savio took off his
shoes and climbed onto the hood of a car. Savio was a junior majoring
in philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, and he was
upset that the administration of the university had arrested a handful
of students and forbidden student groups to set up tables promoting
various political and social causes. So he put himself upon the gears
of the machine:
If this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of
directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then Ill tell
you something: The faculty are a bunch of employees, and were the raw
material! But were a bunch of raw material[s] that dont mean to have
any process upon us, dont mean to be made into any product, dont mean
to end up being bought by some clients of the university, be they the
government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone!
Were human beings!
In the four decades since Savios expression of defiance, Higher Ed,
Inc., has become a huge business indeed. And as is typical of
absorbent capitalism, it does not deny its struggles so much as market
them. Mario Savio died in 1996. To honor his activism and insight, the
academic senate at Berkeley agreed to name a set of steps in Sproul
Plaza, the site of many political speeches, the Savio Steps. In an
interesting bit of corporate assimilation, Savio became a lasting part
of his own observations: He himself got branded.
Although Mario Savio didnt mention it, the success story of Higher Ed,
Inc., is based foursquare on the very transformation that allowed him
access to Berkeley. For each generation since World War II, the doors
to higher education have opened wider. Unquestionably, university
education is the key component in a meritocracy, the sine qua non of
an open market. A university degree is the stamp that sayswhether its
true or notthis kid is educated, qualified, smart. The more
prestigious the university, in theory, the smarter the kid. And
increased access to university life has succeeded beyond anyones
wildest expectation. In fact, the current dilemma is the price of
success. There are too many seats, too much supply, and not enough
Marios. The boom is over. Now the marketing begins.
Counting everything but its huge endowment holdings, Higher Ed, Inc.,
is a $250 to $270 billion businessbigger than religion, much bigger
than art. And though no one in the business will openly admit it,
getting into college is a cinch. The problem, of course, is that too
many students want to get into the same handful of nameplate colleges,
making it seem that the entire market is tight. It most certainly is
not. Heres the crucial statistic: There are about 2,500 four-year
colleges in this country, and only about 100 of them refuse more
applicants than they accept. Most schools accept 80 percent or more of
those who apply. Its the rare student who cant get in somewhere.
The explosive growth of Higher Ed, Inc., is evident in increasing
enrollments, new construction, expanding statewide university systems,
more federal monies, and changes in the professoriate. In the 1950
census, for example, there were 190,000 faculty members. A decade
later, shortly before Savio took to the hood of the car, there were
281,000. In 1970, when I entered the ranks, there were 532,000, and in
1998, the latest year for which figures are available from the U.S.
Department of Education, some 1,074,000. And remember, what
distinguishes the academic world is a lifetime hold on employment.
About 70 percent of todays faculty have tenured or tenure-track jobs.
Even ministers get furloughed. Museum directors get canned. But make
it through the tenure process, and youre set forever.
At the turn of the 20th century, one percent of high school graduates
attended college; that figure is now close to 70 percent. This is an
industry that produces a yearly revenue flow more than six times the
revenue generated by the steel industry. Woe to the state without a
special funding program (with the word merit in it) that assures
middle-class kids who graduate in the upper half of their high school
class a pass to State U. College has become what high school used to
be, and thanks to grade inflation, its almost impossible to flunk out.
If real estates motto is location, location, location, higher
educations is enrollment, enrollment, enrollment. College enrollment
hit a record level of 14.5 million in fall 1998, fell off slightly,
and then reached a new high of 15.3 million in 2000. How did this
happen, when the qualified applicant pool remained relatively stable?
Despite decreases in the traditional college-age population during the
1980s and early 1990s, total enrollment increased because of the high
enrollment rate of students who previously had been excluded. What has
really helped Higher Ed, Inc., is its ability to open up new markets.
Although affirmative action was certainly part of court-mandated fair
play, it was also a godsend. It insulated higher education from the
market shocks suffered by other cultural institutions. In addition,
universities have been able to extend their product line upward, into
graduate and professional schools. Another growth market? Foreign
students. No one talks about it much, but this market has been
profoundly affected by 9/11. Foreign students have stopped coming.
There are enough rabbits still in the python that universities havent
been affected yet. But they will be.
