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Rethinking Universities' role and position in society

Jean-Claude Guédon (Université de Montréal*)

Invited Paper

I. Preamble

Institutions do not change easily or willingly, and universities are no different from other institutions in this regard. But universities, all over the world, have to change because of growing economic pressures. They are also confronted by arguments advocating the need of greater excellence, greater efficiency, greater economic value, sustainability, etc. However, these arguments collide with established traditions and accepted values, such as the disinterested quest for knowledge or the freedom to investigate whatever one wants. The need for more money also collides with the principle that knowledge should be accessible to all (which does not mean that it will be assimilated by all, but that is an entirely different issue). The point of all this is whether universities will bow to change driven from outside, or whether they will manage to control themselves, at least to some extent, how they change.
In dealing with this issue, universities must avoid a common trap. In trying to maintain their own integrity, universities often find themselves aligned with resistance to change. “Progressive” values, i.e. those borrowed, to speak rapidly, from the Enlightenment, thus end up on the side of paralysis. As a result, university supporters are limited to “holding the line” without finding a suitable voice. On the other side, the forces for change, often aligned with corporations and governments hollowed out of any representative quality by lobbying, benefit from owning the terms of the debate. By talking the language of change, they sport a form of dynamism that is often conflated with progress, and confused with such. For their part, those defending essential academic values end up looking “conservative”.
From a strategic perspective, regaining the right to a strong and original voice is essential, if only to avoid being tarred and feathered for the wrong reasons.

II. Strategic debates

Universities are being pushed to change toward objectives that, broadly speaking, are managerial in method and corporate in mindset. Broadly speaking, these objectives are expressed in terms that make them palatable to the whole population: universities, it is said, must be more “responsive to economic and social needs”, and universities must seek “excellence.”
If universities want to regain some degree of initiative in the current debates, the vocabulary of responsiveness and excellence must be analyzed, challenged, and replaced by words that are more in line with the fundamental nature of this set of institutions.

1. Economic and social responsiveness

The common meaning of being responsive to economic and social needs is well illustrated by some general trends. Humanities and, to a lesser extent, social sciences (SSH) lose ground within universities. In 2010, for example, SUNY at Albany decided to eliminate departments to respond to a financial crisis. The chosen departments included various language departments, classics and theatre. Starting in 2007, the Canadian government agreed to increase support for the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, but did so only with targeted topics. Free-choice research remained stagnant or even declined while special grants were financed to support research in economics, management, and similarly “socially responsive” fields. These choices shouts be examined ion the light that, nowadays, business students represent around 20% of the American undergraduates.

Similar trends apply to scientific disciplines (e.g. Mathematics), demonstrating that the main lesson to be drawn from these few examples is elsewhere. When universities evolve in this fashion, this means that they are reduced to being a source of skills that can be modulated and transformed at will and from the outside. Universities become a spigot of talent in the hands of the financial powers that be. The economic and social responsiveness thus turns out to mean fitting set numbers of individual in as many working roles. As these roles are constantly defined and redefined by companies and governments, universities caught in this position condemn themselves to a never-ending catch-up situation. Moreover, they will always look slow, and hence unresponsive, because they have little choice but being reactive (and only reactive) to a political and economic context over which they have little or no influence. Of course, it also reduces education to treating individuals as skilled instruments adapted (for a short while) to their economic “slot”. In short, images of A. Huxley's “Brave New World”, or Chaplin's “Modern Times” easily haunt this type of scenario.

Simply reacting to this announced fate is obviously not enough and benign neglect is even worse. Better is it to reconsider the situation more fundamentally, and to eschew tactical considerations for strategic horizons. In short, it becomes urgent to re-examine the general positioning of the university within society, as well as the roles that flow from this positioning. As of now, universities, despite many public claims to the contrary, still largely respond to an old mandate: creating national elites. Universities still act as intellectual refineries that extract the best possible spirit out of the general population only to make it float above the country, as it were. Of course, the floating altitude is limited because, within the boundaries of power circles, universities play the dominated role. They come , as institutions, to be the analog of intellectuals as defined by Pierre Bourdieu: the dominated fraction of the dominant class.

Creating elites was originally inspired by earlier religious views, particularly catholic ones, and they became national policy in all European countries in the nineteenth century. What is striking is that it is still very much with us despite a broad opening of universities after the Second World War, and particularly after the 1960s. More people go to university nowadays, it is true, but undergraduate education tends to complete a debased secondary education, so that university work really starts at the graduate level. The baby-sitting role of education has simply been extended by a few years. And although the vocabulary surrounding admissions to the universities has changed, the practises remain true to the old objective, a claim that will not be denied by the recent increases in tuition fees in various countries, particularly in the United Kingdom.

