A High-Priced Product

The managerial university as multinational corporation

Readers of this hefty work will frequently think of Samuel Johnson on Paradise Lost: "None ever wished it longer than it is." But they will, even as they grumble, be grateful for the care and intelligence that have gone into a detailed study of the tumultuous history of Harvard from 1933, when James B. Conant became president, to 2000, when Neil L. Rudenstine announced his imminent retirement from that post. The importance of such a detailed history of our major university in the century of its greatest growth is obvious, and readers, many of whom, I suspect, will treat this book and its index more as an encyclopedia than a "good read," will continue to be grateful for the extraordinary range of information it provides on everything from the biographies of the various presidents and deans to the quarrel between the molecular double-helix biologist James Watson and the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson--who referred to his antagonist as "the Caligula of biology."

Phylis and Morton Keller standing on Holyoke Center overlook
Phyllis Keller and Morton Keller married insider knowledge with the external analyst's perspective in constructing their history of Harvard's twentieth-century transformation from "Brahmin" to "meritocratic" to "worldly" university. To their task of narrating the institutional story of the "Ur-university" (as distinct from the separate histories one could write about scientific discovery, scholarship, and intellectual attainment), Phyllis (Daytz) Keller, a Bunting Institute Fellow in 1971, brought experience within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, where she held a series of administrative posts from 1973 to 1997, retiring as senior associate dean. Morton Keller, Ph.D. '56, is Spector professor of history at Brandeis, where he studies and teaches about nineteenth- and twentieth-century American political, legal, and economic issues. Photographed overlooking Harvard Yard from Holyoke Center.

Photograph by Stu Rosner

The authors retail numerous good stories and a little discreet scandal. But on the whole theirs is a view of Harvard from the administrator's perspective that Phyllis Keller acquired during her many years of service in the office of the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). This means we get solid information on admissions, finances, the College and the various graduate schools, the recruitment and promotion of the faculty, and the major trends in the development of Harvard from the Brahmin college of Charles William Eliot and Abbott Lawrence Lowell, to the meritocratic research university of Conant and Nathan M. Pusey, to the international institution of Derek C. Bok and Rudenstine--the latter treated only briefly and as an extension of Bok's conception of Harvard.

The Kellers give very little sense of the actual experience of being a Harvard freshman or a junior faculty member trying to make his or her way over the high hurdles of a great research and teaching university, or of what it felt like for an administrator to confront a self-righteous SDS member occupying University Hall in 1969. But there isn't room for everything and a reader does get a very good sense of such wide-ranging and important matters as the growth of Widener Library; the arguments over political correctness; the shifts in curriculum; and the continuing discussions of the relative merits of teaching and research within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Each school gets its review, and the growth of the University administration is carefully followed as it attempts to build a hub to manage all the tubs sitting on their own bottoms.

Few personalities emerge from this history of the University. Only occasionally does someone appear as vividly as President Lowell, writing angrily about data from the dean of the College's office: "You have basely gone back on me. Somebody told me that of the fourteen men dismissed last year for cheating and lying about it, thirteen were Jews. Now you make out that there were twelve of them, of whom only five were Jews. Please produce at once six more!"

The Kellers are Harvard loyalists and, although they describe change and controversy in the institution, Harvard remains in their book the archetypal American success story, adapting but not changing its fundamental institutional structure over the years. They bring their tale to a climax in the year 2000, when "Harvard was stronger academically, financially, and in national and international reputation than ever before in its (and perhaps any university's) history. The sources of this preeminence--Harvard's iconic national and international standing; the quality of its students, faculty, libraries, laboratories, and plant; its access to the money that made all this possible--showed no signs of diminishing at the century's turn."