What makes this enrollment explosion interesting from a marketing
point of view is that Savios observations (the faculty are a bunch of
employees, and were the raw material) have been confirmed. What he
didnt appreciate is that instead of eating up raw material and
spitting it out, Higher Ed, Inc., has done something far more
interesting. As it has grown, its content has been profoundly
changeddumbed down, some would say. Theres a reason for that. At the
undergraduate level, its now in the business of delivering consumer
I teach at a large public university, the University of Florida. As I
leave the campus to go home, I bike past massive new construction.
Heres whats being built. On my distant left, the student union is
doubling in size: food court, ballrooms, cineplex, bowling alley,
three-story hotel, student legal services and bicycle repair (both
free), career counseling, and all manner of stuff that used to belong
in the mall, including a store half the size of a football field with
a floor devoted to selling what is called spiritware (everything you
can imagine with the school logo and mascot), an art gallery, video
games, an optical store, a travel agency, a frame store, an outdoor
outfitter, and a huge aquarium filled with only orange and blue (the
school colors) fish. On a normal day some 20,000 patrons pass through
the building. The student union is looking eerily like a department
store. So is the university.
On my immediate left, I pass the football stadium. One side of it is
being torn apart to add a cluster of skyboxes. Skyboxes are a valuable
resource, as they are almost pure profit. The state is not paying for
them. The athletic department is. They will be rented mainly to
corporations to allow their VIPs air-conditioned splendor high above
the hoi polloi. The skyboxes have granite countertops, curved
ceilings, and express elevators. In a skybox, you watch the football
game on television. Better yet, the skyboxes allow whats forbidden to
the groundlings: alcohol. How expensive are these splendid aeries?
There are 347 padded 21-inch seats in the Bull Gator Deck. Theyll run
you $14,000 a person, and you get only four games in the box. For the
other four, youre in the stands. Dont worry about doing the math. The
boxes are already sold out. I teach in a huge building that looks like
the starship Enterprise. It houses classrooms and faculty offices and
cost $10 million when it was built a few years ago. These skyboxes and
some club seats are coming in at $50 million. Everyone agrees, the
skyboxes are a good idea. Theyll make money. Better yet, theyll build
Across from the football stadium, at the edge of the campus on my
right, is the future of my institution. I pass an enormous new
building with a vast atrium of aggressively wasted space. This
building houses the headquarters of the University of Florida Foun-
dation. The foundation funnels millions of dollars of private money
the state will never know about into and through various parts of the
university. I dont complain. No one does. Two decades ago, the
foundation gave nothing to the English department; now, about a
hundred grand a year comes our way. In front of the foundation, where
a statue of some illustrious donor or beloved professor would stand at
an elite school, is a bronze statue of the athletic departments
trademarked mascots, Albert and Alberta Alligator.
On this side of campus, enrollment, enrollment, enrollment is becoming
endowment, endowment, endowment. Americans donate more money to higher
education than to any other cause except religion. And Florida, with
its millions of retirees looking for memorial opportunities, is a cash
cow just waiting for the farmers gentle hands. The residents of
Florida have almost no interest in funding education, especially not
K-12 education, which really is in dire shape. But there are wads of
money to fund bits and pieces of the campus in exchange for good
feelings and occasional naming rights.
American colleges and universities raise about $25 billion a year from
private sources. Public universities are new to this game, but theyve
learned that its where the action is. Private dollars now account for
about 30 percent of the University of Illinois annual budget, about 20
percent of Berkeleys, and about 10 percent of Floridas. In a sense,
tuition-paying undergrads are now the loss leaders in the enterprise.
What used to be the knowledge business has become the business of
selling an experience, an affiliation, a commodity that can be
manufactured, packaged, bought, and sold. Dont misunderstand. The
intellectual work of universities is still going on and has never been
stronger. Great creative acts still occur, and discoveries are made.
But the experience of higher education, all the accessories, the
amenities, the aura, has been commercialized, outsourced, franchised,
branded. The professional manager has replaced the professor as the
central figure in delivering the goods.
From a branding point of view, what happens in the classroom is beside
the point. I mean that literally. The old image of the classroom as
fulfillment of the Socratic ideal is no longer even invoked. Higher
Ed, Inc., is more like a sawmill. A few years ago, Harvard University
started a small department called the Instructional Computing Group,
which employs several people to videotape about 30 courses a semester.
