Professorial Anger, Then and Now
Thorstein Veblen wrote what would become The Higher Learning in America, published in 1918, at the turn of the century, as the modern research university was crystallizing. Reading through the new Johns Hopkins University Press annotated edition of this classic, at times I found the famous American economist and sociologist to be a bit of a crybaby. Wasn’t it terrible that rich universities — like Chicago and Stanford, where he had struggled to find his academic place — cared only about shaking down robber barons for more mountains of educational money! But my impatience never lasted long.
Since most of what Veblen feared has come to pass, and what he disliked has become entrenched, to read him now is to live in a 21st century that feels a lot like the late 19th. So why isn’t Veblen read more widely today, and why aren’t his proposed reforms debated?
His subtitle, A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men, reflects his famous disdain for the “spirit of business” that he believed had captured academic management. As the historian Richard F. Teichgraeber III explains in his valuable introduction to the new edition, Veblen was riding a 30-year wave of professorial anger over the triumph of bottom-line values in universities. His book stood out, however, in the way it detailed just how business damaged science and scholarship. In so doing, he heightened the contradictions between professors and administrators, what Barbara and John Ehrenreich would later call the “professional-managerial class.” Veblen made readers feel they needed to take sides.
He was a ponderous writer, and the book itself is repetitious, in part because he wrote it in sections that he filed away for years, and in part because he could never resist coming back for another bombing run. But his overall argument was clear: The “business enterprise” was antithetical to scholarly research; it emphasized the show-biz parts of the university while creating excessive costs and pointless activities that it controlled through accounting.
Let’s start with Veblen’s most familiar charge: The overriding goal of universities was to expand enrollments — and the revenues that came with them. Seeking prestige, visibility, and whatever “rolls up a large showing of turnout and output,” administrators competed to attract undergraduates and then to structure the university around their care and feeding. Veblen had no interest in undergraduates: He thought most were in college to train in what he dubbed “conspicuous consumption.”
That’s why expense was the key. To outcompete other institutions for this leisured undergraduate, and to create goodwill among leading elements in society, universities created a high-priced court society. They put money into buildings, parties, clubs, ceremonies, sports, speeches, and other operations designed to make governing boards, politicians, plutocrats, donors, dignitaries, and affluent parents feel like they served society’s best people. That, said Veblen, led to “extensive and wasteful competitive duplication of plant, organization and personnel among the American universities.” It also meant managing mentally undeveloped undergraduates with “statistical credits” and numerical work units that had nothing to do with learning, but that increased administrative costs.
In short, business expertise created inefficiency at the expense of the academic core.
Over the years, many readers have seen Veblen’s position as unreasonable. Business operations do cost money, but less than they raise; the university needs a financial base to sustain the intellectual superstructure. That view is precisely what Veblen disputed, but he has not prevailed. In 2015, American universities are still cultivating wealthy donors, seeking industry partnerships, inserting themselves into political networks, and encouraging faculty to be more “bankable.”
To manage the contradictions in this model, Veblen argued, institutions created a firewall between business and academe, akin to the one that is supposed to exist in journalism between advertising and the newsroom. Just before Higher Learning appeared, the professors’ literature of protest helped generate an organization to promote a faculty role in running the university. The American Association of University Professors was founded in 1915; its first president was the philosopher John Dewey. The AAUP’s efforts to balance managerial with faculty power have continued for a hundred years.
But has shared governance protected teaching and research?
Here we get to the second issue that preoccupied Veblen. The firewall protecting academe’s core was dissolved by financial management, particularly in the moments of conflict when it was needed the most. “Much effective surveillance of the academic work is exercised through the board’s control of the budget,” Veblen wrote. “The academic staff can do little else than what the specifications of the budget provide for.”
University presidents might be expected to intervene, except that they were not honest brokers but business proxies. Picked for their resemblance to the businessmen who did the picking, they indulged in the same “plenary discretion” as their corporate counterparts — and expected the same “loyal obedience” from their staffs. “The first executive duty of the incumbent of office, therefore, is to keep his faculty under control,” Veblen wrote.
Most faculty and administrators were men, but he saw executive authority as especially gendered: “Pecuniary success is the final test of manhood” in America’s secular culture, he wrote. To beat out rivals, the university executive must be a “strong man” who was given full discretion and coercive powers.
Where did that leave faculty? In 1913, a fellow critic of higher education, the playwright and theater producer George Cram Cook, had put it this way: “In America there are three sexes — men, women, and professors.” European scholars looking at their American universities, he said, “see ours ruled without the consent of the governed through presidential autocrats.”
Veblen never let his readers forget that academic governance was rooted in professorial nonconsent.
Many readers may find Veblen too pessimistic. Academic governance is more decentralized than in his day, they could point out. No professional anywhere is fully self-determined, and professors still have it good. The scholarly enterprise now has deep experience working with business. Universities have procedures for managing conflicts of interest and administrative overreach, and if those fail — as in the Steven G. Salaita case at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, when a professor was offered a contract that was then withdrawn — there are always the courts. Veblen’s stereotype of the dilettante undergraduate does not apply to a student population of a class and racial diversity that he could not have imagined. And of course, there has been enormous progress in the content of knowledge in every discipline. Perhaps a less depressive generation of scholars is now coming online.
