Publication Date

May 1, 2000

One of the most shopworn criticisms of college professors, and of historians in particular, is that, rather than addressing any segment of the public, we specialize in the arcane, producing a literature intelligible only to ourselves. In reality, most historians, the majority of whom teach in and work for public institutions and agencies, present themselves constantly to a variety of publics. Moreover, in most of the contacts between the profession and the public, the public perception of the profession is positive. According to a recent study by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan public opinion and research organization, the general public regards higher education with esteem.1 College students, our more immediate public, consistently report a high degree of satisfaction with their own higher education experiences. Nevertheless, there is a small but very powerful stratum of the “public” that offers a far less generous assessment of the world of higher education: the private business sector. In many of the boardrooms of corporate America, higher education is seen as sick; and business leaders are more than willing to offer a list of cures to restore its health.

One of the most trenchant business critics of U.S. higher education is James F. Carlin, a former trustee of the University of Massachusetts and chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education. Carlin recently characterized the U.S. system of higher education as institutionalized insanity, primarily because it is too greatly directed by faculty and by administrators who are not well grounded in private-sector management techniques.2 The fact that most college students and the general public seem satisfied with U.S. higher education is, to businessmen like Carlin, proof positive that they have been shortchanged by the system, since they are incapable of recognizing its obvious inadequacies. Rather than wallowing in complacency, the general public ought to demand that our higher educational institutions, except for perhaps the most elite, facilitate economic growth and development, and provide access for all to economic opportunity. College students, instead of continuing to rate their professors and courses highly, ought to demand efficient, no-nonsense training that will prepare them quickly for careers. The reason that colleges and universities fail to respond to these “real” public needs, according to Carlin and other corporate critics, is because they are dominated by faculty who jealously guard their traditional right to control curriculum, leaving the academic ship pilotless while they “do ever more meaningless research [and spend] fewer and fewer hours in the classroom.”3 Those few academic leaders, like John Silber, former president of Boston University, who have actually tried to control their colleges and “reform” them, have been frustrated by the archaic system of faculty tenure.

"Lifetime job guarantees," writes Carlin, "border on being immoral."4 Professors, unlike any employees of any business corporation, are accountable to no one, and hence have no incentive to meet the real needs of their publics. Not surprisingly, then, when businessmen talk of reforming higher education, they often start with suggestions for eliminating or modifying tenure. At this point, it is the proposed “modifications,” some direct and others more subtle, that are most challenging to traditions of academic freedom. Most academics take it for granted that the economic security tenure assures is essential to the preservation of freedom of inquiry. Some institutions, however, are already moving to divorce tenure from the guarantee of a full salary. Some medical school administrators are proposing “X-Y-Z” funding models in which “X” represents the university-guaranteed salary of a tenured or tenure-track professor, set at a level representing only a small fraction of a traditional salary. “Y” represents the income generated by the professor, and constitutes the majority of his/her salary. “Z” would be a bonus, the size of which would be dependent upon the yearly “performance” of the professor, as evaluated by medical school administrators.5 More subtle “modifications” of traditional tenure include the increasing reliance on nontenure-track and part-time faculty primarily as a cost-cutting measure, and the adoption of technologically mediated and distance-learning instructional models in which far more students can be processed (I hesitate to write “taught”) by far fewer professors. Corporate America is particularly supportive of the latter “reform,” as it generates billions of dollars worth of hardware and software marketing opportunities.6