Although it was intended for students who unavoidably missed class, it
soon became a way not to attend class. Any enrolled student could
attend on the Web, fast-forwarding through all the dull parts. This is
distance education from a dorm room, at an advertised $37,928 a year.
Elite schools are no longer in the traditional education business.
They are in the sponsored research and edutainment business. What they
offer is just one more thing that you shop for, one more thing you
consume, one more story you tell and are told. Its no accident that
you hear students talking about how much the degree costs and how much
its worth. Thats very much how the schools themselves talk as they
look for new sources of research or developmental funding. In many
schools theres even a period called shopping around, in which the
student attends as many classes as possible looking for a fit, almost
like channel surfing.
So we do college as we do lunch or do shopping or do church. Thats
because for most students in the upper-tier schools the real activity
is getting in and then continuing on into the professional schools. No
one cares whats taught in grades 1316. How many times have I heard my
nonacademic friends complain that theres no coherence in the courses
their kids are exposed to? Back in the 1950s, introductory courses
used the same textbooks, not just intramurally but extramurally. So
Introduction to Writing (freshman English) used the same half-dozen
handbooks all across the country. No longer. The writing courses are a
free-for-all. Ditto the upper-level courses. Here are some subjects my
department covers in what used to be English 101, the vanilla
composition course: attitudes toward marriage, business, bestsellers,
carnivals, computer games, fashion, horror films, The Simpsons,
homophobia, living arrangements, rap music, soap operas, Elvis,
sports, theme parks, AIDS, play, and the ever-popular marginalization
of this or that group.
But cries that the classroom is being dumbed down or politicized miss
the point. Hardly anyone in Higher Ed, Inc., cares about what is
taught, because that is not our charge. We are not in the business of
transmitting what E. D. Hirsch would call cultural literacy; nor are
we in the business of teaching the difference between the right word
and the almost right word, as Mark Twain might have thought important.
Were in the business of creating a total environment, delivering an
experience, gaining satisfied customers, and applying the smart stamp
when they head for the exits. The classroom reflects this. Our real
business is being transacted elsewhere on campus.
The most far-reaching changes in postsecondary education are not seen
on the playing fields or in the classroom or even in the admissions
office. Theyre inside the administration, in an area murkily called
development. If you dont believe it, enter the administration building
of any school that enrolls more than 10,000 students (10 percent of
campuses of that size or larger now account for a shade less than 50
percent of all students) and ask for the university development
office. Youll notice how, on this part of the campus, the carpets are
thick, the wainscoting is polished, and the lights are dimmed. Often,
the development office has a new name picked up from the corporate
model. Sometimes its hidden inside Public Affairs, or, more commonly,
Public Relations. My favorite: University Advancement. The driving
force at my university is now the University of Florida Foundation.
Development is both PR and fundraising, the intersection of getting
the brand out and the contributions in, and daily it becomes more
crucial. Thats because schools like mine have four basic revenue
streams: student tuition, research funding, public (state) support,
and private giving. The least important is tuition; the most
prestigious is external research dollars; the most fickle is state
support; and the most remunerative is what passes through the
development office. Leaf through The Chronicle of Higher Education,
the weekly journal of the industry, and youll see how much newsprint
is devoted to the comings and goings of development. Consider where
the development office is housed on most campuses, often right beside
the presidents office, and note how many people it employs.
At many schools, theres also a buried pipeline that connects the
development office with the admissions office. Most academic
administrators prefer that it be buried deep, but from time to time
someone digs it up. In The Wall Street Journal for February 3, 2003,
Daniel Golden reported on how the formal practice of giving preference
to students whose parents are wealthycalled development admitshas
profound implications not just for affirmative action but for the
vaunted academic ideal of fair play.
Remember the scene in the third season of The Sopranos when Carmella
has a lunch meeting with the dean of Columbia Universitys
undergraduate school? She thinks the lunch is about her daughter
Meadow, but the dean wants a little development money. Carmella
listens to his charming patter before being hit with the magic number
of $50,000. She goes to Tony, who protests that the Ivy League is
extorting them and says he wont give more than five gs. But the dean
eventually gets his 50 gs; Tony, the consummate shakedown artist, has
met his match.