But then there’s Veblen’s third point. Beneath institutional conflicts, the spirit of science and scholarship was negated by business thought. That was not simply discord between two styles, personality types, value systems, structural placements, or even forms of masculinity (the strong men versus the depressed). Veblen was getting at something deeper: a clash between two forms of consciousness.
Science and scholarship concerned “the opaquely veracious sequence of cause and effect, and it deals with the facts of this sequence without mental reservation or ulterior purposes of expediency,” he believed. “Business enterprise proceeds on ulterior purposes and calculations of expediency; it depends on shrewd expedients and lives on the margin of error, on the fluctuating margin of human miscalculation.”
Self-interest did not stimulate human creativity; it narrowed it. Business people were not bad or unintelligent; they just weren’t interested in the truth of a situation or how something in nature or society or psychology worked. That wasn’t their job.
Their job, Veblen said, was to win an advantage in any relationship. Triumphing over competitors was served by a combination of caution, which meant disclosing nothing, and “chicane[ry],” which meant disclosing falsehood. The business spirit produced error, for it made money from the over- or undervaluing of what it bought and sold.
The business mind was also frustrated by the slow, faltering nature of research, which is always marked by failed experiments, constant uncertainty, repetitious verification, and contradictory results. To tell a more attractive tale, business stripped away everyday context, complexity, and ambiguity, and jeopardized interest in, and support for, the most difficult and important work.
The business outlook was equally suspicious of originality. Chasing one another to provide the latest research in vogue, university administrators didn’t ask whether they had something original or special to offer. Their search for revenue led them to imitation, duplication, and the expensive enlargement of what Thomas Kuhn would later dub “normal science.” They saw it, in Veblen’s analysis, as “‘bad business’ to offer a better grade of goods than the market demanded, particularly to customers who do not know the difference” — like the families of American undergraduates, who would believe almost anything in the hope of giving their children an edge. Veblen’s warning was that business opposition to scholarly standards of quality was not accidental or occasional, but intrinsic to business thought as such. Even administrators who started out as faculty members ceased thinking like professors and conformed to business logic.
Veblen’s fourth point was to define the distinctive nature of research thinking. Science demanded “universalism, communism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism,” the sociologist Robert K. Merton would later write. Veblen was already clear that research — its concrete thinking and doing — was a noncompetitive activity. Intellectual progress required self-interest to be continuously postponed. He would have hated the nondisclosure agreements and interlaboratory secrecy that typifies much contemporary academic science — but he would have said they followed inevitably from the businessing of higher education.
Veblen’s best-known phrase for the condition of thinking was “idle curiosity.” That sounds dubious to our ears, for we are all workaholics now. But it wasn’t a naïve call for disinterestedness or objectivity without the context of personal identity, intentionality, or everyday life. By idle curiosity, Veblen meant the evasion of economic determinism in all of its psychological density. Research consciousness would never be free, but it could be sheltered from balance-sheet judgments that knew nothing of the unfolding logic of the research problem at hand. A professor received a paycheck in exchange for research, and yet “no scholar or scientist can become an employee in respect of” that work.
Iread the new edition of Higher Learning during a period of lecturing and travel in Britain, Germany, Portugal, and the United States, and discussed Veblen’s ideas with faculty and graduates students in those countries. Even the staunchest opponents of how commercialized academe has become hesitated over Veblen’s claim that research and business are inherently opposed.
Most academics, myself included, would like the old professional-managerial class to hold together and pull in the right direction. We admire aspects of the corporate world, know brilliant, creative business people (as well as dogmatic, dollar-chasing professors), and from time to time wish our universities would imitate contemporary business more successfully than they do. We note that business people are often more enlightened than academics on issues like technology transfer and public funding for research that lacks a market aim.
So are we to take Veblen with a grain of salt, and see him as a source of intriguing ideas that are too overstated to be taken literally?
I think we should take him straight. He was concerned with practices of thought and structures of feeling, and with how institutions affected them. He ultimately focused on cognitive practices, which he was certain could be slowly suffocated by what Foucault would later call “economization.” Veblen believed he was making an empirical claim: The practices of thought and behavior required in business were radically different from those demanded by imaginative research because they are adapted to radically different goals.
Yes, the two sides of the university can theoretically coexist. But that would require a managerial respect for the interconnected requirements of research life that Veblen saw business pushing to the edges of American higher education. Managerial autocracy turned epistemological differences into an existential crisis for research. Whether that kind of coercion is intrinsic to capitalism, as Marx and others held, wasn’t Veblen’s main interest. He just couldn’t find examples of its absence.
Critics have said that Veblen had few suggestions for how to reform the university. That charge is incorrect.
As Teichgraeber explains in his introduction, Veblen timed the publication of Higher Learning in the hope that the end of World War I might encourage reforms. He thought that by lowering college costs through reducing market competition, universities could enable researchers to do more productive work across national boundaries. The end of the war might allow the whole sector of higher education to restructure for the sake of scholarly “efficiency,” which demanded that “the executive officers of the university must stand in the relation of assistants serving the needs and catering to the idiosyncrasies of the body of scholars and scientists that make up the university.”
Imagine! as John Lennon once said. In fact, Veblen did.
Christopher Newfield is a professor of literature and American studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara.