Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Two Cultures—The Conflict Between Business Values and the Life of the Mind

I wrote the following essay for publication in a book about the unfortunate effects of corporate values on the intellectual and educational mission of the contemporary American university. Though I couch the argument in general terms and name no names, all of the examples I give, and all of the actions I cite, are things I have personally observed or experienced in the Boston University College of Communication, most of them taking place within and detrimentally affecting hiring, promotion, and teaching in my own academic department, the Department of Film and Television. Nothing that follows is merely speculative or hypothetical. It has all actually taken place in the Boston University College of Communication (and presumably in other Colleges in the university).

In case more particulars are desired, I have included a series of parenthetical notes throughout the essay that direct the reader to sections of the site that have detailed accounts of the events and problems talked about only theoretically and generally here. As those pages document, research, publication, and education at Boston University for many years has been, and still continues to be, seriously compromised by business methods, values, and understandings of the academic enterprise. Students are being cheated and faculty are being done a disservice. 

Many other site pages contain reflections about the deleterious effect of appointing businessmen to senior administrative positions, a wide-spread practice at Boston University, where many of the Chairmen and Deans and other administrators appointed first by President John Silber and subsequently by his successor President Robert Brown spent their entire previous careers in the fields of business, law, or finance, and have, not surprisingly, internalized for-profit corporate understandings, values, and measurements of achievement, which they then bring to the faculty appointment, evaluation, and promotion process. The result, in many cases, is an educational institution that, administratively speaking, knows everything about finances but almost nothing about education. Considerations of profit and loss, budgets and fund-raising, student application numbers and enrollment figures, and projections about how to maintain and increase tuition income and alumni-giving take precedence over actually improving the curriculum and the student educational experience. 

For related reflections on this subject, and references to many other site pages that discuss it, see the discussion of the acquiescence and cooperation of the Boston University Board of Trustees and many middle-level and upper-level university administrators in a long-standing series of administrative efforts to monitor, control, censure, and where necessary outright suppress faculty speech at BU – in the classroom, in emails faculty write to their students, in media interviews they give, and in faculty publications – and to threaten, professionally punish, and financially retaliate against faculty members who are viewed as violating the de facto censorship guidelines – in "Censorship, Punishment, Abuse, Threats – Being Banned in Boston," available in the side menu under March 2013.   ––  Ray Carney

Cultures in Collision:

Some Personal Observations about the Effects of

Business Values in the Academy

There has been considerable discussion in the media about the effects of business values on university administrators—the financial pressures athletic programs place on university Presidents; the effect the competition for government grants places on hiring and promotion; the power of corporate funding to shape the curriculum; etc.. The analyses have generally focused on the highest levels of the university administration—the offices of the Chancellor, the President, and the Provost. I would like to move the discussion from the administrative stratosphere down into the pedagogical trenches, where my personal experience—the experience of a faculty member teaching humanities courses—lies. I have devoted almost my entire academic career to teaching undergraduates, and writing, when I am able, scholarly essays, articles, and books. I have never applied for corporate support, don’t qualify for any big government grants that I am aware of, and have no association with (and, frankly, not even the slightest interest in) any of my university’s athletic programs; but I experience pressures to compromise what I do and how I do it every day, in every class I teach and every meeting I attend. The pressures come not from the top—from the office of the university President or Provost—and not from extra-academic entities like athletic teams or alumni booster organizations; but from inside my department and college, from middle-level managers with business backgrounds and points of view, who have unconsciously and unreflectively internalized what I would characterize as corporate- or business-oriented understandings of the educational enterprise.

Basic understandings of the function of a university that I took for granted when I began my academic career have become distant memories, as my university, like many others, has hired a series of professional managers to fill middle-level administrative positions. These are individuals who, prior to their arrival in the university, had little or no first-hand experience with high-level academic teaching, scholarly research and publishing, or other facets of academic life. Their last experience of academia was generally twenty or thirty years earlier when they received a master’s degree in business administration or another vocational/professional area. Needless to say, none of them has ever done any serious research, publication, or teaching—or thinking about the meaning of the intellectual life. Their chief qualification for the jobs they now hold—supervising and evaluating faculty research, publication, and teaching—is that they were successes in the non-academic world (as middle- or upper-level managers in for-profit corporations, government agencies, the military, or the service sector).

My current Dean (who supervises virtually every aspect of faculty life in my college, including faculty appointments, promotions, sabbaticals, pay raises, research funding, and pretty much every other budgetary matter) has a master’s degree as his highest academic achievement and devoted his previous career to climbing the corporate ladder. The Assistant Dean (the Dean’s advisor and the executor of his policies), to the best of my knowledge, spent her entire previous career in the military, and has an associate degree as her highest academic attainment. And my department Chairman (who handles curricular decisions and makes recommendations to the Dean on pay and promotions) was for decades before his appointment, and continues to be, a for-profit businessman—a television producer (for those who aren’t familiar with the title: the person who handles the business side of making a TV program or made-for-TV-movie). I provide those mini-bios to flesh out the account, but my argument is not an ad hominem one. I cite the personal backgrounds of these particular individuals only as a way of summarizing a more general trend in colleges and universities to hire administrators with “real world” experience instead of academics to be middle-managers. Call it the Mitt Romney argument: They’ve “done it” in business, in the military, in a government agency; they can “do it” in academia. In their previous positions, they’ve met a payroll and balanced a budget; they’ve dealt with public officials, grant agencies, and other senior-level businessmen (all potential sources of university financial support); they’ve managed staffs; they can certainly run a college and manage a group of professors—or so the thinking goes.

