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University INC.

By Alice Daniel

Before David Kirp became an acting dean in the public policy school at Berkeley, he knew relatively little about the financial operations of the university. When the provost spent half an hour talking about the university seal at a council of deans meeting, Kirp was initially confused because he knew the university's mascot was a bear. Then he realized the discussion had to do with copyright and how to make money from Berkeley's brand.

My puzzlement “sounds unbelievable but it's true,” says Kirp, a professor of public policy at Berkeley and an author of 14 books on topics ranging from AIDS to housing issues. “I spent lots of years writing, pursuing my bliss, picking topics and stories that really intrigued me and I knew amazingly little about how universities were run. There's a tacit deal [among professors and administrators] in which you leave us alone and we'll leave you alone.” His curiosity piqued, Kirp decided the only way to satisfy it was to venture out and learn. The result, Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education, is an exploration of how the values of the academy are affected by the rising dominance of the marketplace, a subject of vital interest to anyone in academia. In his latest book, Kirp takes readers from the complex world of Ivy League admissions to for-profit universities that could actually teach the Ivy League a thing or two, from business schools that have sold their soul in the midst of privatizing to high-tech companies that both help and hinder the intellectual strides of the academy. As the book notes, tension has historically existed between the university and its sources of funding, including the church and the crown; however, the controlling factor these days is the corporation.

Kirp doesn't deny that schools have to sell themselves, but he believes the demand should be based on something substantive. “Do you know what you're selling and why you're selling? Is there a value to this that makes you proud? That's something that colleges will often forget as they focus on the bottom line. I don't think survival is worth it at any cost,” he says.

The bottom line has prompted universities to sell courses on the Internet; privatize schools; shrink the liberal arts; hire marketing consultants to provide identity makeovers; and collaborate with industry, which Kirp warns, can restrict freedom of inquiry. Kirp focuses on two of his own university's enterprises to showcase the best and worst of industry alliances. The Gigascale Silicon Research Center—part of a partnership among the federal government, higher education, and a Silicon Valley company known as MARCO, the Microelectronics Advanced Research Corp.—has benefited the university greatly, especially its graduate programs in engineering and computer science. The collaboration is considered a success because it allows world-class researchers from many universities to work together on solutions to high-tech problems while encouraging openness toward knowledge. It is that openness that can be lost, Kirp says, if a university “sells the store,” an accusation directed at Berkeley's College of Natural Resources, which signed a five-year contract with the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis in 1998. Because the company owns a huge database of plant genome material, it required confidentiality agreements from faculty working with the database, a smart move for a corporation, but a controversial one for academia, where openness in the public interest is a bedrock principle.

Hiring academic superstars at oversized salaries is another risk some universities take in the name of increasing enrollment and, ideally, private funding. Kirp puts the magnifying glass on New York University (NYU), which dramatically reversed its “record of mediocrity” in the 1980s by raising money to bring in star professors. Still, Kirp notes, there is a price to be paid. Faculty stars can create a narrow intellectual agenda for a department, especially if they bring in like-minded colleagues. But more importantly, senior professors often demand modest teaching loads, leaving poorly paid adjuncts and graduate assistants to make up for the shortfall in instruction. At NYU, 2,700 adjuncts teach 70 percent of the undergraduate classes. This is higher than at most universities. Still, teaching has become the responsibility of adjuncts nationwide who, by 2002, accounted for 43 percent of all university faculty.


School rankings can also drive the marketing efforts of a college. U.S. News World Report's annual survey of “America's Best Colleges” has huge influence in how some colleges make decisions. The guide places great importance on a college's selectivity—the percentage of applicants it admits as well as the percentage of those admitted that enroll—leaving colleges to play the numbers game. Kirp writes: “Admissions officers encourage as many students as possible to apply, knowing that the more applicants the college rejects, the more selective it appears to be. For the same reason—looking good to U.S. News—schools like Emory University and Franklin and Marshall do not accept their very best applicants, because the admissions office believes they won't actually come. By rejecting or wait-listing them, the school makes itself look harder to get into.” Meanwhile, students whose families are well-off can afford to play their own admissions game. One company, Ivywise, charges $29,000 to help students get into the college of their dreams. There is even an Ivywise Kids, “geared to the highly competitive process of admission to selective kindergartens and elementary schools. For ambitious parents, it is never too soon to start marketing one's offspring.”

The battle to maintain scholarly integrity in the face of major financial deficits, decrepit buildings, and too few applications is particularly evident in Kirp's description of the University of Chicago, an institution that prides itself on its intellectual atmosphere. In 1994, the trustees hired Hugo Sonnenschein, a distinguished economist and the provost of Princeton, to save the university. But as soon as his marketing efforts and suggestions of core curriculum reform became apparent, 74 professors sent a letter to the trustees warning that the “intellectual tradition and academic organization of our university are being put at risk by its present leadership.”

Sonnenschein resigned in 2000, but not before he increased enrollments, added new buildings, and increased the size of some undergraduate classes. The core curriculum, however, remained essentially intact. Kirp writes: “Hugo Sonnenschein may someday be hailed in Hyde Park as a hero, the leader who saved an institution by dragging it into modern times. The ultimate question, though, is whether what the traditionalists refer to as the soul of the institution, its singularity, can withstand this transformation.” Ironically, this dilemma occurs across the board, even in the corporate world of Hamburger University, which Kirp can't resist comparing to the University of Chicago, a 30-minute drive away. The faculty and alumni at Hamburger U rebelled against a suggestion to develop regional sites instead of flying McDonald's store managers from around the world to the company's corporate college for training. “The cost-cutters, said one instructor, don't realize that coming together at the flagship campus builds a sense of membership in the enterprise because they can't capture its value in a tidy cost-benefit calculation. As one instructor said, ‘They are ignoring the iconic importance of the campus experience.' When Saul Bellow inveighed against the University of Chicago's efforts to reduce the size of its core curriculum, he couldn't have said it any better.”

That struggle between the forces of the market and the values of the academy is perhaps no more apparent than at the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. In 2003, Darden became formally self-sufficient from the University of Virginia (UVA). The pursuit of money, writes Kirp, is Darden's main objective, and one method of bringing in cash is to offer executive education programs, which take faculty energy away from scholarship and research. Darden pays a “franchise fee” to UVA for the “drawing power of the brand,” or “the Thomas Jefferson mystique” of the University of Virginia. Otherwise, the school operates as if it were a stand-alone institution. Because of the time it takes to run the executive programs, Darden faculty publish far less than their counterparts at other well-known universities, and that “troubles those who see the creation, not just the transmission, of knowledge as vital at a great university.”

But Kirp is no knee-jerk reactionist to the marketplace. He recognizes its importance and even applauds it, especially in the case of for-profit DeVry University, an efficient operation that delivers on its limited promises and provides a solid education in a number of fields, including engineering, at 25 campuses. It doesn't offer any illusions of social reform, but what it does it does well, even catering to the specific workforce demands of each community. Still, Kirp concludes, the public at large loses out if the market reigns in general over higher education because the market is not concerned with maintaining communities of scholars or delivering access to students who need financial help. For Kirp, the ultimate question is: “Can the public be persuaded that universities represent something as ineffable as the common good—more specifically, that higher education contributes to the development of knowledgeable and responsible citizens, encourages social cohesion, promotes and spreads knowledge, increases social mobility, and stimulates the economy?” Kirp's work begs the question: “If there is a less dystopian future, one that revives the soul of this old institution, who is to advance it –and if not now, then when?”

Alice Daniel is a freelance writer based in Fresno, Calif.

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