Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line
reviewed by Simon Marginson - 2006
David Kirp has written a fine book on higher education. Perhaps it tells us more about universities than any other book currently offered. Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line is also easily and immensely readable, written in Kirps trademark style, which is a superior magazine proseat home with ideas, good at posing difficult questions, stopping just short of aphorisms, informed less by abstractions than by sharp and systematic observations with plenty of colour. As a public policy specialist located in a major research university, Kirp has a fine eye for power and the foibles of celebrity presidents and professors. It is journalism in depth and with consciencean exemplary medium for one kind of contribution to public debate. Kirp and his collaborators (several chapters are jointly authored) have interviewed many of the players and been informed by more. He knows his history; and where he uses statistics, which is not very often, he does so effectively. And he is grappling with an important issue, perhaps the educational problem. Higher education is reinventing itself. Competitive pressures have intensified, and money exercises an unparalleled power. Public goods are fading. In many institutions, the educational process is just a means to the real endsstatus and profit. What price the liberal curriculum, the knowledge "commons" and social equity in this dystopian landscape, in which the public good is reduced to nothing more than the sum of each persons (or each universitys) self-interest in the competition game? Can the market genie be pushed back into the university bottle or at least placed under control? Will the "soul" of the university survive?
Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line does not cover everything. Theres not much on community colleges, or access and diversity, despite Kirps interest in the public good; or on the larger legislative politics of higher education; or on its contribution to national culture and the global realm. As is the case with 98 % of American texts on higher education, foreign scholars will search in vain for awareness of the profound effects of American universities in other countries. More fundamentally, the book is not theorized; and so it lacks the tools to dig deeply into the political, social, and cultural foundations. The book lacks critical thinking in the deeper sense, such as imagining a different kind of higher education (rather than just a return to tradition, which is Kirps first reflex) and thus providing a strategic alternative. There are no answers here. The end of the book restates the same dilemmas that shape the beginning. This is a limitation. Perhaps the book exemplifies the weaknesses as well as the strengths of a certain kind of public intellectualism. In responding to the manner in which a one-dimensional conservatism is constraining the public space, Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line does not assert a counter-certainty. Instead it asserts the virtues of openness and pluralism. But openness and pluralism are important values, and so is maximizing audience reach. Kirp has eschewed normative closure because in this book he has chosen to democratize the problem of the universities, rather than to solve it.
Kirps chosen method is the case study, and he has selected an effective set of cases that together take us across most of the key sites and issues. At a cracking pace Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line passes through one institution, or group of institutions, after another, punctuated by wry observations. The lively opening chapter explains how status positioning and enrolment management now set university mission and priorities. Needs based aid shrinks. Merit aid grows. The purpose of institutional strategy making is not the old public goal of improving access, but the private goal of intensifying the scarcity of places so as to drive up status. Kirp knows that status is the true coin of the university realm, at least in the top half of the institutions. He contrasts makeovers at the University of Chicago and New York University, Dickinson College, and the New York Law School. He works through the dog-eat-dog logic of "every tub on its own bottom" business management at Universities of Southern California and Michigan. He paints a stunning and salutary picture of the one-way deal that constitutes the privatization of the Darden Business School at the University of Virginia, which has fissured Mr Jeffersons "academical village."
Five chapters focus on aspects of information and communication technologies in education and training. Kirp has no illusions about the potential of on-line programs to replace face-to-face programs it is the latter that students want. But at the same time he is aware that technology is changing what bricks and mortar universities do, and also that the education/technology intersection sustains many of the moves to the market. There is a sympathetic discussion of the differing initiatives of Fathom at Columbia, and the Open Courseware project at MIT. MIT was almost the only university that understood that course materials are a public good. The technology of reproduction alone ensures they are nonexcludable. In the economic as distinct from the legal sense, the relevant private goods are not course materials but the teaching itself, the experience of university, and the status of the degree. By attaching its name to the dissemination of its courseware as public goods, MIT was able to build the "symbolic capital" of its degree and its research. This was worth the $100 million spent on Open Courseware. Most other universities tried to make money offering on-line course materials, attached to low intensive (not interactive) teaching and the attenuated degree status of an online qualification, and they charged a price. They tried to make serious commercial money distributing public goods. It is not surprising all the big e-Us collapsed. Kirp also probes with a sense of regret the failure of the British Open University, a high quality distance education provider brought down by other kinds of problems: slow accreditation, shallow pocketsthe British could invest only $20 million, and "too much Queen and cricket" (pp. 198199) in the course materials for an insular national market uninterested in foreign providers. He looks at a consortium of classics departments using on-line technologies to create a new public. The chapter on collaboration between tech companies and Berkeley researchers shows that commercialization doesnt always lead to closure. The study of IT certification at Cisco and Microsoft and the provider competition among public universities, community colleges, and for-profits, is a microcosm of the sector.