The problem, as I see it, is the potential loss of something rare and valuable—the loss of the understanding that a university functions in a fundamentally different way from (and, at times, even opposed to) the way business, the military, or a government or private agency functions. I am not so naïve as to ignore the fact that universities are corporations too, or that, like for-profit businesses, they have budgets they must balance; but I am convinced that something of incredible importance is in danger of being lost when the fundamental differences between a university and a business are forgotten.

To keep things as simple as possible, I’m going to group my observations under seven headings and strictly limit myself to events I have personally observed or directly experienced in my own college and department over the course of the past decade. I’m also going to simplify my account by talking about groups of administrators I have worked with rather than particular individuals. To be strictly accurate, while the Assistant Dean in my college has remained the same throughout the entire ten-year period of time, I have had two different Deans and two different department Chairmen, but though each placed the emphasis slightly differently, since each embodied a similar “business-oriented” value system, I am not going to distinguish between them. My argument is not about individuals but general ways of understanding and organizing the academic enterprise.

I make no claim for the universality of the experiences I shall present; I am only describing the effect of business values on one college, as practiced by one set of administrators, in one university. Faculty members in other units of my university, or faculty members at other universities could undoubtedly describe completely different experiences, or could add other categories to the list. But given the duration and impact of these events on the life of my own college, and the prevalence of the practice of employing businessmen as middle- and upper-level managers in American universities, I have every reason to believe that the events I am describing are representative of a more general state of affairs in the academic world, however much the specific details may vary from place to place.

* * *

Customer satisfaction is job 1. Insofar as most businesses are focused on sales, and most sales are based on finding out what customers want and, as much as possible giving it to them, serious problems can arise when a corporate executive shows up in the university and, more or less automatically, treats courses as “products” and students as “customers.” Not only do courses that garner larger enrollments become more highly valued than smaller ones (efficiency of scale and all that), but courses that get the most consistently favorable “customer reviews” at the end of the semester (i.e., student evaluations) are regarded as being intrinsically more successful than those with mixed (or lower) reviews.

Now I am not opposed to large courses, any more than I am opposed to courses that students report they enjoy, but it has become increasingly clear to me that an administrator’s reliance on a J. D. Powers definition of value can have seriously detrimental effects on the educational process. The fallacy is only in small part related to the fact that enrollments and evaluations represent the opinions of “customers” who, by definition, lack mature judgment of their own best interests (they are people in their teens and early twenties, after all) and who lack knowledge of the subject matter (that’s why they are taking the course in the first place). The bigger fallacy is the idea that the purpose of a course is to please the largest number of people. I would argue not only that the best courses should make some of the less talented students unhappy (by correcting their uninformed views and, where necessary, giving them poor grades to show them that they really should think of majoring in something else or finding something else to do for a living), but that a good course should challenge the views of even the most talented students by moving them out of their intellectual comfort zones. If a course pleases everyone, it is definitely not doing what it is supposed to do. The reliance on numerical averages distorts the value of the ratings even further, since the evaluations of the worst students (those who haven’t done the assigned work or, in some cases, haven’t even attended class) count equally with the ratings of the most diligent, hard-working, and thoughtful students. (Even the Olympic diving and figure-skating competitions weight the judges' scores more intelligently than simply using a straight average of the scores!) But all of this is lost on a manager who treats the evaluation process as a “customer satisfaction” survey. The highest numerical average equals the best course and the best teacher. The fallacy of that equation—in which a much lower average score may actually represent a far greater educational achievement—is surprisingly difficult for most business-oriented managers to grasp (all the more insofar as they themselves may never have had academic experiences with intellectually challenging courses taught by demanding master-teachers).

The use of popularity as a measure of pedagogic success not only rewards the wrong teachers with pay raises and promotions, but impacts the courses of even the best teachers to some degree. Even teachers willing to make demands on their students are not slow to learn the fairly draconian lessons the system imparts—and to adjust their teaching to the expectations of the culture. Remaining the lone holdout in a “customer satisfaction” system becomes a form of pedagogical suicide. Gresham’s Law applies. Course offerings (at least in the humanities) become increasingly trendy (to boost enrollments), and discussion becomes blandifed (to avoid goring students’ ideological and cultural sacred cows). Woe unto the teacher who dares to present positions opposed to fashionable gender studies or multicultural understandings of experience, or—worse yet—who gets to be known as a “hard grader.” There go your enrollments, your evaluations, your pay raises. Faculty members adapt—even the best of them. Grade-inflation becomes rampant, with teachers “buying” favorable course reviews by awarding only As and Bs to anyone who simply comes to class. (At least one my colleagues makes an announcement to this effect in his classes—that if a student simply shows up, he’s guaranteed an A or a B.) Class requirements are eased to the limit—with multiple-choice exams replacing the more time-consuming and intellectually demanding writing of papers. Once-a-week class meeting schedules supersede two- or three-times-a-week class meetings. In the final irony, once the semester ends, if these educational shortcuts have had the intended effect, the Dean or Chairman praises the faculty member’s glowing reviews and gives him a pay raise.