Well, okay, I can't deny any of this, nor do I want to, though the "Olympus Complex" is perhaps a bit heavy. But I am not at all as sure as are the Kellers that Harvard managed to save its meritocratic soul while evolving from Conant's highly professional research university to Bok's and Rudenstine's worldwide university with a $19.2-billion endowment. When the Kellers look at Harvard they see the myriad shiny surfaces that administration by its nature deals with. They do not, however, look deeply at the many institutional changes that have since the 1960s remade the educational infrastructure of Harvard and of all American higher education.

Take, for example, tuition inflation. The Kellers mention it in several places, revealing in passing that tuition alone, without board and room, rose from $400 after World War II to $22,028 in 1999--"close to $1,000 a week of term time." The usual administration apology is offered about educational costs rising faster than inflation, and the corresponding increase in student aid is emphasized. But no curiosity is shown about whether the relationship between a university that charges $400 a year and its students changes when the university begins to charge them $1,000 a week. It seems to me that the 1945 undergraduates being charged something much less than the obvious cost of their education were likely to think of themselves as students benefiting from an institution's generosity and society's philanthropy; whereas if you charge students $1,000 a week they become customers paying (however they get the money) a high price for a product. Customers expect something in return for their bucks: entertaining instruction, excellent facilities, good grades, sports for everyone, and ringing letters of recommendation, all of which have become more and more the norm at all elite American colleges, including Harvard.

Which makes me wonder, in turn, whether nationwide grade inflation may not have gone hand-in-hand, or quid pro quo (as elsewhere), with the high tuitions needed to balance the budget in the 1970s and to help build the stupendous endowments when times got better. The Kellers do not analyze grade inflation, but the New York Times reported a few years back that at Harvard the average grade rose to an A-minus/B-plus in the 1990s from a B/B-minus average in 1965. Grade inflation began, of course, in the Vietnam War days to avoid sending men with student deferments to the jungle, but it was not long before colleges were accepting the view that "only a success should be recorded permanently," which is pretty much what has happened. Nor do the Kellers refer to the collateral bloated letters of recommendation for both students and faculty--"I never deal in superlatives, but I cannot resist saying that Smithers is without question the best student I have taught in 30 years." So inflated have these letters become that they have ceased to be of any use to admission or appointment committees.

Giving up grading, which is what has happened de facto at Harvard and in most American higher education, has had far-reaching, though resolutely ignored, consequences for the authority of the faculty and for the legitimacy of the subjects they teach. You can't grade if there is no right answer, or if you don't know it. The demise of grades and other assessments is part of a major trend away from the positivistic truth that was the keystone of Conant's and Pusey's meritocratic research university toward a much looser and more relativistic conception of knowledge. The Kellers supply brief descriptions of "post-modernism" in fields like literature and history, but on the whole they are little concerned with the big shift in the reigning epistemology that lies at the core of any educational institution, structuring it and setting its procedures. Our century has seen a revolution in this respect, ranging from complementarity in the physical sciences, to deconstruction in the humanities and social sciences, to pragmatism in philosophy--with which Harvard's C.S. Pierce and William James had a lot to do--and it has radically changed higher education. Making Harvard Modern does not pursue this elusive rabbit.

Looking at big structural changes at Harvard, one would surely want to follow up on the effects of affirmative action. The Kellers note the large changes in gender and race percentages in the student body and the faculty. They do not, however, look into the horse's mouth and admit that Harvard, like so many of its peers (if it can be said to have any), has ceased to be an institution which admits its students and appoints and promotes its faculty at least ideally on demonstrated intellectual ability. Instead it has become one of many that admit and promote in part on the basis of sex and color and ethnicity. All for the best reasons, of course, and still with a nod to merit, but the old meritocratic ideal is gone. It was never more than an ideal, but at least it was that.

In its place, among people who have lost faith in absolute truth, there has emerged a social and political orthodoxy that is feelingly summed up by a Divinity School professor: "You try to take a pro-life position there, boy, you're dead....In the old days one was required to believe certain theological dogmas: the incarnation of God in Jesus, the Resurrection, and so on. Now the School requires that one subscribe to radical feminism, to inclusive language, to their views on homosexuality and affirmative action--there are probably more things that one has to subscribe to now than there were 50 years ago."* [*List professor of Jewish studies Jon D. Levenson, quoted in "The 30 Years' War," September-October 1999, page 61.]

