on university businesses

by Sebastian Benthall

Suppose we wanted to know why there’s an “epistemic crisis” today. Suppose we wanted to talk about higher education’s role and responsibility towards that crisis, even though that may be just a small part of it.

That’s a reason why we should care about postmodernism in universities. The alternative, some people have argued, is a ‘modernist’ or even ‘traditional’ university which was based on a perhaps simpler and less flexible theory of knowledge. For the purpose of this post I’m going to assume the reader knows roughly what that’s all about. Since postmodernism rejects meta-narratives and instead admits that all we have to legitimize anything is a contest of narratives, that is really just asking for an epistemic crisis where people just use whatever narratives are most convenient for them and then society collapses.

In my last post I argued that the question of whether universities should be structured around modernist or postmodernist theories of legitimation and knowledge has been made moot by the fact that universities have the option of operating solely on administrative business logic. I wasn’t being entirely serious, but it’s a point that’s worth exploring.

One reason why it’s not so terrible if universities operate according to business logic is because it may still, simply as a function of business logic, be in their strategic interest to hire serious scientists and scholars whose work is not directly driven by business logic. These scholars will be professionally motivated and in part directed by the demands of their scholarly fields. But that kicks the can of the inquiry down the road.

Suppose that there are some fields that are Bourdieusian sciences, which might be summarized as an artistic field structured by the distribution of symbolic capital to those who win points in the game of arbitration of the real. (Writing that all out now I can see why many people might find Bourdieu a little opaque.)

Then if a university business thinks it should hire from the Bourdieusian sciences, that’s great. But there’s many other kinds of social fields it might be useful to hire from for, e.g, faculty positions. This seems to agree with the facts: many university faculty are not from Bourdieusian sciences!

This complicates, a lot actually, the story about the relationship between universities and knowledge. One thing that is striking from the ethnography of education literature (Jean Lave) is how much the social environment of learning is constitutive of what learning is (to put it one way). Society expects and to some extent enforces that when a student is in a classroom, what they are taught is knowledge. We have concluded that not every teacher in a university business is a Bourdieusian scientist, hence some of what students learn in universities is not Bourdieusian science, so it must be that a lot of what students are taught in universities: isn’t real. But what is it then? It’s got to be knowledge!

The answer may be: it’s something useful. It may not be real or even approximating what’s real (by scientific standards), but it may still be something that’s useful to believe, express, or perform. If it’s useful to “know” even in this pragmatic and distinctly non-Platonic sense of the term, there’s probably a price at which people are willing to be taught it.

As a higher order effect, universities might engage in advertising in such a way that some prospective students are convinced that what they teach is useful to know even when it’s not really useful at all. This prospect is almost too cynical to even consider. But that’s why it’s important to consider why a university operating solely according to business logic would in fact be terrible! This would not just be the sophists teaching sophistry to students so that they can win in court. It would be sophists teaching bullshit to students because they can get away with being paid for it. In other words, charlatans.

Wow. You know I didn’t know where this was going to go when I started reasoning about this, but it’s starting to sound worse and worse!

It can’t possibly be that bad. University businesses have a reputation to protect, and they are subject to the court of public opinion. Even if not all fields are Bourdieusian science, each scholarly field has its own reputation to protect and so has an incentive to ensure that it, at least, is useful for something. It becomes, in a sense, a web of trust, where each link in the network is tested over time. As an aside, this is an argument for the importance of interdisciplinary work. It’s not just a nice-to-have because wouldn’t-it-be-interesting. It’s necessary as a check on the mutual compatibility of different fields. Prevents disciplines from becoming exploitative of students and other resources in society.

Indeed, it’s possible that this process of establishing mutual trust among experts even across different fields is what allows a kind of coherentist, pragmatist truth to emerge. But that’s by no means guaranteed. But to be very clear, that process can happen among people whether or not they are involved in universities or higher education. Everybody is responsible for reality, in a sense. To wit, citizen science is still Bourdieusian science.

But see how the stature of the university has fallen. Under a modernist logic, the university was where one went to learn what is real. One would trust that learning it would be useful because universities were dedicated to teaching what was real. Under business logic, the university is a place to learn something that the university finds it useful to teach you. It cannot be trusted without lots of checked from the rest of the society. Intellectual authority is now much more distributed.

The problem with the business university is that it finds itself in competition for intellectual authority, and hence society’s investment in education, with other kinds of institutions. These include employers, who can discount wages for jobs that give their workers valuable human capital (e.g. the free college internship). Moreover, absent its special dedication to science per se, there’s less of a reason to put society’s investment to basic research in its hands. This accords with Clark Kerr‘s observation that the postwar era was golden for universities because the federal government kept them flush with funds for basic research, but these started to trickle down and now a lot more important basic research is done in the private sector.

So to the extent that the university is responsible for the ‘epistemic crisis’, it may be because universities began to adopt business logic as their guiding principle. This is not because they then began to teach garbage. It’s because they lost the special authority awarded to modernist universities, which we funded for a special mission in society. This opened the door for more charlatans, most of whom are not at universities. They might be on YouTube.

Note that this gets us back to something similar but not identical to postmodernism.* What’s at stake are not just narratives, but also practices and other forms of symbolic and social capital. But there’s certainly many different ones, articulated differently, and in competition with each other. The university business winds up reflecting the many different kinds of useful knowledge across all society and reproducing it through teaching. Society at large can then keep universities in check.
This “society keeping university businesses in check” point is a case for abolishing tenure in university businesses. Tenure may be a great idea in universities with different purposes and incentive structures. But for university businesses, it’s not good–it makes them less good businesses.

The epistemic crisis is due to a crisis in epistemic authority. To the extent universities are responsible, it’s because universities lost their special authority. This may be because they abandoned the modernist model of the university. But is not because they abandoned modernism to postmodernism. “Postmodern” and “modern” fields coexist symbiotically with the pragmatist model of the university as business. But losing modernism has been bad for the university business as a brand.

* Though it must be noted that Lyotard’s analysis of the postmodern condition is all about how legitimation by performativity is the cause of this new condition. I’m probably just recapitulating his points in this post.