There are many other negative effects of a “customer-is-always-right” value system on the relation between the institution and the student that I don’t have space to consider: admission standards are lowered to rock bottom (to maintain the largest possible customer base); grades are inflated (to keep complaints from coming in--a flattered customer is a happy customer); students are given deliberately misleading impressions about their potential success in their areas of study (to keep the customer happy); letters of recommendation to future employers become wildly inflated (to ensure post-sale satisfaction), etc.. At worst, the number of courses required to get a degree, particularly in graduate programs, is cut to the bone to compete with other "quickie" degree programs at other universities. Degrees that required five semesters to obtain twenty years ago, and four semesters ten years ago, have become two or three semester programs today. (And it's sure not going to get more rigorous in the future. Wait for the almost-here edX era, when degrees are offered online, via the internet, to see how little will be required of students to graduate, after the negative arm's-race-to-the bottom that is sure to break out between institutions to see who can require the least to attract the most--the largest number of enrollees in their MOOC.) As with any sales operation, the quality of the sizzle starts to matter more than the nutritional value of the steak. Appearances trump realities all the more in a situation where return sales aren’t part of the equation; you only have to make students feel good about the purchase for a few years and don’t have to worry about the results after that; the one-time sale is everything.

All of these things have been done in my College, particularly the radical lowering of admission standards and the crazy grade inflation, especially at the graduate student level, to keep the tuition dollars flowing in. Faculty sit around and compare notes about how awful their students are (and about how most of the grad students they have shouldn't ever have been admitted in the first place), even as they continue to give almost all As to the grad students and almost all As and Bs to the undergrads. Though the students are too young and innocent to take in the big picture, it's they who are the victims in this situation, of course. It's they who are the losers--and the greatest losers are the few truly talented students who deserve much better for their tuition dollars than spending their class time sitting next to peers who should never have been allowed in the classroom to start with (or who should have been failed out after their first semester). They are paying a heck of lot of money (and incurring debts that will take them half their lives to repay) for a pretend education, a fake degree. They are being cheated--financially and pedagogically. The good students are being defrauded of a top-flight educational experience and the untalented ones are being willfully, knowingly misled about where their real talents lie, and deceived about their actual career prospects. Academics are fond of pointing the finger elsewhere in our society, endlessly complaining about political corruption and corporate malfeasance; but what many of them are doing in the admission and evaluation process is just as unconscionable and unethical as anything that takes place in the boardrooms of corporate America. 

A university should not be run like a supermarket. Courses are not cans of soup. The goal is not to give everyone what they want, but what they need, even if they don't know they need it. The customer is not always right, and, in fact, does not usually know his or her own best interests.

PR notions of importance. It is easy for someone who has spent his or her entire career as an academic to forget how difficult it can be for someone outside the academy to understand the importance of serious, high-level research, scholarship, and teaching—let alone be able to tell what is actually important and what is not. The overwhelming majority of people outside the academy, including university administrators who have a business background, equate something’s importance with its popularity—or its coverage in the media. It can be almost impossible for a Dean or Chairman who comes from the world of business and has devoted much of his pre-academic career to currying favor with the media (in hopes that his business, product, or name will be written-up) to understand that media attention has almost nothing to do with something’s real value—and in fact as often as not is prompted by a work’s meretriciousness or flash-in-the-pan trendiness. To someone from the world of business, media attention equals popularity; popularity equals sales; and sales equals success. What part of getting attention and making money don’t you understand?

The situation is hardly any better, and maybe worse, with my current Dean, a man whose entire previous training and work experience was in journalism and business. This guy thinks that someone who publishes something in a magazine is actually doing something that matters academically. How could he not think that way? Journalism is the only world he has ever known. He has no idea that scholarship is not only completely different from journalism, but more often than not opposed to it. He has no idea that most journalism is, in scholarly terms, junk and trash. He has no conception that for an academic to publish the bulk of his work in a magazine (or, even worse, a newspaper) is not only not something that justifies praise and a big pay raise, but, in the absence of other major scholarly publication, is testimony to the absence of scholarship in his work.

Meanwhile, for an administrator who doesn’t have academic training and genuine academic interests and abilities, real scholarship, real research, real thinking seems like a trivial pursuit, a waste of time, a sterile splitting of hairs and counting of angels dancing on the head of a pin. The result is a world of upside-down evaluations and pay raises and financial support, where the real scholars get ignored and trendy trash-mongers get lauded--and rewarded with pay raises! I see this inside-out, upside-down value system at work in my own College every day, every week, every semester, every year. A faculty member who can wrangle a favorable review of his book in a big-circulation newspaper or magazine (and, even in that case, usually only because he or she knows someone who works there); a producer whose made-for-TV movie includes a B-list movie star the Dean has heard of; a professor who persuades a flavor-of-the-month pop performer or TV journalist to deliver a guest lecture or to teach an entire course—however banal the book, God-Awful the movie, or flat-minded the lecture or course may be—is judged to have done something clearly and obviously more important than a faculty member who may have spent years creating a work of scholarship that becomes a standard reference, but will sell only a thousand copies to libraries, not be cited by anyone but another scholar, and certainly never be mentioned in the newspaper.

The distortion the pop-culture value system results in becomes an especially acute problem in the kind of college in which I teach (a College of Communication), where many of the faculty are former executives with public relations firms or advertising agencies or current and former journalists—all acknowledged masters at working the PR system to generate press coverage out of more or less nothing. But the problem is not confined to pre-professional schools. As far as I can tell, the tilt toward measuring something in terms of its PR value is just as prevalent in the sciences and humanities. (Truth be told, the physicists and biologists I know seem even more adept at playing the PR game for academic benefit than the humanists; the scientists know that a mention in the New York Times can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in support.)

