Speaking of Universities

One good thing about traveling is (especially on “smaller regional jets”) is the opportunity to read. The seats and tray tables are really too small to do any substantial work on a laptop and my new MacBook Pro has a solid hour of battery life. So I had no excuse to do anything other than read.

I colleague recommended that I check out Stefan Collini’s Speaking of Universities (Verso 2017) because of my general interest in higher education policy and my specific interest in how people talk about higher education. I am also beginning to put a class together on the budget cuts at the University of North Dakota (based very loosely on a series of blog posts here) and their historical context both in higher education in the state and nationally.

The book is a pretty quick read in part because it is a compilation of previously published articles, reviews, and papers which are redundant and, in part, because Collini lays out his arguments very clearly at the start. He is writing in the immediate context of the sweeping changes made to higher education in the England and Wales in 2012. While some of the book does deal with the particular details of these reforms, the book remains a useful read for American academics because of a few salient take aways:

1. Speaking about Higher Education. At a recent meeting on campus, I suggested that part of the challenge facing UND isn’t so much the budget cuts, but how we talk about budget cuts. A couple weeks ago, it was announced that we’d cut our women’s hockey program and the arguments made to defend this move were largely economic ands budgetary. At the same time, the response to the cuts were largely emotional or grounded in arguments about university values. The asymmetries in the arguments made the university look bad because instead of talking about what a university means, UND administrators end up talking about relatively technical aspect of higher education administration (i.e. Title IX, cost/benefit, et c.).

Whatever the realities of these technical constraints are, people nevertheless look to universities to talk about values and leadership. In other words, even as UND faces significant budgetary issues, there remains a responsibility to talk about what a university means, if for no other reason than this is what the public expects.

Collini stresses the need to focus on how we talk about higher education and to resist the temptation to think of higher education as a business or an economic enterprise and communicate with that language. While there is no denying the economic constraints on higher education, Collini argues that the way we talk about about decision making, priorities, and value should reflect things that go far beyond the economic value or realities of the university. After all, we rarely talk about the truly important things in life using economic terms. 

2. Systems, Problems, and Competition. When academics are presented with systems and problems, our general approach is to try to break the system and try to solve the problem. The educational reforms in England and Wales involve a complex equation for how universities are funded. From the introduction of this system, universities sought ways to maximize their funding, in part, by playing within the rules of the system and, in part, by finding ways to subvert the system to their benefit. This is a product of both deep-seated academic practice of problem solving grounded in a healthy skepticism that any particular system of knowledge will, necessarily, provide the answers to particular problems. In other words, part of the process of exploring a problem and posing solutions is identifying the systemic causes for the problem and breaking the system when necessary.

This approach to academic problem solving is further amplified by competition. As administrators and legislators push universities and programs to compete with one another, it is natural that they will increasingly attempt to subvert the various systems set to manage or constrain that competition. This is simply the nature of academia (and I’d suggest that it is not radically different from the behavior of interests in a market economy). Various systems put in place to measure academic productivity will be broken by academics.

3. Higher Education and Markets. At the end of the day, Collini takes great pains to emphasize that competition, the language of business, and economic motivations will not work because universities do not do their best work when they are not chasing the market. Unfortunately, this is where Collini’s work falters a bit. He does little to offer a clear definition of how we know that universities are doing their best work.

This issue, of course, is the crux of Collini’s argument. It is fine to suggest that we talk about higher education in ways that more authentically reflect the motivations and practices that take place across university campuses, but it is another thing to come up with a compelling discourse, narrative, or even basic language that embodies the wide range of successful outcomes across the modern university campus. The modern university has developed in parallel with the changing economic forces, managerial attitudes, and market structures, and these cultures have shaped in uneven ways the development of disciplinary attitudes across campus. In other words, the main challenge facing how universities speak may not be an adversarial relationship between the world of higher education and the world of policy, markets, and politics, but the deep interpenetration of these worlds has done more than add a layer of “edu-speak” jargon to higher education, but transformed it at the base.

Collini’s work reflects one strand of the higher education conversation that tends to see the rarified air of pure science and the humanities as the authentic academic discourse and the language of applied science, managerialism, and markets as somehow external to the university. While I tend to agree that higher education should speak about things other than markets, business models, and competition, I also think that the strongest future for higher education involves a public language that embraces a plurality of views and discourses. 


  1. Nice summary. I like Collini. I am strong-arming my staff to read Collini. I think what is has to say about the vocabulary we use is powerful. But you are right; what is lacking, what is always lacking, is the suggestion of better metrics. Most of us don’t get to choose to have a higher ed system without metrics, and no one is going to believe that what we do is so pure it can’t be measured.


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