The Efficient Academic


Adam SmithThese 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?


5 thoughts on “The Efficient Academic

  1. Grant – I liked Kirp’s book if only for the case study approach it offered as a way to look at the issues. I will have to go dust it off my shelf and take a look at it again. I read it when it first came out (maybe over a decade ago?), but it certainly still would be a good read as you suggest. Thanks for bringing it to the forefront again!


  2. I didn’t read it as it didn’t have a colon in the title. LOL. Okay, truth be told, it was hard to get past the first line: “The saddest part of the debate over how to rein in the cost of college is that rising prices have not been tied to any real improvement in the quality of education. Skyrocketing tuition, it’s generally agreed, has been brought on by the expansion of student services”. But I did.

    As I read through the article, I couldn’t help but think that unbundling many of the student services costs from the costs of higher education would be much akin to unbundling the costs of health care and basic care from society. The results would leave plenty of haves and way more “have nots”. Spoken like a true Canadian, eh, Grant?!


    1. I share your concerns Stef. And yes, we Canadians like our bundled health care, internet, wireless, tv, cell phone bundles, etc. But I do wonder what would happen if we were to test the assumptions we have about student services and shared costs. My own thoughts are unsettled on this. If the service is required by some, should all be required to pay for it? And, if it is a user-pay system, would the cost per individual user sky-rocket? Probably. Could we find a way to off-set that cost? Probably.


      1. I think testing assumptions is good to do. However, I think that understanding the student population through data and information is also critical. Who are the students one serves? What is their socio-economic background? What one knows about the students and their needs is also an important part of this equation. All good things to think about.


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