The culture of salesmanship. To the business-trained manager, if students are “customers” and courses are “products,“ the first and most important sales event of all is the student’s commitment to matriculate—and the parent’s commitment to send in a tuition check. Faculty are enlisted as salesmen and saleswomen in this effort, expected vigorously to “promote the brand” and “close the sale” (not metaphors, but terms I’ve heard administrators in my own university use on numerous occasions), employing any and every available persuasive stratagem to reach parents, prospective students, current students, and alumni (in the interests of fostering their continued financial support). In this world of salesmanship, it goes without saying that faculty must never, ever, under any circumstances—whether during recruitment meetings with prospective students or in private communications with them—suggest that another university’s program might be more suited to the student’s needs and interests, that there are any curricular or intellectual limitations in the particular program the student is considering, or that a high-paying job might not be waiting for the student on the other side of the gradation ceremony. The salesman never admits the smallest possible reservation about the inestimable and unequalled value of the product he is selling.

Faculty in my college have had their evaluations lowered, pay docked, and perquisites withdrawn (no more research assistants or financial support from the university for you in the future, and no more invitations to speak at student recruitment events, for sure!) for violating any of the preceding understandings. A particular faculty member [to the reader of this blog: I am describing my own treatment here] did a newspaper interview that posed a series of philosophical questions about the differences between an education that prepares students for a living or one that prepares them for a life, and subsequently posted the text on his faculty web site. He was formally reprimanded by his Dean and Chairman for having said what he had said in the interview, told he was never, under any circumstances, to say such things in public again (with the given rationale that since he was an employee of the university, the university had the right to limit what he said in interviews), and ordered to remove the text from the university web site. When he defended what he had said as something he believed, and defended his right to publish his ideas in any way he chose—in newspaper interviews, essays, or on his faculty web site, he had his annual evaluations and pay negatively affected, had a formal motion of censure passed against him at the behest of the university Provost, College Dean, and department Chairman condemning him for having expressed what he had, and had his web site terminated by the university. [This is again a description of treatment I personally received at the hands of BU administrators. For more information about the official censorship of my web site and motion of censure passed against me by BU, see the following site page: "Censorship, Punishment, Abuse, Threats—Being Banned in Boston."] A few years later the same faculty member (I guess we should call him a slow learner) emailed his students a link to an article in The New York Times describing recent difficulties undergrads have had finding work, thinking he was consoling them in their similar plights, and the whole cycle was repeated: He was again reprimanded by his Dean, told not to ever send such emails to his students, and again had his evaluations lowered and his pay negatively affected. (The Dean apparently regarded college students as being intelligent enough to evaluate courses, but not intelligent enough to be exposed to articles in the New York Times.) [The preceding is again a description of my Dean's treatment of me for making reading recommendations in The New York Times and one other publication to my students and former students that the Dean disagreed with. For more information about this particular event, see the blog page titled “How Marketing and Branding Considerations Limit What Teachers Can Tell Their Students—or Suggest That They Read."]

That may be an extreme case, but it is what can happen when a faculty member goes off-script from the agreed-upon sales pitch. He can be warned and reprimanded by his superiors; he can have a motion of censure passed against him; his publications can be censored; and he can be punished, financially and bureaucratically. These actions (and similar ones I might cite) may seem like blatant violations of academic freedom of expression to someone who has spent his career in academia, but that is not the view of an administrator who has worked his way up the ranks in the for-profit corporate world. Who can imagine a Coca Cola executive being allowed to meditate on America’s addiction to sugar in a newspaper interview? Even more outrageously, who can imagine the executive being allowed to post the interview text on the company web site? Or being allowed to send customers an email with a link to a New York Times article on the subject? Who can imagine him or her not having his pay penalized (or not being fired outright) if he did? The culture of salesmanship requires that messages that may interfere with “closing the sale” must be forbidden, and the messenger who brings them must be punished.

Monitoring and controlling internal communication. In the business world, a manager feels free to monitor and control more or less every aspect of his staff’s communications and interactions. Employees know that big brother is potentially recording the internet sites they visit, reading the emails they send, or monitoring the telephone calls they make. (We’ve all heard those recordings when we place a telephone call to a business, warning us that “this call may be monitored for quality assurance.”) But academia, in my experience at least, traditionally operates in accordance with a different standard of professional conduct; professors are treated as professionals, fully equal to doctors and lawyers, who are trusted to use their own judgment and to monitor themselves in their internal and external communications. They are not expected to clear what they say and do with their boss (their Dean in the case of my college) or to have their communications spied on or monitored. All of which means that a Dean has a fundamentally different relation to his faculty than a corporate manager does to his staff.