Many years ago, Lester Frank Ward wrote "Education . . . is an enterprise so wholly dissimilar from those of ordinary business life that an entirely different set of principles must be applied to it throughout."7 Today, many businessmen evidently disagree with this analysis. They argue that to produce the kinds of future employees desired by the business community, higher education must be reformed according to precisely the same set of principles that dominates the private marketplace. Educational reform, as envisioned by business interests, is centered increasingly on promoting efficiency in allegedly mismanaged higher education; and, to most efficiently educate for business, schools must adopt business models of management. In the last 25 or 30 years, the nation’s burgeoning colleges and universities have been heavily affected by the argument that business models of management work best not just for businesses, but for all institutions. Many, like Richard Freeman in The Overeducated American (1976), have argued that college students are practical-minded people whose preferences—of institutions, programs, majors, courses, professors, and the like—are based on their perceptions of the labor market “returns” yielded by the choices they make. Students, then, are primarily consumers of a product—education—that they will employ as a form of capital once they enter the “real world,” that is, the marketplace.8 College faculty, despite all their pretensions, are little more than product vendors who must be sensitive to the desires of their customers. Unfortunately, according to some recent critics of faculty performance like James Carlin, too many college professors seem to be driven by self interest (which, I guess, is good if you’re a venture capitalist but bad if you teach history), or are blinded by outmoded notions they picked up in graduate school about what the goals of education should be. Since vendors of education refuse to pay adequate attention to their consumer market, business reformers suggest that the most crucial decisions about the nature and scope of higher education should be taken out of the hands of faculty and entrusted instead to professional managers. There are increasing examples of successful attempts by private business and/or trade associations to influence the direction of higher education that run the gamut from Research I universities to community colleges. A bit more than a year ago, nearly the entire faculty of the Plant and Microbiology Department at the University of California at Berkeley sold first rights to their research over the next five years to Novartis, a giant biotechnology corporation.9 The California Education Roundtable, a business-dominated group of “concerned citizens,” insists that the major obligation of all colleges in the state is to ensure that Californians have access to an education that will give them the tools they need to be “productively employed throughout their working years.”10 Does this growing involvement of corporate America mean that today’s business leaders want to run tomorrow’s colleges? According to P. Michael Timpane, a Rand Corporation education policy adviser who has studied business influence on higher education, the answer is “yes.” In fact, it is not only “extremely likely” that businesses will want to manage the nation’s colleges: “they are already doing so.”11

As government budgetary support for colleges continues to erode, it is not surprising that higher education institutions are depending more on private funding to construct facilities, to continue and expand expensive research programs, and even to underwrite some of the costs of basic instruction. Though any financial contributions are welcomed by the nation's underfunded education network, one must remember that when those contributions are corporate, they may not result from purely philanthropic impulses. Decisions regarding donations to educational organizations and institutions generally are made by the marketing divisions of corporate benefactors. Clearly, then, donations are dispensed primarily to increase market opportunities for the donor corporation. If the knowledge generated by researchers and presented by teachers of receiving institutions doesn’t seem to have commercial value, it is likely that those institutions’ corporate sources of funding will disappear.

Historians probably are less pressured and less listened to by the business community than are academics working in fields where applied research can add directly to wealth creation, especially for those who already have considerable capital, and can convert new knowledge to cold cash most easily. But the business sector is not really the public that historians should attempt to influence. The public we need to address most directly concerning the potential privatization of the public academy is the general public that still respects higher education and its practitioners. We need to articulate more fully what we do, and why it remains important. We might note that the critical thinking and expressive skills we cultivate in our students are crucial to the general education missions of colleges and universities. More important, we must insist that the analytical concepts and empirical substance of our discipline are worthy in and of themselves, apart from the general academic skills successful students of history will acquire. In addition, we need to explain why our corporate critics are far more self-interested than public-spirited in their denunciations of public higher education. We need to remind the public that knowledge, as generated and transformed in universities and colleges, is not a private commodity, but rather a public good. The public is served best when education is more than the narrow training of efficient, obedient future corporate employees. Historians should utilize every opportunity to argue in the public arena that colleges and universities must remain places of critical inquiry, as independent as possible of marketplace pressures. If we lose this argument, historians of the 21st century may have to explain the disappearance of the very concept of "the public interest" from our cultural landscape.


1. "The public's love-hate affair with higher ed and K-12," AFT On Campus (December 1999/January 2000): 2; www.higher

2. James F. Carlin, "Restoring Sanity to an Academic World Gone Mad," Chronicle of Higher Education, 5November 1999, 8.

3. Carlin, "Restoring Sanity," 9.

4. Idem.

5. William G. Tierney, "The End of Medical Tenure As We Know It?"Academe (November–December 1999): 41.

6. James L. Wood, "C. P. Snow Revisited: The Two Cultures of Faculty and Administration," Faculty Coalition for Public Higher Education Occasional Monograph Series (November 1999): 3.

7. Lester Frank Ward, Dynamic Sociology (New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1883/1968), 2: 584.

8. Richard Freeman, The Overeducated American (New York: Academic Press, 1976), 205.

9. Sylvia Wright, "Into New Territory,"UC Davis Magazine (winter 2000): 27.


11. Will Weissert, "Public Believes in America's Colleges, but Not in Its Schools, a Study Concludes," Chronicle of Higher Education, 21 October 1999, page 6.

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