When enrollments began to escalate in the 1960s, what used to be a
pyramid systemwith rich, selective schools at the top (read Ivy League
and a handful of other elites) and then a gradation downward through
increasing supply and deceasing rigor to junior and community college
systems at the basebecame an hourglass lying on its side. Theres now a
small bubble of excellent small schools on one side (Ivy League
schools qualify as small) that are really indistinguishable, and, on
the other, a big bubble of huge schools of varying quality. The most
interesting branding is occurring on the small-bubble side, as premier
schools vie for dominance, but the process is almost exactly the same,
although less intense, for the big suppliers.
Good schools have little interest in the bachelors degree. In fact,
the better the school, the less important the terminal undergraduate
degree. The job of the student is to get in, and the job of the elite
school is to get the student out into graduate school. The schools
certify students as worthy of further education, in law, medicine, the
arts, or business.
Premier schools have to separate their students from the rest of the
pack by generating a story about how special they are. We have the
smart ones, they say. Thats why they care little about such hot-button
issues as grade inflation, teaching quality, student recommendations,
or even the curriculum. Its not in their interest to tarnish the brand
by drawing distinctions among their students. These schools
essentially let the various testsLSAT, MCAT, GREmake the distinctions
for them. And, if you notice, they never divulge how well their
students do on those tests to the outside world. They have this
information, but they keep it to themselves. Theyre not stupid; they
have to protect the brand for incoming consumers because thats where
they really compete.
In one of the few candid assessments of the branding of Higher Ed,
Inc., Robert L. Woodbury, former chancellor of the University of Maine
system, noted the folly of the current institutional U.S. News and
World Report rankings:
When Consumer Reports rates and compares cars, it measures them on the
basis of categories such as performance, safety, reliability, and
value. It tries to measure outputsin short, what the car does. U.S.
News mostly looks at inputs (money spent, class size, test scores of
students, degrees held by faculty), rather than assessing what the
college or university actually accomplishes for students over the
lives of their enrollment. If Consumer Reports functioned like U.S.
News, it would rank cars on the amount of steel and plastic used in
their construction, the opinions of competing car dealers, the driving
skills of customers, the percentage of managers and sales people with
MBAs, and the sticker price on the vehicle (the higher, the better).
The emphasis on inputs explains why the elite schools arent threatened
by what others fear: the much-ballyhooed click universities, such as
the University of Phoenix and Sylvan Learning Systems, Inc., because
those schools generate no peer effects. So, too, theres no threat from
corporate universities, such as those put together by Microsoft,
Motorola, and Ford, or even from the Open University of England and
The Learning Annex. The industrial schools have not yet made their
presence felt, though they will. The upper tier on the small side of
the hourglass is not threatened by learning at a distance or
drive-through schools, because the elites are not as concerned with
learning as they are with maintaining selectivity at the front door
and safe passage to still-higher education at the back door.
So whats it like at the upper end among the deluxe brand-name schools,
where Harry Winston competes with Tiffany, where Louis Vuitton elbows
Prada, where Lexus dukes it out with Mercedes? In a word, its brutal,
an academic arms race.
How did the competition become so intense? Until 1991, the Ivy League
schools and the Massachusetts Institute of Tecnology met around a
conference table each April to fix financial aid packages for students
who had been admitted to more than one school. That year, after the
Justice Department sued the schools, accusing them of antitrust
violations, the universities agreed to stop the practice. As happened
with Major League Baseball after television contracts made the teams
rich, bidding pandemonium broke out. Finite number of players + almost
infinite cash = market bubble. Heres the staggering result. Over the
past three decades, tuition at the most select schools has increased
fivefold, nearly double the rate of inflation. Yet precious few
students pay the full fare. The war is fought over who gets in and how
much theyre going to have to be paid to attend.
The fact of the matter is that the cost of tuition has become
unimportant in the Ivy League. Like grade inflation, its
uncontrollableand hardly anyone in Higher Ed, Inc., really cares. As
with other luxury providers, the higher the advertised price, the
longer the line. The other nifty irony is that, among elite schools,
the more the consumer pays for formal education (or at least is
charged), the less of it he or she gets. The mandated class time
necessary to qualify for a degree is often less at Stanford than at
State U. As a general rule, the better the school, the shorter the
week. At many good schools, the weekend starts on Thursday.
Ask almost anyone in the education industry whats the most overrated
brand and theyll tell you Harvard. Its one of the most timid and
derivative schools in the country, yet it has been able to maintain a
reputation as the über-brand. Think of any important change in higher
education, and you can bet (1) that it didnt originate at Harvard, and
(2) that if its central to popular recognition, Harvard now owns it.