Responding successfully to this situation will not be achieved simply by lowering entry barriers to the graduate degrees. Deeper thinking is required; in particular, it becomes imperative to rethink how knowledge works in society.

Presently, knowledge works along lines that closely parallel the ways in which academic institutions live in society. The ivory tower syndrome, often decried, rarely destroyed, is still alive; it too reflects the mandate to create elites, i.e. a clergy-like, higher class floating above the general population. The gradual sifting and winnowing of people through exams and selection processes does not yield a continuous gradient of skills and knowledge, but rather to a two-tier knowledge system: a minority are valued as experts, while the rest are treated like ignoramuses. To attenuate the effects of this two-tier structure of knowledge in societies that all clamour to be democratic, a communication channel has been gradually grown and professionalized : it is called “popularization”. Through popularization, some experts, in the right circumstances within their careers, can address the knowledge plebe, but they do so with the tools of metaphors and similes, not the real words of the disciplines. The reason invoked is that it would be too difficult to understand otherwise, but the result is that no true transfer of knowledge occurs, only a simulacrum. Experts also decide when to popularize, and on topics of their own choice. The first objective is to dazzle, surprise, awe, perhaps even shock, certainly entertain, but the penultimate goal is to build and reinforce popular respect for knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge. The ultimate goal of the popularizing manoeuvre, is to obtain political and financial support for the scientific enterprise.

Alas, the strategy is not working as well as it used to. Despite years of efforts, scepticism toward science grows: the old tensions between science and religion are rising again, particularly around Darwinian evolution, within certain provinces of the Christian context (but not exclusively). The deterioration of the environment, although more industrial and technological than scientific, is commonly regarded as somehow derived from scientific knowledge. Promethean hubris is contrasted with religious humility. Of course, cheating by scientists in renowned and prestigious journals adds to this climate of distrust. This is particularly grave because science is said to rest on a foundation of mutual (and verified) trust, unlike religion which is based on belief. Inserting distrust between individuals and science amounts to radically undercutting the social and cultural value of science. And universities do very little to correct the situation.

How could trust be restored, not only among knowledge specialists, but ultimately between all individuals, especially individuals-as-citizens, and knowledge specialists? The quick answer is that we must get rid of the two-tier system of access to knowledge with which we live nowadays, and replace it with a graduated access structure to knowledge. How is this graduation going to be achieved? Certainly not by a graduated offer of metaphoric knowledge, which is roughly what popularization and, to some extent, education do, but by encouraging in all a graduated effort at knowledge. How is this done? By making all knowledge openly accessible to all. In other words, instead of letting elites define (as a clergy would) what is good for the general population to know, and how they should know, let us put all knowledge out there, free and accessible, free and ready to re-used, in short available to all; let us find ways to encourage everyone to profit from this open knowledge. Open access to knowledge is not meant to replace education, but rather complement it. It is an added way to access knowledge. It means, then, that each individual can attempt to understand, singly or in groups, with or without experienced mentors, all the knowledge made freely available to all. And to those who might scoff at such an idea as being hopelessly idealistic and utopian, one only needs to point to the ways in which many people master complex elements of medical knowledge when it is a question of life and death. It seems that, once access to knowledge is ready, many people find the energy, means and motivation to master at least elements of it that appear relevant to themselves, their lives, etc. It means also that the general population would approach knowledge not as authority but as a provisional way to reflect reality which can be improved, corrected, discussed, debated. It is through such a move that trust between all of us and knowledge can be restored because, through open access, knowledge may be hard to acquire, but it nonetheless remains transparent. In a sense, this is what Wikipedia is beginning to offer.

Such a vision provides an entirely different meaning to issues of economic and social responsiveness. In effect, the possibility to initiate questions lies in the hands of each one of us, and various ways can be imagined to compensate for various forms of ignorance. Education would be one of the possible responses, but not the only one. Moreover, the relevance of knowledge is much easier to achieve when the agenda of knowledge is the outcome of a bottom-up process. Furthermore, responsiveness is no longer limited to economic and social factors (as defined by whom?); instead, it maps onto the very complexity of human requests, questions, demands. Knowledge transmitted through interrogation of search engines is always relevant to some and its sum-total begins to reflect the complexity of humanity.

Such a perspective suggests new roles for universities. They are major producers of knowledge, but presently accept to reinforce the ivory tower syndrome by having most of that knowledge locked up behind toll-gated journals. As universities are also the main buyers of these journals, they also end up buying their ivory tower status through the millions of Euros spent each year to cover journal subscriptions and licenses. By mandating their faculty to place the results of their research in open access, universities would begin to move in the direction of free knowledge, and would open the possibility for countless numbers of citizens to make some use, however limited and modest, of the research results that, in the majority of cases, have been financed by these same citizens through their taxes.

Moreover, the universities could begin to develop communication strategies, related to their teaching, to help the general population profit better from all these research results. As a result, instead of living like a haughty ivory tower, the university would provide possibilities of intellectual osmosis with the general population. Academic ideas could be tested, and not only by “peers” (i.e. fellow elites, as in the English system of peerage), but by any intelligent person able to use his or her brain in a useful manner. Academic ideas coming from general discussions could find their ways in the more rarefied research groups working within universities. Teachers at all levels would certainly benefit from a knowledge structure built like a continuous gradient, but so would civil servants, as well as any reasonably educated person trying to understand certain issues better. This not to deny the difficulty of understanding and mastering some sectors of knowledge, but simply to point out that much more could be done to help diffuse knowledge across far more people than is presently the case. Small and medium-sized enterprises would also benefit, for obvious reasons. Extending the “open courseware” initiated by MIT [1], and the model of the Khan Academy [2], a new knowledge landscape could begin to expand, fed by educational and research efforts, and scrutinized by each and everyone. As Eric Raymond famously stated, with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.

In conclusion of this section, the phrase “economic and social responsiveness” can be reclaimed, reshaped, and doing so would help position the universities at the heart of a large movement in favour of a truly open knowledge society. With open access, open courseware and the seminar tradition that can be easily adapted to the Internet, the universities have very powerful tools to achieve this goal in a pro-active, rather than reactive, way.

2. Excellence/Quality

Excellence is the second theme that often appears in official presentations of universities. No university worth its salt would consider giving up on excellence. At the same time, the same universities also mention quality, often in the same sentence or paragraph, as if the two terms were essentially equivalent. They are not!

Excellence generally refers to the state of being either first (e.g. The “prix d'excellence” in the French lycées) or among the top three, five, rarely more. Excellence is the outcome of a competition with strict rules and close supervision. The goal of a competition is to determine a winner and a few near winners (silver and bronze medals in the context of sport). The ranking element is so important that, sometimes, the rules are changed in order to ensure a strict numerical ranking even though the validity of the measurements used is more questionable. For example, the hundred-meter dash used to be measured in tenths of seconds, but when the the record hit 9.9 seconds in 1968, it stayed there until the IAAF decided to use electronic timing and move down to a one-hundredth of a second. Curiously, a false start is still defined as starting less than one tenth of a second after the starting signal, because of the time it takes for the sound of the starting gun to propagate, and the reaction time of the athletes. Measuring at the nearest hundredth while admitting a possible error of the order of a tenth demonstrates that what counts is not so much the reality of the measurement, as it is to produce winners. And winners are needed for a spectacle, physical or virtual. Interestingly, the impact factor used in research circles to “measure” the fame of researchers among their peers (despite the fact that it was initially designed to rank journals) uses three decimal points although Eugene Garfield agrees that only one decimal, at best, could be justified. But, with three decimals, the ranking can be made to be very precise (although not necessarily very accurate) and this exacerbates the competition among editors and publishers, for their journals, and among researchers, for their standing in their respective specialities. However, exacerbating competition and making it the overarching framework of behaviour can generate unexpected and negative consequences. In sports, it can be summarized by the word “steroids”; in research, it simply amounts to cheating: regularly, journals presented as “prestigious” need to withdraw articles because cheating has been uncovered. And there may be more we do not even know about, which brings us back to the issue of trust so essential to science. Exacerbated competition can undermine trust in the results of research, and that is, as pointed before, extremely grave.

Quality is an entirely different matter. Quality is not based on competition, but rather on demonstrating levels of behaviour that pass muster. Quality relies on thresholds and it generates classes of performers, not a precise ranking. It is, after all the model used by schools when they define a passing grade and further levels of quality (e.g. cum laude and summa cum laude in US bachelor degrees). If one decides to design a health or an educational policy, it matters little whether a country holds many world records in athletics, and Nobel prizes in science if the rest of the population is neglected. The United States is a good proof of this: it generally performs extremely well in international sport competition, but in terms of preventive medicine, it holds a pitiful rank. When the quest for excellence completely displaces the quest for quality, such results become possible.

What precedes does not mean that quality is adverse to excellence. What it means is that quality and excellence can coexist, but only if quality is given first place, and if excellence (based on competition) is then used as a way to stimulate the behaviour within a certain level of quality. Our mistake is that we seek to generate quality by seeking to create an elite through competition. This is working against a more logical process that would first encourage quality, and then, within each quality level, would encourage a heightening of quality through some well-conceived system of (moderate) competition. It must never be forgotten that competition creates many more losers than winners, and the losers may be so discouraged as to abandon any effort toward mere quality because it is not sufficiently recognized and excellence is beyond reach. The losers may also try to cheat, which is no better.

The quest for excellence involves another important element: it depends on competition rules, and those who control these rules, such as the IAAF in the case of the 100m-dash, hold a form of power all the more insidious that it is largely invisible. Setting the terms of competition can ostensibly be designed to reach the best quality possible, but in reality, it is designed to prevent ever ending the process. In effect, it becomes a treadmill. The way competition among universities has been designed tends to act in this fashion. Research Assessment Exercises, as they are known in the United Kingdom, are presented as ways to ensure excellence, itself conflated with quality, and ways to reassure the taxpayers that those researchers out there, in the ivory tower, are held accountable for all their assumed perks. In reality, they provide the government with a very powerful way to keep pressure on the universities and thus appear as governing tools , rather than quality criteria.

Presently, the competition among universities is organized by curious actors, themselves competing with each other: Shanghai [3], the Times, etc. are not academic sites. They themselves rely on the impact factor (among other criteria) which is managed, defined and diffused by a private company, Thomson-Reuters, a Canadian private company. In short, universities allow themselves to be caught in a competition designed by corporate actors according to rules that appear highly questionable and which allow these private entities to wield considerable power over the universities. How is this allowed to go on? Simply the fear of being badly judged by one's own authorities if one does not submit to these artificial and ultimately detrimental forms of competition.

As in Andersen's fairy tale, it might be time to shout that the king is naked. Universities still control a good share of the quality dimension of their work by acting as guarantors of their diplomas. Depending on the countries, this is often done in conjunction with some level of government (for example, provincial governments in Canada, central governments in Italy and France). In the United States and Canada, the quality of education in many programmes is conducted through accreditation bodies that include professional as well as academic concerns. The question is why research is not organized along similar lines. How did competition become so dominant in the area of research, to the point that the rules presiding over competition now almost entirely escape the collective purview of the universities?

This essay will not attempt to explain the why of this situation as it would require a long historical and sociological analysis to do so; however, a response can be provided to the following question: how can universities recover a voice with regard to excellence in research? Broadly sketched, the answer holds in few lines: the quality of research must be restored as a primary requirement. If a country wants a healthy research situation, it must first ensure the highest possible quality of its research personnel, its research equipment, and the widest possible access to past research work anywhere in the world (and here the issue of open access reappears). This can be measured in better ways than complaining about having too few Nobel prizes and impact factors that are too low. In fact, it has to be measured by research sites themselves, and without unduly relying on metrics that are suspect at best, wrong at worst. The example of SciELO in Latin America (with extensions in southern Europe and in South Africa) is important in this regard: the SciELO leaders felt that the prevailing metrics used in science were biased against countries such as Brazil, and they demonstrated they were by developing their own metrics. Universities collectively must do so, at least at the national lever, better still at the international level. In Europe, thanks to the European Union structures, moving to the international level should be easier than in most other places in the world. Doing so is the only way to regain control over processes that presently tend to pervert the fundamental missions of universities.

III. Conclusion

Moments of change are always difficult, but also present opportunities. In economics, Schumpeter and those who follow him talk of “creative destruction”. Universities are in such a phase of their history. However, once change is viewed as inevitable, it is better to try taking some control of the process from inside. Going into rapids without good paddles is never recommended, yet this is roughly what universities face if they do not find the ways to chart a path to the future and do so with their own voice, their own categories and their own arguments.

The small essay that precedes has attempted to bring some elements to this process. On the one hand, it argued that the whole issue of being economically and socially relevant/responsive could be addressed in broad social terms refusing the two-tier structure of knowledge that still prevails, rather than obeying a number of imperatives stemming broadly from corporate/financial concerns. On the other, it tried to demonstrate that the conflation between excellence and quality trapped the university in a power system where it could never win. The solution lies in three steps: first distinguish carefully excellence from quality; second regain control over all the elements contributing to the definition of quality, including in research; third, excellence should not resisted or neglected, but rather it should be located in its right place, as a tool to serve quality and improve it in general, without becoming the overarching obsession that it has become in the recent past. Finally, defining the terms of the competitions and where it should apply should both rest firmly in the hands of the universities, and not in those of corporate interests.

* While visiting the NEXA Center for Internet & Society, Politecnico di Torino-DAUIN.

[3] Since 2009, the Shanghai ranking has moved out of its original academic site, the Institute of Higher Education of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China

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