another look at Daniel, Wellmon, and the future of the university

Adam Daniel and Chad Wellmon respond to my response to their essay. (They respond to Cathy Davidson too.) Got all that?

My first thought is that if I had known that my blog post would be taken even this seriously I would have spent more than ten minutes writing it. (You live and you learn.) But now I’m digging into the subject more fully and thinking more seriously … and just getting more confused.

The stories I read about the American university just yesterday told me, with illustrative examples, that it’s a place where any dissent from leftist orthodoxy is being ruthlessly crushed; where the tyranny of deep-pocketed donors is driving out any resistance to free-market capitalism; where powerful humanities professors rake in big money for purveying pseudo-radical ideas while demanding sexual favors from younger colleagues and grad students; where soon enough there will be no humanities professors or humanities departments, and precious few humanities courses.

Again those are stories I read yesterday. Aside from the variety of the narratives, the chief thing that I would note about them all is that each claims to be saying something at least characteristic and perhaps definitive of “the University.” All tales about “the University” are morality tales, with very explicit lessons that are presumed to be transferable to any and every particular institutional context.

And that’s what makes all these narratives bullshit. It’s not that the events they describe didn’t or don’t happen; rather, it’s unsustainable imposition of definitive and universal judgments based on handfuls, at most, of anecdotal material.

I have therefore come to the conclusion that nothing of general validity can be said about “the University” – and not much about any given university in toto. Different schools and programs within the university conveyor very different purposes and characters. Even departments that seem relatively closely related, according to the taxonomy of academic disciplines, can sometimes lack a common vocabulary, common goals.

All of which means that I myself wrote too generally and abstractly in my earlier post. It is true that the people who make the biggest financial decisions tend do so along the lines I suggested, as Daniel and Wellmon agree. (Universities “have increasingly adopted the practices, technologies, and professional expertise of late capitalism…. In many places, these activities and idioms are gaining such purchase that they threaten to exert a decisive influence on what universities most basically do, to the exclusion of core academic considerations.”) But much else is going on – not all of it Good – throughout every university, and its many nooks and crannies. More on this later.

For now, though, I want to note that Daniel and Wellmon are not as afraid as I am of speaking in general terms, and make a broad recommendation: that the American university renew and intensify its (historically variable) investment in the American democratic project. “The democratic model” can offer a “normative ideal” for the university, and should be grasped as such.

My essential problem with this suggestion is that I do not know what it means. I think there are two broad possibilities:

  • The pedagogical: Universities should take on the responsibility toe educating students to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens in a democratic order.
  • The demographic: Universities should seek to serve a broader constituency than is characteristic of elite institutions, bringing in students from historically underserved populations and helping them to come into their inheritance as persons and citizens.

Maybe (probably) both of these are at work, but I suspect that the latter is the stronger emphasis. I’d appreciate clarification on this point.

I also don’t know how to understand this renewal of the democratic model as regulative ideal in relation to what Daniel and Wellmon say elsewhere in the essay about the university-as-corporation: “Too frequently, the question of how and whether they make the university a better university — by advancing teaching and research — is never seriously considered.” Does “advancing teaching and research” necessarily contribute to the democratic project? Or must teaching and research be adapted to make that happen?

Moreover: Let’s say that I sign up for this project. How do I contribute? To judge by his job title — “senior associate dean for administration and planning” at UVA — Adam Daniel may have some input into his university’s overall strategies. And Wellmon recently led a revision of UVA’s undergraduate core curriculum. But what should a teacher like me do? Try to get myself appointed to the right committees? Write essays for the Chronicle of Higher Education? Obviously I don’t expect Daniel and Wellmon to produce a blueprint. But I would like a better idea of how an academic might support a renewal of the democratic project, and how anyone might recognize the signs of such a renewal, were it to begin.

I said earlier that I would say more about the great variety of goods that are being pursued in any given university, but I’m going to save that for another post. Stay tuned.