Why is Harvard synonymous with the ne plus ultra? Not because of what
comes out of the place but because of what goes in: namely, the best
students, the most contributed money, and, especially, the deepest
faith in the brand. Everyone knows that Harvard is the most selective
university, with a refusal rate of almost 90 percent. But more
important, the school is obscenely rich, with an endowment of almost
$20 billion. Remember that number. Its key to the brand. The endowment
is greater than the assets of the Dell computer company, the gross
domestic product of Libya, the net worth of all but five of the Forbes
400, or the holdings of every nonprofit in the world except the Roman
In a marketing sense, the value of the endowment is not monetary but
psychological: Any place with that many zeros after the dollar sign
has got to be good. The huge endowments of the nameplate schools force
other schools, the second-tier schools, to spend themselves into
penury. So your gift to Harvard does more harm than good to the
general weal of Higher Ed, Inc. It does, however, maintain the Harvard
With the possible exception of Harvard, the best schools are about as
interchangeable as the second-tier ones. All premier schools have
essentially the same teaching staff, the same student amenities, the
same library books, the same wondrous athletic facilities, the same
carefully trimmed lawns, the same broadband connection lines in the
dorms. Look at the websites for the most selective schools, and youll
see almost exactly the same images irrespective of place, supposed
mission, etc. True, they may attempt to slide in some
attention-getting fact (If you use our library, you may notice our
Gutenberg Bible, or The nuclear accelerator is buried beneath the
butterfly collection), but by and large the websites are like the soap
aisle at Safeway.
If you really want evidence of the indistinguishability of the elites,
consider the so-called viewbook, the newest marketing tool sent to
prospective applicants. The viewbook is a glossy come-on, bigger than
a prospectus and smaller than a catalog, that sets the brand. As with
the websites, what you see in almost every view is a never-ending loop
of smiling faces of diverse backgrounds, classrooms filled with eager
beavers, endless falling leaves in a blue-sky autumn, lush pictures of
lacrosse, squash, and rugby (because football, basketball, and
baseball are part of the mass-supplier brands), and a collection of
students whose interests are just like yours. From a branding point of
view, the viewbook is additionally interesting because it illustrates
how repeating a claim is the hallmark of undifferentiated producers.
Heres what Nicolaus Mills, an American studies professor at Sarah
Lawrence College, found a decade ago, just as the viewbook was
starting to become standardized. Every school had the same sort of
glossy photographs proving the same claim of diversity:
Diversity is the hallmark of the Harvard/Radcliffe experience, the
first sentence in the Harvard University register declares. Diversity
is the virtual core of University life, the University of Michigan
bulletin announces. Diversity is rooted deeply in the liberal arts
tradition and is key to our educational philosophy, Connecticut
College insists. Dukes 5,800 undergraduates come from regions which
are truly diverse, the Duke University bulletin declares. Stanford
values a class that is both ethnically and economically diverse, the
Stanford University bulletin notes. Brown University says, When asked
to describe the undergraduate life at The Collegeand particularly
their first strongest impression of Brown as freshmenstudents
consistently bring up the same topic: the diversity of the student
In this kind of marketing, Higher Ed, Inc., is like the crowd in Monty
Pythons Life of Brian. Graham Chapman as Brian, the man mistaken for
the Messiah, exhorts a crowd of devotees: Dont follow me! Dont follow
anyone! Think for yourselves! You are all individuals! To which the
crowd replies in perfect unison, Yes, Master, we are all individuals.
We are all individuals. We are all individuals.
The elite schools have to produce an entering class thats not just the
best and brightest they can gather, but one that will demonstrate an
unbridgeable quality gap between themselves and other schools. They
need this entering class because its precisely what they will sell to
the next crop of consumers. Its the annuity that gives them financial
security. In other words, what makes Higher Ed, Inc., unlike other
American industries is that its consumer value is based almost
entirely on who is consuming the product. At the point of admissions,
the goal is not money. The goal is to publicize whos getting in. Thats
the product. Who sits next to you in class generates value.
So its to the advantage of a good school to exploit the appearance of
customer merit, not customer need. But how to pay for this competitive
largesse if tuition is not the income spigot? At four-year private
colleges and universities, fully three-quarters of all undergraduates
get aid of some sort. In fact, 44 percent of all dependent students, a
technical term that refers to young, single undergraduates with annual
family incomes of $100,000 or less, get aid. What elite schools lose
on tuition they recover elsewhere. Take Williams College, for example.
