College by the numbers

Earlier this month the State University of New York at Albany announced “that the university was ending all admissions to programs in French, Italian, Russian, and classics, leaving only Spanish left in the language department once current students graduate. The theater department is also being eliminated.” Over the weekend the New York Times asked a panel of scholars to respond to this news, wondering how necessary the study of French really is. Among their respondents was Gaye Tuchman, author of Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University, who argues that “ending programs in the arts and humanities because they are not making money transforms universities into trade schools. This corporatization of colleges and universities has already squelched the notion that higher education is a public good.”
jacket imageThe process of corporatization is one Tuchman has studied extensively, as seen in Wannabe U, which tracks the dispiriting consequences of trading in traditional educational values for loyalty to the market. In a recent essay for the Chronicle Review, Tuchman examined the effects of one particular trend that universities have borrowed from corporations: an obsession with measuring success numerically. After detailing the various ways faculty and administrators have collaborated in developing an “audit culture,” Tuchman notes:

Colleges and universities have transformed themselves from participants in an audit culture to accomplices in an accountability regime. The term “audit culture” refers to rituals of verification that measure whether and how institutions and individuals engage in self-policing, much as a diabetic pricks her finger to learn her blood-sugar level. Besotted with rituals that are characteristic of the corporate world, higher education has inaugurated an accountability regime—a politics of surveillance, control, and market management that disguises itself as value-neutral and scientific administration.

The long-term effect of this process is a university more concerned with measuring success than educating successfully. Ultimately, Tuchman concludes, the problem with the new corporate university’s love of metrics is that “such numbers have no meaning. They cannot indicate the quality of a student’s education. . . . One cannot tell what the metrics have to do with the supposed purpose of institutions of higher education—to create and transmit knowledge.”