These days, we Registrars are pressed to be efficient and effective with our time and resources. I suspect it has always been thus. There are demands on limited funds, pressures to recruit and admit more top quality students, keep up on what the competition is doing, and exceed expectations for service, government reporting, and relating with the general public.
I have read two things recently that have continued in this theme of being efficient and effective in spite of being academic (I’m not sure why so many assume that the opposite of efficiency is academic). One was a look at American universities and colleges in a book written by David Kirp, called Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education. Note the ubiquitous colon – I dare you to try to find an academic title without one! Someone needs to write a history of the colon (and not the one in your gut!). But I digress.
The point of Kirp’s book isn’t to educate us about Shakespeare or Einstein, but rather to remind us that education isn’t about catering to the latest trendy whim, but should be to create good citizens and, by extension, a good nation. This is clearly a challenge in an economy that is so hard-line about the bottom line. Here’s a quote from the Introduction (page 3) that sums it up nicely:
“Despite all their obvious faults, American universities have long aspired to be communities of scholars, places for free thought. The century-long campaign for academic freedom represents the effort, against long odds, to secure a degree of intellectual distance from quotidian pressures, to allow breathing room for scholars to critique the conventional wisdom of the day.”
And a few lines later, “Entrepreneurial ambition, which used to be regarded in academe as a necessary evil, has become a virtue.” Kirp is suspicious of economic pressures weighing on and ultimately distracting universities from their historical mission. This is an attractive point of view, especially for faculty members raised in the rebellious 1960s when it was popular to march in the streets, and stick it to the man!
This has been the prevailing view in all my educational history too although I was not raised in the ’60s. I read Kirp’s book and nodded my way through it: yup; uh huh; yes; okay. But the other day I read an article in The Atlantic on The Radical, 18th-Century Scottish System for Paying for College, which tells a very different story. I had forgotten about Adam Smith’s contribution to this idea in The Wealth of Nations (which, ahem!, does not have a colon in the title, not even when 18th-Century academics were publishing books with titles three lines long). I think I slept through that portion of the book because it’s right in there with such sordid tales of the branches of commerce, the regulations of 1776, and a list of fifty-five joint stock companies that failed since 1600 due to financial mismanagement. Not exactly the sort of page-turner that keeps me up late reading. I picked up my copy and there it was, starting on page 819. Don’t know how I missed it…
Shannon Chamberlain point out in The Atlantic article that Smith believed strongly in Scotland’s university system of the day. He was a noted graduate of Oxford, and he spends about 30 pages explaining why he preferred the Scottish system. Here’s a summary from Chamberlain:
In Scotland, students exercised complete consumer control over with whom they studied and which subjects they deemed relevant. Oxford—and in fact most other European universities—employed a system similar to the way that American universities handle tuition payments today: One tuition payment was made directly to the university, and the university decided how to distribute what came in.
Did it work? In short, yes. Chamberlain shows how Scotland went from being a backwater for universities to being a world leader, producing such august names as Adam Smith, David Hume, and Adam Ferguson.
Hmm. Maybe economic incentives used wisely are not all bad. In fact, Chamberlain’s point is that we underestimate the ability of our students to be wise consumers. It’s very interesting that here at Trinity Western University, our students have strong opinions about the value of the Liberal Arts and take a very long view of the benefits of their studies for their whole life and careers.
Applying this thinking to the role of Registrar makes me less cautious to explore economic efficiency. This doesn’t mean I’m throwing the caution to the wind. But I will be testing the ideas of Smith on incentives and seeking ways to continue to fund the right things.
What about you? How does this influence your thoughts on the matter?