The average school spends about $11,000 a student and takes in $3,500
in tuition and fees; Williams, a superbrand, spends about $75,000 per
student and charges, after accounting for scholarships and other
items, a net of $22,000. Why? Because Williams figures that to
maintain its brand value, to protect its franchise, it can
superdiscount fees and make up the difference with the cash thats to
come in the future. In theory, if an elite school could get the right
student body, it would be in its best interest to give the product
away: no tuition in exchange for the very best students. (Thats a
policy not without risk, as Williams found last year when Moodys
lowered its credit rating because the college had dipped too deeply
into endowment to fund its extraordinary incoming class.)
How does the brand sensitivity of the elite institutions affect the
quality of the educational experience for the rest of us? How
dangerous is it that schools follow the corporate model of marketing?
The prestige school has other money pots than tuition. Every two
weeks, for example, Harvards endowment throws off enough cash to cover
all undergraduate tuition. But what happens to schools below the
privileged top tier? They, too, have to discount their sticker prices
to maintain perceived value. So competition at the top essentially
raises costs everywhere, though only some schools have pockets deep
enough to afford the increase. The escalation in competitive amenities
is especially acute in venues where a wannabe school is next to an
Things get worse the further you move from the top. To get the
students it needs to achieve a higher ranking in annual surveysand
thereby draw better students, who boost external giving, which
finances new projects, raises salaries, and increases the endowment
needed for getting better students, wholl win the institution a higher
national ranking, which . . . etc.the second-tier school must
perpetually treat students as transient consumers.
Really good schools have all those so-called competitive amenities,
all those things that attract students but have nothing to do with
their oft-stated lofty mission and often get little useOlympic-quality
gyms, Broadway-style theaters, personal trainers, glitzy student
unions with movie theaters, and endless playing fields, mostly
covered with grass, not athletes. This marketing madness is now
occurring among the mass-supplier institutions. So the University of
Houston has a $53 million wellness center with a five-story climbing
wall; Washington State University has the largest Jacuzzi on the West
Coast (it holds 53 students); Ohio State University is building a $140
million complex featuring batting cages, ropes courses, and the
now-essential climbing wall; and the University of Southern Missis-
sippi is planning a full-fledged water park. These schools, according
to Moodys, are selling billions of dollars of bonds for construction
that has nothing whatsoever to do with education. Its all about
The commercialization of higher education has had many salutary
effects: wider access, the dismantling of discriminatory practices,
increased breadth and sophistication in many fields of research, and
an intense, often refreshing, concern about customer relations. But
consider other consequences for a place such as the University of
Florida, which is a typical mass-provider campus. To get the student
body we need for a respectable spot in the national rankings, we
essentially give the product away. We have no choice. Other states
will take our best students if we dont. Ivy League monies come from
endowment and have the promise of being replenished if the school
retains its reputation. But state universities are heavily dependent
on the largesse of state legislatures, and to keep the money coming
they need to be able to boast about their ability to attract the
states best and brightest. So about half of them have been sucked into
simple-minded plans that are essentially a subvention of education for
middle-class kids. Everyone admits that most of these kids would go to
college anyway. But would they go to the state system? Who wants to
find out the hard way?
Mario Savio was right. Before all else, the modern university is a
business selling a branded product. The Age of Money has reshaped the
terrain of higher education, writes David Kirp, of the Goldman School
of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Gone,
except in the rosy reminiscences of retired university presidents, is
any commitment to maintaining a community of scholars, an intellectual
city on a hill free to engage critically with the conventional wisdom
of the day. The hoary call for a marketplace of ideas has turned into
Administrators and the professoriate have not just allowed this
transformation of the academy, theyve willingly, often gleefully,
collaborated in it. The results have not been all bad. But the fact is
that weve gone from artisanal guild to department store, from
gatekeeper to ticket taker, from page turner to video clicker. This
commodification, selling out, commercialization,
corporatizationwhatever you want to call itis what happens when
marketing becomes an end, not a means.
Universities are making money by lending their names to credit card
companies, selling their alumni lists, offering their buildings for
naming rights, and extending their campuses to include retirement
communities and graveyards. Its past time for the participants in
Higher Ed, Inc., to recall what Savio said years ago: The university
is being industrialized not by outside forces but by internal ones.
