Becker, Posner and the Purpose of the University

Richard Posner and Gary Becker, over at their eponymous blog, have been blogging about the Summers resignation. They both come out for Summers, and against tenure. The discussion is worth checking out in full.

I wanted to focus in on what seemed to me to be an underlying issue that neither Becker nor Posner really nails down: what good is the university supposed to maximize? Or, clearer put, what is the purpose of a university? Posner argues that faculty and university incentives and capabilities are misaligned:

The faculty are interested primarily in their own careers, and what is good for their careers and what is good for Harvard are only tenuously connected . . . What is more, [a replacement president] might be more inclined to kow-tow to faculty, enhancing their careers at the expense of the long-run health of the institution.

But this does not tell us what success or “long-run health” means. Both eminent economists turn quickly to market measures of value. Posner claims that “our universities are the best in the world” [Ed.: Now is the time to remind the reader that such puffing claims are not to be trusted, and to suggest that they look for this paper on that very topic.] Becker is more explicit:

Still, I believe the only satisfactory way to evaluate how universities (or businesses) are run is by their success or lack of it in the long run. Although there is no simple way, like profitability, to judge universities, there is an effective way to judge a university system. The American college and university system is widely accepted as the strongest in the world. This is why American universities are filled with students from abroad, including those from rich nations with a long history of higher education, like Germany and France.

I conclude from this that the American university system must be doing many things right, at least relative to the other systems. And what is right about this system is rather obvious: several thousand public and private colleges and universities compete hard for faculty, students, and funds. That the American system of higher education is the most competitive anywhere is the crucial ingredient in its success.

This argument confuses me. Is the claim that because our universities attract foreign students at higher rates than foreign graduates attract U.S. students our universities are “successful” and should do more of what they are already doing? That claim would seem tough to swallow given that our universities allow entry into our economy and (through marriage to fellow-students) citizenship, and thus attending Harvard isn’t necessary a proxy for endorsing its governance structure. Or is the claim that our success is a product of competition itself? In that event, who cares what internal governance looks like as long as we have established a market for private education?

More generally, it seems to me that without a good account of what the university should be doing (and not what the market is rewarding it for doing) arguments about proper governance structure are founded on quicksand. After all, there are a significant number of more autocratic colleges than Harvard extant. Almost all such schools are traditionally seen as less successful in many ways. Should we chalk Harvard’s success up to path-dependence? The distorting effects of tenure and labor unions? Does this internal market not matter to our evaluation of Harvard’s success? Because if it does, how can we say that the faculty governance model that Harvard has long followed is inversely related to “long term health” of that institution?

(Hat Tip: Todd Z.)

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3 Responses

  1. Matt says:

    Another fairly obvious reason why more foreign students come to study at American graduate schools than Americans go abroad is that a much higher percentage of college graduates in, say, France or Germany (to use Becker’s example) have sufficent English skills to do graduate work than do American college graduates for work in foreign languages.

  2. John Armstrong says:

    Full disclosure: I am an academic — one of the “intellectuals” Posner disparages — and at an East coast liberal bastion, no less.

    Which is why I argue in support of Summers on the basis of what a university (and “The University” in general) should do: encourage open-minded investigation and academic inquiry of all stripes. Summers asked a perfectly valid question that, as far as I’ve been able to tell even from within the very fields he was talking about, has been given almost no attention. To even suggest that a question is inappropriate is anathema to the true goals of the university, as I see them.