For the Kellers the educational action has mainly been not in grades or faculty appointments, but in the growth of the endowment and the elaboration of the bureaucracy. The two go together, of course. As the endowment rises above $19 billion, and one fund drive begins before its predecessor ends, big bureaucracies are required to raise and invest sums as large as those controlled by General Motors and J.P. Morgan Chase. They are also required to staff the increase in the many services that Harvard now offers its customers: "financial, legal, health, information technology, food, real estate, personnel, development, government relations." The old style of administration, characterized as a "low-keyed...'holding company,'" has been transformed into "a much more assertive, take-charge body of managers," most of whom command market-level salaries that grew at a much higher rate between 1993 and 1999 than did faculty salaries. The social results of this bureaucratization have been devastating. The Kellers tell us that in what was once a community of scholars, no one knows anyone any longer: the faculty feel isolated from the administration; the students find themselves taught even more than usual by graduate students; professional administrators find themselves more and more at odds with the educational interests of the faculty and the political evangelicalism of the students. It is a standing joke outside Harvard that even its very best students' letters of recommendation are written by graduate students and junior faculty members, often years after they have left Cambridge, because these are the only teachers the students know well enough to ask for a reference.

The Kellers are at their best on this centrifugal social dynamic of the modern Harvard community, but they miss the technological revolution that has been such a central part of the great change in modern universities. The primary drive of electronic communication is, in my opinion, its pressure toward freedom and change. Nothing is ever locked up for good, as it is in the fixity of the print world. Everything can be moved around in an instant, adjusted, recombined with something else in another order. Electronic information storage and transmission fit like a glove the dominant relativism of our time, while print and the book belong to the positivism of the old research universities and their search for absolute truth. One of the most telling indexes of what is happening in the modern university is a comparison of what is happening in the library and the computer center. The Kellers record Harvard's leadership in developing the academic use of the computer, and they glory in the great book collections that are to be found in Widener Library and elsewhere. But they do not go very deeply into the costs of finding space for and cataloging this flood of books, or into the financial problems created by the surge in book and journal prices (especially scientific journals). They seem unaware that print is costing itself out of the knowledge business. Nor do they, rather more seriously, see that the two technologies represent two very difierent approaches to knowledge. A book-centered university is a very different kind of place from a university focused on surfing on the computer and the database, and a description of how they have interacted at our leading university would be most instructive and interesting.

I learned a lot and I read with pleasure the Kellers' history, but Harvard 2000--"a participant in, as much as an observer of, the world around it"--does not remain essentially the same meritocratic university that they praise it for being.

So what has it become? Something, I think, that we are all very familiar with, the typical successful social organization of our time and place: the multinational corporation. It charges what the market will bear for its product (education and prestige); it satisfies its customers' interests; it is organized efficiently in a bureaucratic manner; it interacts with government in numerous ways; it budgets carefully and has a bottom line (the endowment); and it embodies the dominant ethos of its clients in such matters as race and gender. In my view no blame attaches to this new corporate university or to those who run it. It is the inevitable historical development of higher education in a democratic, capitalistic, secular society. But it is something different than what it once was, not just bigger and richer, but really different. The motto Veritas has begun to pick up a little irony, and our great universities, including Harvard, would seem to be drawing to the end of a time when they can any longer claim that they are ivory towers, outside politics and indifferent to mammon, run for the benefit of the nation and engaged in an unbiased search for knowledge. 

Alvin B. Kernan, Avalon professor of humanities emeritus at Princeton, is the author of In Plato's Cave, an academic and personal memoir, and The Death of Literature. He edited What's Happened to the Humanities? and has written and edited several volumes of criticism.

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