Friday, September 24, 2010

Professional Schools & the Corporate University

The volumes investigating, critiquing, and wrestling with the emerging notion of the corporate university continue to appear on a daily basis. One that will generate a lot of discussion is Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein, Engines of Innovation: The Entrepreneurial University in the Twentieth-First Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010). This is an optimistic, sweeping assessment arguing that the university must engage in the big, critical problems of our era, solve them, and function as agents of social change. It is another argument for moving the university away from the traditional, hierarchical manner in which it normally works and into new interdisciplinary programs that are facile and fueled with funds and partnerships with corporate American and other forms of global relationships. The authors fill their volume with lots of brief case studies, although many of these do not provide the level of detail or critical evaluation they probably deserve, resulting in a volume that is an interesting pep talk for a new form of university. From my perspective there are two major problems with the book. First, anyone who is critical of the new entrepreneurial model (and there are many, citing such problems as scientific fraud and intellectual property) are pushed to the side as problems. Consider this passage: “The impediment to the entrepreneurial residency is typically not a lack of funds, as many of the most qualified entrepreneurs are willing to work, at least on a part-time basis, for a relatively low salary so long as they are free to continue at least some of their activities outside of academia. Opposition comes from some who are slow to recognize the importance of entrepreneurial thinking and reluctant to include entrepreneurs as colleagues. Our experience is that once this opposition is overcome, the results are immediate and dramatic. An entrepreneurial voice amidst a group of talented scientists often leads to high impact, entrepreneurial science” (p. 37). Second, and far more serious, is the fact that this new university is all about science and technology. The arts and humanities are nearly nowhere to be found, and the idea of a university education is reduced to a kind of scientific-vocational training with a focus on money, money, and money.

This second problem has been the topic of many a book critical of the corporate model. The importance of having a historical grounding in higher education and academic life can be seen in Ellen Schrecker’s The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University (New York: The New Press, 2010). Schrecker, a historian who has written a couple of other books on McCarthyism and the academy, started this book as an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education comparing the fate of academic freedom in the McCarthy era with that after 9/11. Schrecker holds the university to a high ideal in regard to its importance in American life: “The academy protects the American mind. In a world of sound bites and bullet points, the nation’s campuses are among the last few places where it is still possible to deal with complicated ideas or entertain unorthodox opinions. Professors are the nation’s main public intellectuals; they raise the questions with which an informed citizenry must deal. They are, therefore, essential to the preservation of the reasoned debate and unfettered expression that our democratic system requires” (p. 4). Schrecker tackles a lot of critical issues, such as the changing nature of tenure, the rise of contingent faculty, due process for academics, faculty governance, curricular debates, campus radicals, canon and culture wars, and the changing academic structure from teaching to research, from students to revenue, and from education to vocational training. She concludes with an essay on the implications of the current Great Recession on the university and these issues affecting academic freedom (giving us a suitable warning for navigating into the future).

From my vantage these kinds of issues has become a particular problem in professional schools in higher education. Even before the emergence of the idea of the corporate university, commentators on the university sometimes struggled to fit into their model just what professional schools represented, with their own foot in the murky world of professions and their other foot in the world of research, scholarship, and theory. So, I have tried to tackle this in my The Demise of the Library School: Personal Reflections on Professional Education in the Modern Corporate University (Duluth, MN: Library Juice, 2010) placing the present and future of professional education for librarianship in the debate on the modern corporate university. The book is a series of meditations on critical themes relating to the education of librarians, archivists, and other information professionals, playing off of other commentators analyzing the nature of higher education and its problems and promises. Debates about the nature and value of professional education in general and library education in particular have continued over the past century. While many aspects of these debates have not changed in substance, the changing nature of the modern university has brought new dimensions (and, at times, more acrimony) to these discussions. Librarians and library educators have written extensively about professional education, but much of the literature has focused on internal professional community issues and avoided consideration of the evolution of the modern research university (where many of these schools are located) to a disturbing new corporate model bringing new pressures and conflicts to bear on the traditional library school. This book addresses my own sense of what has occurred with professional education and bringing to bear my perspective as an educator of archivists, my teaching of a doctoral seminar about the role of faculty in professional schools in the research university, and my extensive reading over the years about the nature and ongoing development of higher education. I am writing about what the corporate university represents, the role of faculty in professional schools in the university, interesting tensions between what traditional library faculty have done in the past and new demands on them to be relevant in the present digital era, the evolution of library schools into schools of information science and now information schools, the debates about individual credentialing and programmatic accreditation, and the influences of new aspects of such education such as the preparation of archivists and preservation administrators. This is not intended to be a research study, but it is a highly personal reflection intended to generate new discussion about the nature of professional education.

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