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The business of the academy

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baldwin

In an example of what could be called the ongoing Dilbertization of academic life, every year CU law school faculty members are required to do a “self-evaluation,” which is supposed to supplement and enlarge upon the formal report of professional activities which all faculty at the university are asked to submit.

This year’s version of what seems vaguely like a hybrid between the rituals concocted by business consultants and Maoist cadres contains the following question:

For the period since January 2011, please discuss your engagement in the life of the law school, focusing on the following:

Please describe your support for and involvement with the effort to recruit admitted applicants (e.g., making phone calls, meeting with interested students, participating in Admitted Students lunches, etc.).

I suppose it would come as a great surprise to the administrative class that comes up with this stuff to be told that, under current circumstances in particular, this sort of question is extremely inappropriate. For instance, compare it with this hypothetical question:

Please describe your support for and involvement with the effort the convey to the larger community that the American legal system is the best in the world.

Everyone, I imagine, would recognize that evaluating faculty members on the basis of the extent to which they participated in such an effort would be indefensible, given that such an evaluative process would reward and punish faculty on the basis of their willingness to support a controversial intellectual and political position, even though it’s one that law school deans as a pragmatic matter treat as self-evidently true upon certain occasions.

Expecting faculty to uncritically “recruit” admitted applicants could only be a reasonable expectation if, at a minimum, one takes the view that literally everyone the law school’s admissions committee decides to admit would be better off accepting rather than declining that invitation. A significant number of the faculty at my school disagree with that view, although perhaps only one of them would be so tactless as to say so in public. Telling these people that they’re being evaluated on the basis of their willingness to mortify their consciences on this particular point is wrong. Actually doing so is even more indefensible. (This is not a hypothetical: I know of at least one faculty member who was sanctioned in the evaluation process for giving candid advice to an admitted student who solicited it, and who enrolled subsequently at a top ten law school. For those interested my response to the self-evaluation question was: “I believe this question is framed incorrectly, as I don’t believe faculty members should be ‘recruiting’ admitted applicants. I do believe it’s a faculty member’s proper institutional role to give candid and helpful feedback to admitted or prospective applicants when they ask for such feedback, which I have done on numerous occasions.”).

What I find particularly interesting about this is the extent to which university administrators have now internalized the norms of profit-maximizing businesses. In this evaluative context, recruiting admitted students is thought of as moving product, and apparently it would no more occur to an administrator that a faculty member would object to be asked to participate uncritically in this enterprise than it would occur to the manager of a car dealership that members of his sales force might object to being asked to participate uncritically in the enterprise of selling the dealership’s stock.

And of course this is not only a problem at law schools. As academia gets increasingly indistinguishable from any other business, the tension between the demands of profit maximization (in the context of technical non-profits profit maximization means running the institution for the financial benefit of its most powerful internal stakeholders, i.e., administrators, and to a lesser extent tenure-track faculty) and intellectual honesty become ever-more severe.

In the end, if universities are going to be run like businesses, they should be treated as such — from paying taxes, to being laughed at when they ask alumni for donations. After all, Toyota doesn’t call you up five years after you bought a Corolla, to ask you to give them some money out of sheer gratitude for the “quality” of their “product.”

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