Rather like the child who, after murdering his parents, asks for
leniency because hes an orphan, universities grown plump feeding at
the commercial trough now complain that theyve been victimized by the
market. This contention of victimization is, of course, a central part
of the modern Higher Ed, Inc., brand. The next words youll hear will
be Please give. We desperately need your support!
James B. Twitchell is a professor of English and advertising at the
University of Florida, Gainesville. He is the author of many books,
including most recently Living It Up: Americas Love Affair with Luxury
(2002). This essay is drawn from his forthcoming book Branded Nation,
to be published by Simon & Schuster.
Total messages: 11 | Started: 01/29/2005
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and in no
way represent the views or opinions of the Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars.
Higher Ed, Inc.
A vastly entertaining and amusing article. Is it accurate? Well, for
the most part, what is stated has been readily observable for some
years in our institutions of higher learning. The author clearly makes
the point that all of what has developed is not necessarily to be
deplored. As a fellow observer, I would comment that, in fact, most of
what has developed is an improvement over my personal experience in
obtaining degrees in the 1950s and 1960s. Does the good Professor
protest too much? Probably.
Pat West, D.Sc.
Posted by: Pat West 01/29/2005
Prof Twitchell's article was provoking and insightful in exposing the
marketing process. I was hoping he'd say something about resultant
academic standards. My prof friends say it's bad.
Posted by: Bob Foley 01/29/2005
censorship at Folk U.
Mario Savio is also intimately associated with "academic freedom" as
he is credited with initiating the Free Speech Movement. Freedom of
speech, however, is rapidly dying on America's campuses. In no slight
way, this is attributable to the "commodification" of higher ed, and
the view of students as cusomers/consumers. No one with power or
influence objects to a corporation's "right" to censor its employees,
it being understood that the First Amendment does not extend to the
so-called "private sector." But that fussy distinction is being
obscured all across the land, as corporate values swamp academia.
Professors and students alike are being gagged everywhere, lest
potential shoppers be offended and thus alienated.
My region of the country--what some designate as the Sixth Reich whose
capital is Censornati, Ohio--has already experienced the first stage
of brutal repression and silencing at the hands of federal judges who
despise their oath to uphold the Constitution. Free speech, once the
hallmark of higher education, must defer to the commercial exigencies
of America's new order.
Ohio gave us the Kent State massacre in 1971; now it gives us snazzy
Posted by: John C. Bonnell 01/30/2005
The learnint communitiy might survive
After thirty years on the faculty of an elite private liberal arts
college conscious of the insidious shift from learning community to
consumerist enclave, I made an interesting transition. I retired ten
years ago and joined the faculty at a remote branch campus of a
two-year tribal college in the Southwest with none of the amenities
that Professor Twitchell describes. Instead I found myself teaching
ill-prepared students struggling to catch up to their more privileged
off-reservation peers. For many that means learning to read and write,
to do research at the most basic level, to overcome economic and
cultural obstacles totally foreign to students in the mainstream.
While I find the challenges sometimes daunting, I take renewed
pleasure in the teaching I do. Students come to campus not expecting
wellness centers, food courts or bookstores that resemble giant
boutiques. Instead, they want to master the computer keyboard, to
learn algebra, to grow comfortable with the printed page, to make up
in whatever way possible for the substandard educations they recieved
in their previous schooling. Under those circumstances the classroom
becomes central to the enterprise. Now as I watch students learn how
to formulate an idea and put it in writing or discover the structure
underlying a sonnet, I regain the idealism that drew me to an academic
career in the first place and feel like I am in a learning community
Posted by: Paul Zolbrod 01/30/2005
I simply want to second Professor Zolbrod's comment. I too teach at a
non-elite, non-flagship school, and my experience is nothing like Dr.
Twitchell's. I saw something of that in my grad and undergrad careers,
but the reality is that for many schools, the kind of luxury that
Twitchell describes is a distant fantasy. Our freshman comp courses
teach basic composition, and do not drift off into various themes,
because many of our students still have not mastered the most basic
writing skills. My field is history - while I would enjoy teaching
more esoteric material, the reality is all but my upper division
specialty courses must focus primarily on cultural literacy, because
my students do not have it. In our debate about the strengths and
weaknesses of higher, and grade school, education, we must be careful
to recognize the diversity of these institutions. Twitchell describes
an institution living on some high-sugar diet, but many of us work in
a very different world, with very different challenges.
