I continue to be frustrated by the folks criticizing American universities and academic culture who imply (or outright say) that tight central control over public and maybe even private institutions is the solution. My mind especially reels when this comes from putative conservatives who might in other contexts (e.g., when it is their oxes getting gored) serve up slogans in favor of limited government.
Greater central control is why the British university system is rapidly heading for sub-mediocrity. It’s why many of the public institutions of higher education in Western Europe are bureaucratic nightmares. And it’s why the excellent universities of South Africa are increasingly under siege in the post-apartheid era, and with them, the prospects for free speech and an independent civil society.
Read this commentary from the Natal Witness about managerialism at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Trust me, it’s even worse when you hear some of the details. One of the issues that I find jaw-droppingly appalling at UKZN in particular–and yet, increasingly common wherever governments exert centralized authority over academic life–is the proposition that faculty should not be permitted to address the public at large without managerial supervision, and in particular should not speak to the public about issues involving their own institutions.
I tend to think that some South African activists misattribute what’s happening at UKZN and other institutions as a matter of neoliberalism or corporatization: it strikes me as much more a case of nationalist and statist consolidation of authority over public institutions that masquerades as corporatization in order to legitimate itself to outside observers. (In fact, some of what is happening is largely an extension of tighter state controls imposed in the waning years of apartheid.) The negative consequences of centralization, however, are not narrowly limited to strongly nationalist, nativist or authoritarian governments. As I said, a lot of this story sounds similar to the steady destruction of institutional quality in the UK under the Labor Party. On the other hand, in the UK, that’s just about losing otherwise good university programs. In South Africa, the stakes are higher: the autonomy and quality of universities are interwoven with the vigor and independence of civil society as a whole.
Whatever its flaws, American academia begins in a fundamentally much healthier position, and a good part of that is the relative autonomy of public and private universities from strong centralized control. Whatever reforms we need, we don’t need to join the march to the bottom that other governments around the world are hastening to encourage.