The final case study is a for-profit, but rather than the obvious candidate, Phoenix, its De Vry University. Here Kirp describes a for-profit that is often like a public provider: Fifty per cent of teaching is by full-time staff, a third of students are in general education programs rather than the "practical arts," and De Vry graduates more African Americans and Hispanics than any other university. No doubt if De Vry had a liberal arts program, Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line would praise it louder. There is a hint here of the desire to make a silk purse out of a sows ear. It is almost as if Kirp wants to reconcile market forces with the traditional university; after all the dichotomy he opened at the heart of the book can and should be closed. There is ambiguity in what he sees and what he wants and in his understanding of the agency that is responsible for reshaping the values of our universities (governments? market automata? capitalism? globalization? university presidents? human nature?). The Introduction (p. 7) talks of "schools that have learned how to combine the best of both worlds, the academic commons and the marketplace, and thus becoming successful and principled competitors." It contrasts these schools with a different sort, those that have struck "Faustian" bargains, sacrificing the academic commons to the market. It is almost as if university strategy is a free choice, and any wise executive leader worth her or his salt will achieve a happy American compromise.
Kirp often focuses on institutional leaders. He admires entrepreneurial leaders presidents that have built the US News and World Report performance of their colleges, despite the flaws he identifies in the USNWR process and the many downsides of the positional war. Again, the characteristic ambivalence about market forces shows through. And while he is collegial in his expectations within the universities, he is more sanguine about the role of competition between them, which he sees as unstoppablea key concession (p. 32). Like many people who have earned their success in universities, Kirp has a love-hate relationship with the "higher education bazaar."
This raises the question of what is under threat, amid the gathering storm of "market forces." Kirp moves between different understandings of the public good. The final page of the book talks about the development of citizens, social mobility, the spread of knowledge, social cohesion, and economic development. Familiar stuff, though hard to make real, but it figures little in the book. More precise, and much more central to Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line, is the reference to "the belief in a community of scholars and not a confederacy of self-seekers; in the idea of openness and not ownership; in a professor as a pursuer of truth and not an entrepreneur; in the student as an acolyte whose preferences are to be formed, not a consumer whose preferences are to be satisfied"; in short, in "the enduring values of a liberal education" (pp. 7, 259). This is where Kirps heart is. It leads to penetrating insights into the curriculum, epistemological conflict (there is a marvellous account of philosophy wars at Chicago), and the critiques of free choice and dumbing down in undergraduate education. It is an attractive ideal and might be feasible under some conditions, but the implications for Kirps argument are unclear. It is not immediately apparent that three decades of decline in the proportion of undergraduates in liberal programs, from 50 to 25 %, can be simply put down to commercialization or the status market or that this is widely seen as a matter of public interest. Here Kirp skates over troubling questions of social elitism and cultural hegemony.
All of this suggests that Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line should be not the end but the beginning of discussion. Like Barbara Tuchman, David Kirp has held up the mirror to an age. Like Tuchman he is encyclopaedic in his coverage; and like Tuchman, the verve of the writing and clarity of observation ensure that his work will have lasting value. In his sensibilities, in his ambivalence, in his day to day skills, and in his strategic irresolution, pulled this way and that by academic tradition and market forces, Kirp is representative of the higher education sector itself. But universities worried about the future cannot afford to adopt an "its-all-in-the-balance" irresolution.
If the universities wait for the dice to fall, there is every chance that they (especially the public universities) will fall along with the dice. They need to reshape the game. Above all, universities need to collaborate with each other to escape their version of the prisoners dilemmathey must loosen the ever more vice-like grip of the status competition among them. That "winner-take-all" status competition is pitched against democratic objectives and accountability; it is leading to ever greater wastage as universities try to outspend each other on prestige, building investments in faculty and facilities; and it is withering public support for public goods in higher education.