As we try to be responsible, efficient, and smart about our academic programs in the new world of fiscal crisis, students demanding to be treated as customers, the aims of being business-like, and the temptations of new funding sources with many strings-attached, a book like Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008) is an important read.
Any academic, whether connected to the humanities or not, ought to read this book, because it provides a good list of how corporate influences, new uses of information technologies, and new challenges to the fiscal bottom-line all contribute to radical redefining of what faculty ought and can do in the university. Faculty are reduced to productivity measures, salesmanship, revenue generators, and societal or business relevance. Donoghue reflects, for example, that “disciplines that hold out the promise of money and cultivate a knowledge of money both attract and produce expert professionals who stand at the farthest remove from the humanities” (p. 69). I would argue that those of us not in the humanities, momentarily safely-ensconced in professional schools, ought not to be too smug about this impact on the humanities; it is possible that the same forces squeezing that sector of the university could come back to pressure other activities in professional schools – such as the constituencies they serve and what research they determine to pursue.
In other words, Donoghue’s commentary can be read as a roadmap indicating future challenges ahead for every component of the university. He predicts, for example, the eventual disappearance of tenured faculty, and he makes a compelling case for this happening because of the increasing attention to fiscal matters as the determinants of all academic affairs. Donoghue also predicts a new kind of credentialism for undergraduate education: “The B.A. and B.S. will largely be replaced by a kind of educational passport that will document each student’s various educational certifications from one of several schools, the credentials directly relevant to his or her future occupation” (p. 84). From my vantage in a professional school, I would argue we can already see some of this in our new masters students, where they often seem ill-equipped in their knowledge, critical thinking and research skills, and other areas – some of these problems perhaps attributable to more of a stress on vocational goals rather than being educated broadly and deeply (and where they see our own graduate degrees as just a credential to practice).
Donoghue sees as what’s at stake is the very meaning of higher education, and he thinks that faculty must “use the tools of critical thinking to question that the widespread assumption that efficiency, productivity, and profitability are intrinsically good” (p. 88). And this may be harder to do than we think. He considers the advent of online education, and rather than critiquing because of pedagogical and related issues, Donoghue expresses concerns because it potentially shifts the ownership and control of teaching to the course management businesses, something that has not happened yet although there are troubling signs of what lies ahead. We need to be mindful of the implications of all that we do, even those decisions that seem straightforward and commonsensical. I admit to losing sleep sometimes over what appear to be the simplest things, because I worry about their long-term consequences.