Posted by: Theron Corse 01/30/2005
Foreign phrases, misuse of
The definite article in the phrase "the hoi polloi" is redundant. Hoi
polloi means (more or less) the public; hoi = the, get it?
Professors of English in my day knew at least basic Greek
Posted by: Bryna Kaye 01/30/2005
[spacer.gif] hoi polloi
hmm, well in its ancient context it doesn't so much mean public as
much as it means the common citizen (heavy infantry) as compared to
the aristocratic citizen (calvary). both of which were upper class to
some regard to the metics, slaves, etc. in athens. of course, uses
vary these days.
Posted by: jeremy hunsinger 01/31/2005
Is Education Worse?
Twitchell repeats an assertion one often hears now: that Universities
no longer focus on academic and intellectual development and primarily
concern themselves with "branding," creating an "experience," treating
students as "consumers," and obtaining money and prestige.
My question: was the University so intellectually centered in the good
old days? Did students get a better education? How can one measure
While I don't think students at the university where I teach are
getting the best education possible, I also think it could be true
that they are being taught by more knowledgeable and more productive
faculty than in years past. I'd like to hear about an empirical,
convincing study that says that education has worsened in our
universities because of the trends Twitchell is analyzing.
Posted by: AG 01/30/2005
This is an interesting article. However, it seems to condemn higher
education without making any claims about the quality of the education
students are receiving. The author makes a short comment about
colleges not revealing LSAT, GRE, and other graduate test scores. He
fails to actually show that students scores on these standardized
tests have drop. A proper analysis would use time-series data at
individual schools. While Dr. Twitchell may argue that a corporate
mentality should be removed from higher education as an evil in and of
itself, he certainly fails to show that it has had any negative
effects on the quality of educaiton.
One other thing to keep in mind. While colleges may not release the
LSAT, MCAT, and GRE scores of their students, the relative quality of
a schools students can be determined by looking at the composition of
classes at top graduate programs. For instance, if a college is able
to send a large number of students on to Harvard Law, they are
probably providing a high quality education. Prospective students are
very much concerned with what the quality of education a school
provides, as they will want to get into good graduate programs or find
good jobs when they graduate. While schools may be concerned with
marketing a college experience, they also must market their academic
program. In a corporate environment their is no getting around the
fact that results matter, and colleges are always going to be
concerned with producing top talent, as that alone will attract the
next class of students.
Posted by: Matt 01/30/2005
You think this is bad?
From the point of view of someone who works in the proprietary
education industry, as I do, Prof. Twitchell's concern is almost
quaint. In my industry, the apparatus that he decribes has been fully
distilled into pure marketing. There are pros and cons, of course, as
Prof. Twitchell and most others recognize. What does this all mean?
Does it merely reflect changing American attitudes toward education?
How would the average American react to this trend?
Posted by: RMS 01/30/2005
Dumbing down teaching materials
I am the lead author on an introductory economics textbook
("Microeconomics in Context" -- Houghton Mifflin, 2005)and have looked
at a lot of other textbooks, teachers' manuals, and other teaching
aids, along with the literature on teaching this subject. There are a
lot of criticisms of economics courses, reflecting the sad reality
confessed by one Economics Department Chair: "our students hate us." I
believe that the reason most students are turned off by their first
exposure to economics (only 5% will go on to major in the subject) is
that, as presented in most college classes, it bears little relation
to the complexity of the real world. Unfortunately, the conclusion
drawn in most academic discussions of the problem is that the subject
is too complex -- and the suggested remedy is to simplify further.
"Just pick half a dozen facts about the economic system, and don't try
to teach anything else." The teaching aids similarly spoon-feed and
dumb down. These observations relate to the treatment of students as
consumers -- and also to the way the printed media increasingly acts
as if it would be wrong and unreasonable to ask people to think. Ask
people to think about real things of real importance to themselves,
and they may rise to the challenge. But the commercialization of
education as well as of the press makes that challenge seem too risky.
Posted by: Neva Goodwin 01/30/2005
The Revenge of the Nerds by Steven Lagerfeld
Schools and the g Factor by Linda S. Gottfredson
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