(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2017)
People constantly ask variations of the question--What is the University? --usually as a rhetorical throat clearing to put forward some sort of ideological position that advances a particular agenda in the service of quite specific objectives. That is to be expected, of course. But it is not the subject of this post.
Rather, the more interesting answer to this question ought to start with a more fundamental set of questions: (1) what are the objectives of regulatory society? and (2) how has the university changed to resemble and amplify greater society. Asked in this way, the answer becomes much more interesting than the ideology-by-other-means discussion that tends to put off everyone but their advocates.
The answer to these questions might be gleaned by the resources that universities increasingly devote--not to knowledge production and dissemination--but to the regulatory control of their stakeholder populations (students, faculty, staff and others that affect the university and its operations) either for its own account or as a pass through institution administering privatizing regulatory demands of superior public institutions (usually state and federal governments). A recent communication from the President of Penn State University perhaps nicely illustrates the trend--not because it stands out but for precisely the opposite reason, for the way in which it reflects standard practice among universities, for the way it applies consensus within higher education about the regulatory role of the university. Indeed one might expect this to serve as a standard generic letter of its kind issued in some variation by many similarly situated high officials. It is for that reason that the communication is most interesting.
This post considers the larger societal consequences of the changes suggested, as a general matter and in common with other universities, by that communication. The object is neither to condemn or praise the tend--but rather to notice them and consider what they might say about the character and function of the university generally in early 21st century America. The communication is reproduced below and is followed by some brief thoughts.