|AU: Ethan, you don’t talk a lot directly about the Second World War in the book, but obviously that’s when American universities became very instrumental, part of the wartime state, the most obvious example being the University of Chicago’s role in the Manhattan Project. How did World War II change the direction of instrumental universities?
ES: Well, the war was huge. It created the template for ORUs through the Office of Scientific Research and Development that Franklin Roosevelt set up under the leadership of Vannevar Bush. This was different than how the federal government had approached universities during World War I. During the first war, they brought scientists directly into government service, but during the second war, they came up with this idea of contracts and grants to have scientists be at their universities or go to other universities. One of the things that did was it gave a lot of people experience, university faculty came together around a problem from different disciplines. It really had a lot of impact on the leadership and who was perceived to be a good university leader after the war. So, I talked a lot in the book about Gaylord Harwell, who eventually became the president of Penn. He directed the Navy’s Underwater Sound Lab down in San Diego during the war, and that gave him prominence and executive experience. I wrote an article a few years ago in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography about the search that brought Harwell to Penn’s presidency and put that in the context of other university presidential searches going on at the time. It was striking how experience from a wartime lab or leading a wartime lab was a crucial thing that a lot of universities were looking for in a president after the war. So it wasn’t just Harwell, it was Arthur Compton at Washington University. It was Eric Walker at Penn State. It was Lee DuBridge at Caltech. And boy, he was the most sought after candidate all these universities who wanted to bring in Lee DuBridge. But even a humanist, Lawrence Kimpton, who had helped direct that lab, the metallurgist lab at the University of Chicago, he became a president.
AU: So, instrumentality became a good thing to have on your CV?
AU: I was especially interested in your chapter on the University of California Irvine, which as you note, was the first major university to be founded with a mission of being a) social science heavy and b) being instrumental. So, these things were supposed to be in its DNA. What happened? Why didn’t it work out?
ES: Well, there were a number of factors, but to some extent it got caught up in Clark Kerr’s precarious position as President after the free speech movement. So, the free speech movement happened in the fall of 1964, right as the plans for Irvine were being really hammered out, the campus was to open a year later. In the spring of 65, Kerr offered his resignation, which ultimately didn’t happen, but he was in a very precarious position and he was just beset with all these difficulties coming out of the FSM, and he didn’t really have a lot of bandwidth for paying attention to what was going on at Irvine. Then further things got even more difficult with the ascension of Ronald Reagan to the governor’s chair in 1967, and the financial cutbacks that Reagan wanted to make. So, the sense I got from looking through the archival materials is that the state government never really provided the level of funding for some of these things, like the public policy research organization that had been anticipated, but there was also instability at UCI among the lead people there. So James March, who described himself as a missionary social scientist. He only stayed five years. He left for Stanford in 1970. Ivan Hinderaker who helped design things didn’t even stay until the campus opened. He left to be Chancellor at UC Riverside. But there are a couple other things too. On a national level, the declining prestige of high modern social science connected with its failures in Vietnam. The whole style of thought that UC Irvine started to go into decline in the late sixties. Then there’s the whole issue of the UC system and competition between campuses. Berkeley decided it wanted in so it started to create a graduate school of public policy and power brokers moved funds over there rather than down to Irvine.
AU: It’s hard to argue against the flagship, isn’t it? In your book, the organized research units are these big interdisciplinary centers attracting large amounts of funding, albeit perhaps temporary sometimes. They are able to hire their own staff, they’re portrayed as being objects of envy on campus. These are the cool place to be. Nowadays, centers are often the poor cousins on campus. They’re poorly funded and precariously organized while the disciplinary based academic departments rule the roost again. What happened? How did we get from the age you described to where we are now?
ES: We need to look at specific time periods. So, Roger Geiger has done a lot of good work on American research universities in the 20th century and he looks at this issue in the 1980s and 1990s and finds still a lot of strength in the ORUs. He reports that in the 1980s, the number of non-faculty researchers doubled, the number of ORUs grew 30% the first half of the decade. Then, in the 1990s he mentions Michigan establishing about 80 new research units and says more generally, that conditions in the 1990s encouraged ORUs. So, we only need even more scholarship on what’s happened more recently than that. I will say that the foundation landscape changed. A lot of this stuff was supported by the Ford Foundation in the first couple decades after the war. And things changed there as time went on. Also organized research units are precarious because they are dependent on favorable political and cultural winds. So, when the winds change, external funders might be less interested in the topic that animated a particular ORU. You see that in a couple of the units I mentioned, the Center for Research on Economic Development at Michigan, the Public Policy Research Organization at Irvine. Both of those were kind of a product of this high modern/modernization theory moment coming out of the Kennedy administration and by the time we’re in the mid 1970s, we’re in a very different cultural situation. Universities are also dealing with financial shortfalls, having to do cutbacks during the 1970s. Even Princeton was slashing budget in the 1970s. Then the issue of leadership, a lot of these ORUs were formed around a charismatic leader so when those people moved on, it could cause trouble for the entity.
AU: Let me come back to the point we started with, about the general view of the instrumental university as a neoliberal corporate thing, rather than something rooted in progressivism. It occurs to me that after the close of this book in the early 1970s, there genuinely was a change in the way universities viewed the nature of instrumentality and their best roots to being seen as contributors to society and the economy. How much of this was about a change in the external economic environment? How much was it a change in the political environment? How much of it was just universities realizing that the way they’d been doing instrumentality to date just didn’t play very well or as reliably or be funded as reliably as you just mentioned?
ES: Yeah, there definitely are changes. A bunch of them. I already mentioned a moment ago the economic environment of the 1970s and certainly state funding of their universities has been something that’s declined considerably in the United States since the time period mentioned in my book. But, the growth of the economic development impetus, that’s something that began during the period covered by my book, that really has continued and morphed. So I talk about this report that the state of Pennsylvania did in the 1960s talking about universities as generators of economic growth. That kind of language and framing of what universities are supposed to do has really continued and probably strengthened in a lot of ways. You see these universities trying to create innovation hubs. You’ve got the Pennovation Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which is a fairly recent development. But you also have different populations of people coming to universities. I think one of the things that hasn’t been studied enough is the connection between the decline of the American industrial economy and college populations. Because if you look at the statistics, the percentage of high school grads going on to college really goes up in the 1980s and that’s bringing a different kind of student to campus. The kinds of things those students are interested in studying as opposed to the kinds of student populations that were there before, I think that’s an issue that I am really hoping scholars are going to get into.
AU: Interesting. Well, that’s all we have time for today. Ethan, thanks so much for being with us.
ES: You’re very welcome.