That is not necessarily the understanding of a corporate executive who finds himself in academia. One of the first formal administrative actions my Dean announced after his arrival seemed fairly trivial at the time, but took on importance in the light of subsequent events: He announced that he was removing the faculty Xerox machine and that henceforth anything faculty wanted to be copied should be given to a particular staff member under his control 72 hours in advance of the date it was needed, so that the staff member could approve it and copy it on a machine in a locked room controlled by the Dean. Many college faculty grumbled, a few spoke up at the next faculty meeting (myself included), but no one realized that the policy was only the thin edge of the wedge toward monitoring and controlling faculty communication—until, approximately a year later, the Dean stunned the faculty by revealing, in a memo criticizing specific faculty members for “inappropriate” use of their computers, that he had been surreptitiously monitoring everything faculty had printed out in the preceding year. (It’s amazing what can be done in that vein electronically nowadays.) That revelation was then followed by the disclosure of a third, arguably even more intrusive, surveillance policy—when the Assistant Dean revealed that, at the instruction of the Dean, her office had, over a long period of time, been calling telephone numbers faculty members had dialed from their offices (without telling the individuals that she was doing it) and asking what they had talked about, to check on whether faculty telephones were being used “properly.” [I have more details about the surveillance and control of faculty communications at Boston University on several blog pages, including: “The Monitoring and Control of Faculty Emails, Phone Calls, and Personal Expression in the Boston University College of Communication," "Violations of Privacy and Confidentiality—A Continuing BU Saga," and “How Marketing and Branding Considerations Limit What Teachers Can Tell Their Students—or Suggest That They Read."]

These and similar practices may be standard operating procedure in corporate America (I really don’t know, and frankly don’t care), but the effect on faculty in my college has been electrifying—and chilling. Some have stopped Xeroxing, printing out documents, using their office telephones altogether—and certainly stopped using these resources for any communications that might be interpreted as being critical of the Dean or the university, as possibly being controversial or jeopardizing a future promotion or pay raise. (Would you call someone and tell them you disagreed with your Dean’s surveillance policy if you knew that someone from the Dean’s office might call them and ask what you were talking about with them? Would you write someone an email expressing your dismay at your Dean’s monitoring of faculty communication, if you knew the Dean might read your words? Would you make copies of this article to distribute to your colleagues—with a “FYI” and your name written at the top—if you knew your Dean would potentially be informed that you were doing it before the copying job was even done?—assuming you were allowed to copy the article at all.)

But what most surprised several faculty members, including me, is that when we spoke up about the chilling effect the Dean’s surveillance policies would inevitably have on the free and open exchange of ideas and information, he was completely unable to follow the logic of the argument (and, of course, did not alter or rescind his surveillance policies, which have, by this point, now been in force for several years). I guess we shouldn’t really have been surprised, since to understand the objection to these practices he would have to understand that a university functions by fundamentally different rules than a business—but that would contradict the fact that this individual (and not an career academic) was picked from the outside to be Dean in order to put the College on a “businesslike” footing—which in his mind clearly means monitoring and controlling faculty communication.

The boss is the boss. American business is hierarchical. The corporation is a top-down institution; decisions flow downhill. The higher up you go in the organization chart, the more power an executive has, more or less unilaterally, to decide the fate and dictate the duties of the individuals below him on the chart. This is not the way academia is necessarily—or ideally—organized. A lot of the most important decisions about hiring, firing, promotion, and teaching originate, appropriately enough, with the senior members of the professoriate. In my experience administrators who have spent their lives in corporate America find this bottom-up decision-making model not only topsy-turvy, but virtually impossible to adhere to. It is very difficult for someone who has fought his way to the top in business to accept the fact that someone “below” him in the organization chart—and a “mere” teacher or scholar at that (neither pursuit necessarily representing the highest degree of professional attainment in the mind of the corporate-trained administrator)—should not only have input into, but conceivably have his opinion count for more than his boss’s in a promotion or tenure case. In this situation, in my experience, the corporate-trained administrator does not yield up his power easily—or gracefully. Even as he may give lip-service to the value of the faculty as “advisors,” these administrators feel more or less free to ignore the faculty’s input when they disagree with it. When faculty members in my college have expressed opinions radically different from the Dean’s in a promotion case (say about the true scholarly value of a junior professor’s publication record or the value of his teaching), the Dean has had no hesitation in telling the faculty member that his or her opinion is of “no importance” and will not be relayed to the administrative levels above the Dean—even as the Dean would have to admit that he has utterly no competence to pronounce with any authority at all on the real quality of the candidate’s scholarship or teaching. It just goes against everything this kind of administrator believes about management to cede his judgment to a “subordinate.” And of course, given the dynamics of institutional behavior, the administrator is almost always able to find some other faculty member or members willing to say whatever the administrator whatever wants to hear (when you have power over individuals’ careers, it is never hard to get agreement), which means that dissident faculty voices can always be marginalized and independent votes transformed into a minority. All it takes is a slight shift in committee assignments—or administrative titles. More than once, administrators in my college have suddenly announced a change in a department chairmanship or a program directorship, or—if they have more lead time, have packed the membership of a committee with individuals favorable to their position—in order to secure the faculty votes needed to carry the day on a tenure or promotion decision (or on another issue the administrator felt strongly about, and couldn’t otherwise be sure of obtaining faculty support for). A few faculty members have been left a bit breathless by the bureaucratic maneuvering, but I am convinced that the Dean or Chairman in question didn’t think he was doing anything at all underhanded or unscrupulous. He was simply playing by the rules of the culture he had spent his entire pre-academic career in, a culture where anyone who didn’t go along with the boss’s ideas was, by definition, not being “loyal,” and not doing what he or she is supposed to do. A subordinate does not resist his boss’s ideas; a subordinate does what he is told. As far as a corporate-trained administrator is concerned, someone who doesn’t understand that is asking to be removed from his administrative position, asking not to be assigned to an important committee.

Team-work. Any corporate executive who has attended a management seminar in the last twenty years has been told, probably to the point of annoyance, about the crucial importance of “teamwork” in an organization. It is an axiom of corporate management that coordinated, cooperative effort is essential to any large organization in order to keep the individuals in it (as the phrases go): “on the same page,” “marching in the same direction,” “speaking with one voice.” In that context, it was not surprising that one of my Dean’s first major administrative announcements after arriving at the college was that all faculty would be required to attend a faculty retreat, whose purpose was to encourage them to work more closely together in the future. The Dean began his keynote address on the appointed day by screening an excerpt from a sports movie showing a coach (him) whipping a group of individual players (the faculty) into a successful team. When the lights came up, the faculty laughed, and the Dean laughed along; but he immediately made it clear that the metaphor was not a joke in his mind. He told the faculty that one of the college’s fundamental problems, which he had observed in the weeks after his arrival, was that the departments (and, by implication, the faculty members in them) functioned as what he referred to as “silos” (autonomous and intellectually independent units), and that his over-riding goal would be to abolish the silos and mold the individuals in them into a tightly-knit group. In the months and years that have followed, faculty have been treated to a series of meetings, group activities (including another faculty retreat), pep talks, memos, and speeches in the service of achieving that goal. The self-evident joy of being transformed from individuals to team-members may be the carrot; but the Dean made clear in a later meeting that he also had a stick in his arsenal. He announced that a faculty member’s attendance at meetings (meetings are the life blood of team-building) would henceforth be a large part of the formula to determine the amount of his or her future pay. Faculty who missed meetings would take hits in their paychecks.

Now I’ll pass over the oddity that, in the Dean’s sports metaphor, the self-appointed “coach” is the one person who has never actually played the academic “game.” And I’ll put aside the irony that it is precisely the most highly productive, scholarly, and in-demand members of the faculty who are being penalized by using attendance at meetings as a measure of their institutional value—since they are the ones most likely to be delivering a guest lecture at another university or conducting research in another city when they are not teaching. These are cavils. Larger and more importantly, I’d argue that there is something fundamentally wrong-headed—even disturbing—about the Dean’s vision of the faculty as a team. The team idea may apply to managers or salesmen, but it seems not only inappropriate to academia, but counterproductive, and potentially even dangerously destructive. Isn’t the strength of a university faculty that it does not speak with one voice? (Wasn’t that what the faculties of German universities did in the 1930s?) Isn’t the mark of a great faculty the absence of group-thinking and the positive diversity of ideas, approaches, interests, and concerns? Based on my experience in academia, I’d argue that departments should be “silos”—though I would propose a different metaphor from the Dean’s: Departments (and their faculty members) should be cathedral spires reaching up into the light as high, as independently, and as freely as possible. Let a corporate sales staff march in step; let employees in a business think with one brain—or with their boss’s brain; but let each of the members of a university faculty think as uncompromisingly, individually, and independently as possible. [For more thoughts on the absolute importance of intellectual diversity, the hazards of group-thinking, the dangers of enforcing standards of political correctness, and the grave intellectual losses attendant on administrative attempts to foster and promote intellectual homogeneity and methodological uniformity in the curriculum and in faculty publications--all of which are major problems at Boston University, and in the Boston University College of Communication in particular--see the following pages of this blog (and many other site pages): "Real Diversity—Fostering and Protecting Intellectual Minorities and Resisting the Seductions of Group Thinking and Feeling," "Censorship, Punishment, Abuse, Threats—Being Banned in Boston," "Making a Living or Making a Life—the Purpose of an Education," and "Losing Consciousness—Losing Invaluable Ways of Understanding."]

Culture clashes—concept clashes. I’ll conclude with a few general observations, all connected with the fact that some of the most basic principles of academic life seem to cause problems for administrators from non-academic backgrounds. Some of the most central aspects of academic life seem just too strange for them to be able to wrap their minds around.

In my experience, it can be very difficult for administrators from non-academic backgrounds to appreciate either the concept of academic free expression or the protections the tenure system provides to senior faculty. Both things apparently violate too many of their ideas of how a bureaucracy should be organized. I’ve witnessed numerous instances of administrative retaliation against faculty members who expressed independent points of view, and more than one attempt by an administrator to do an end-run around the tenure system by making a tenured faculty member’s job so unpalatable that he or she will resign. (If you can’t fire someone because they are tenured, you can still make their job so difficult that they won’t want to continue doing it.) Punishments for independent and outspoken faculty have ranged from cancelling or delaying scheduled leaves and sabbaticals (an administrator can always claim that someone is suddenly “needed” due to an unspecified staffing shortage), to giving a faculty member a punishing teaching schedule (how about being assigned to teach one course at 8AM and another that runs till 9PM on the same day?), to withdrawing previously promised support for the faculty member’s research or travel (“budgetary constraints” are impossible to dispute—or disprove), to penalizing a faculty member’s paycheck (on the grounds that he or she is “uncollegial” or not a “team player”—jujitsuing the faculty member’s intellectual independence, his or her principled memos, emails, and statements, to use them against him or her). [Again, everything mentioned in the preceding paragraph is something that has been done to me, and in several cases to other BU faculty members, by Boston University administrators.]

That last tactic may seem to be stooping pretty low, but on at least two separate occasions I’ve witnessed even more nefarious tactics employed, in which administrators created charges of sexual “harassment” or racial “intolerance” against two outspoken faculty members out of whole cloth by meeting privately with their students, telling them (falsely but authoritatively) that “serious problems have come to light” or “there have been lots of complaints” about Professor X’s or Y’s classes (insert a little vague verbal hand-waving here), and asking the students to submit corroborating reports of “inappropriate” comments or behaviors they themselves have witnessed. While many students understandably decline to submit anything to frame their professor in such an unfair way, such is the real and imagined power of a senior administrator (and such is the level of trust of a twenty-year-old) that a number of students did the administrator’s bidding and cooked up enough of a vague, unspecified “complaint” to get each faculty member into serious trouble with more senior university administrators (who, needless to say, were not informed that the whole thing had been a put-up job). It’s a general principle of human nature that students who receive a low grade from a teacher generally have no problem finding an other than academic reason why the low grade was awarded; and if even only one or two students take the bait, that’s enough to do permanent and irreparable damage to a faculty member’s reputation. (That was the point of course, since the goal was to get the independent-minded faculty members to resign their positions. Once you buy into corporate values, thinking independently is, by definition, “making trouble,” and what corporate executive wouldn’t do almost anything to eliminate a “troublemaker?”) [I have accounts of a wide range of shockingly unethical practices by Boston University administrators to retaliate against independent-minded faculty by attempting to turn their students against them on the following site pages (and others): “Public Shaming as an Administrative Technique,” "Lynch Mobs—Secret and Surreptitious Meetings to Foment Students Against a Teacher," "Playing with Souls/Death Threats—Cynical Administrative Power-games," and "Letter to the University Ombuds—Events That Almost Defy Belief."]

I’ve also seen several business-trained administrators in my university do things to game or rig the review system and assert their authority over which faculty members will be promoted—or not. (This is connected with their reluctance to let faculty members whom they perceive to be under them have what they view as being undue input into the process.) They have “accidentally” failed to forward to committees above them memos by faculty members who came to different conclusions from their own. They have attempted to discredit the input of faculty members who disagreed with them, at administrative levels above the Dean’s or Chairman’s, by arguing that the faculty member is a “disgruntled professor” whose views do not deserve to be taken seriously. They have picked friends and former associates to be “outside” referees, while concealing not only the fact that the referee has a connection with them, but that he or she has pretty much been told by them what line to take on a given candidate.

Now the weirdest part is that I am convinced that in some cases (but not all of them), these administrators may not have realized what abuses of power they were indulging in. When they tell students that “there are serious problems with Prof. X” and ask them to corroborate the reports by submitting their own, they sincerely believe there are serious problems with Prof. X —preeminent among them being that he or she has different beliefs about many of policies they are in favor of. When they deny the articulate and outspoken Prof. Y the pay raise her junior colleagues receive, they sincerely believe Prof. Y deserves to suffer financially, because she most definitely is not a “team player.” When they call up a former colleague or friend and say “We really like Prof. Z; I’m counting on you to say good things about her if you’ll agree to be an outside referee on her promotion case,” they do it because they sincerely believe that Prof. Z (who may herself come from a corporate background and have similar corporate values to the administrator’s) is one of the most cooperative, collegial, team-minded faculty members in the college. As far as these administrators are concerned, in each of these cases, they are just doing what every good manager does—the same things they did, year after year, before arriving in academia. They are working to eliminate “difficult” people in order to make the institution run more smoothly and efficiently, with less disagreement and as little time-consuming “discussion” as possible. They can’t imagine an institution where “the boss” does not try to streamline the institution in these ways, by utilizing his power to hire, fire, re-assign duties, and control the pay and perquisites of the people under him.

And, though they don't realize it, in making things run smoothly, in minimizing disagreements and discouraging dissent, in working to force out (when they can't outright fire) faculty who see things differently from them, in helping to make the university function as efficiently and harmoniously as a well-organized business, these administrators are destroying everything of value in it.

* * *

I want to be clear: I am not opposed to business values and corporate management methods. There is a place for them—in business. Corporate management techniques make American corporations the most productive and successful in the world. What I am arguing is that the values of American business are not the only way to organize and run an institution, and that they may, in fact, winnow out the most precious and distinctive aspects of academic life.

For-profit corporations and academic institutions have fundamentally different purposes. Corporations exist to generate profits from the culture in which they function; they harness the culture’s existing proclivities, needs, and understandings of itself and find ways of participating in them for a financial return. Universities have many functions, but one of them is to stand slightly outside of, and critically to scrutinize and critique a culture’s existing values, understandings, and practices in order to propose changes and improvements to them. It’s not surprising that these different purposes require fundamentally different administrative systems. The monitoring and control of employees’ expressions, the rewards for team-work, following a game-plan, and staying on message, and the emphasis on top-down decision-making that make American corporations so efficient are anathema to institutions whose life-blood is the free and unfettered exchange of ideas, the cultivation of new and different (and potentially controversial) ways of understanding, and the creation of new forms of thought and activity, which almost inevitably will go against the grain of the culture and generally result in neither monetary gain nor popular acclaim, at least not in the near term. 

The heart and soul of the university is the cultivation of, and supreme respect for, minority positions, minority views, minority culture--not in the racial or ethnic sense of the terms, but intellectually and emotionally. The university exists precisely to give voice to understandings that mainstream culture ignores and marginalizes, to entertain and advocate positions that are not, and may never be, even remotely popular, successful, or dominant in the rest of the culture. It exists to make a safe place for positions that are doomed not to be "popular," not to be "successful," not to be "profitable" in the commercial senses of the words; to make a safe place for positions that are, in short, doomed to fail, always and forever, in the business understanding of the concept.

If my experience is at all representative, business culture and corporate values are firmly in place at all levels in the American university—and not being seriously questioned—no matter how many sports team scandals or sexual misconduct exposes appear in the media. I am not limiting that observation to questioning by other university administrators. As my entire argument implies, many university faculty members have themselves acceded to corporate understandings and methods. If middle-level managers met with more resistance to their business-based methods from faculty members within their own institutions, business values would not have been so easy to impose on them. There are too many reasons why faculty have gone along with this shift in values to list them all, but suffice it to say that, as is the case in any organization and any group of employees, many faculty members are only too glad to “do their job” and “stay out of trouble with the boss.” Not everyone is an independent thinker, and many faculty members readily accept (and even flourish in) a top-down management system, where a senior administrator sets the priorities and tells them what to do. Then there are issues of institutional inertia. Once a corporate value system (or any other value system) has been put in place in an institution, like any other powerful cultural formation, it tends to perpetuate itself and mute opposition. There are too many rewards associated with “going along and getting along,” and too many penalties associated with questioning the way things are done. If faculty members, particularly those at the junior levels (which always constitutes a majority of the faculty), do see problems, they don’t dare to speak up, since their pay and perquisites (both determined by the managers) are tied to their acceptance of the system that is already in place. Beyond that, there are always a certain number of faculty members in academia who themselves came from the corporate world and have, in effect, internalized corporate values and ways of doing things. Their reply to my observations would be as simple as “what part of your boss gives orders and you follow them don’t you understand?”

My fear is that the financial pressures of the last few years are only going to make the situation I have described worse; there will be ever more pressure on universities to bring in professional managers in the future than there were in the past. Perhaps the trend can’t be reversed; but I would hope, at the very least, that we could understand the values that are in danger of being lost or forgotten in order to find ways to preserve them as much as we can.

Corporate values don’t need protection—or special pleading. The entire culture understands (and the profit-system abundantly rewards) corporate definitions of value and corporate methods of creating it; but it would be tragic to lose alternative ways of fostering other equally or even more important forms of human creativity. We must never allow ourselves to forget that when market forces, business forms of organization, and corporate ways of measuring value are allowed to shape an institution, more than the personal careers of individual faculty members are at stake. We are in danger of jeopardizing the creation of invaluable new ways of knowing and feeling throughout the culture.

* * * 
For the record, though the roots of the problem are traceable to the three decades of the John Silber administration, the senior members of the Boston University administration most directly responsible for creating, cultivating, and maintaining the business culture and corporate values in the university at present are President Robert Brown, Provost Jean Morrison, and the members of the Boston University Board of Trustees: Robert A. Knox, John P. Howe III, J. Kenneth Menges, Jr., Richard D. Cohen, Jonathan R. Cole, Shamim A. Dahod, David F. D’Alessandro, Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Sudarshana Devadhar, Kenneth J. Feld, Sidney J. Feltenstein, Ryan K. Roth Gallo, Ronald G. Garriques, Richard C. Godfrey, SungEun Han-Andersen, Bahaa R. Hariri, Robert J. Hildreth, Stephen R. Karp, Rajen A. Kilachand, Cleve L. Killingsworth, Jr., Elaine B. Kirshenbaum, Andrew R. Lack, Alan M. Leventhal, Peter J. Levine, Carla E. Meyer, Jorge Morán, Alicia C. Mullen, Peter T. Paul, C. A. Lance Piccolo, Stuart W. Pratt, Allen Questrom, Richard D. Reidy, Sharon G. Ryan, S.D. Shibulal, Richard C. Shipley, Hugo X. Shong, Bippy M. Siegal, Nina C. Tassler, Andrea L. Taylor, and Stephen M. Zide.  
* * *
To read a related discussion of the dumbing-down of the American university system attributable to the influence of corporate / business / for-profit measures of value and the distortions they introduce into the hiring, retention, promotion, pay and reward system, see the six-part series of essays available in the right-hand menu of this page under January and February 2014: “Academic Horror Stories,” “Educational Economics,” “Show Business,” “Pretend Filmmakers,” “Real and Pretend Thinking,” and “Pedagogical Betrayals of Trust.”
* * * 
About the author: Ray Carney is Professor of Film and American Studies at Boston University. He is the author of more than ten books and one hundred essays, translated into a dozen languages. One of his special areas of expertise is the changes the American university has experienced due to the effects of corporate funding to support academic offerings, the chase after government grants to fund research, and the employment of professional managers lacking a firm grounding in academic values as senior administrators.  He says he has learned everything he needs to know on this subject in his current position at Boston University (where he holds the dubious distinction of being possibly the only faculty member in America banned from hosting a faculty web site on his own university's server, because of the decision of Boston University adminstrators to censor his postings, like the one on this page, that administrators disagree with, to threaten to bankrupt him with legal actions against him, and to destroy his professional reputation and stature with internet postings against him, if he did not agree to suppress his work.) These acts of censorship and formal threats to destroy Professor Carney, both financially and professionally, took place during the administration of President Robert Brown and with the presumed oversight and agreement of the Boston University Board of Trustees. (See "Censorship, Punishment, Abuse, Threats—Being Banned in Boston," available in the side menu, for more information.)