Q&A: The future of big, public universities


On April 25, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louis Menand visited campus and delivered a lecture titled “The Condition of the Humanities.” An English and American literature and language professor at Harvard University, Menand previously taught at the City University of New York and is a writer for The New Yorker. In his most recent book, “The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University,” he poses questions about “the large social investment” Americans make in institutions “whose purpose is simply the production and dissemination of knowledge — that is research and teaching.”

Menand talked to the Texan about his ideas about higher education in the context of battles the UT System Board of Regents and the UT administration continue to wage over the future of our University. That conversation, during which Menand spoke frankly about the online world’s pressure on traditional universities, can be found below, edited and condensed. 

Daily Texan: Are you familiar with UT and the conflict between the UT System Board of Regents and the University’s president?
Louis Menand: I know there’s a conflict. I don’t know all the details.

DT: The UT administration, faculty, governing regents and state lawmakers are wrestling with big questions about higher education institutions and how they should function and for what purpose. Given your arguments in your 2010 book that 21st century professors are essentially trying to to function in a 19th century system, what do you advise as the path forward for a large public university subject to the influence of a large, conservative southern state legislature and a very empowered governor?

Menand: (Laughing) That’s a loaded question. I wasn’t referring in that phrase about it being a 19th century institution to the issues that are confronting people at UT ... 

[T]here’s always sort of the same tug of war, handoff regarding whatever the state governing agency, regents or whatever they might be, the governor or the legislature. In [the case of the City University of New York it is] the mayor and the faculty administration of the institution. And it’s always the case that the public officials want to see enrollments, graduation rates, job placements in pretty concrete empirical terms in judging how much they’re going to invest in the institution, because CUNY was 95 percent public money, and the university and the faculty are pushing back and resisting that, because they know perfectly well that not every education can be quantified in those terms and if you try to do that, you’re going to ruin what makes universities places that can produce in all kinds of unpredictable ways people that are very creative and productive members of society.

DT: So who’s right and who will win? In the big picture, because you’re saying it’s not just at CUNY, it’s not just at UT.
Menand: It’s a large public university question ... and it’s usually the flagship that gets a lot of flak. At CUNY I taught in the graduate center, one of 20 campuses. In bad financial times [the graduate center] got an enormous amount of criticism because we didn’t teach that much, we were paid more, we admitted students from out of New York City, all the accusations of being elitist and expendable. But it wasn’t ... First of all, it was a way of providing an excellent education for a number of students, and secondly, it was a way of giving the system a high profile, which was important. UT is thought by everybody in the United States to be one of the great universities in the country, so I don’t know why you’d want to mess with it, really.  

DT: Why is it one of the best universities in the country? What makes that the case?
Menand: The quality of the faculty.

DT: And, so, is there something incorrect about the argument that it’s not necessarily to the benefit of public university students in the best way possible?
Menand: It’s a legitimate question to ask: Is your public university system educating people who will become productive workers in Texas (ideally), or wherever they may go? Or is this a very expensive post-high school something? The university system has to be accountable to the taxpayers through the officials.

DT: So what is an example of it working? And why is it a question that’s being raised so angrily right now, at UT, but also at Illinois and Virginia?
Menand: So, I think that the period since 2008 has been a period for states of a lot of financial constraints and pressures that cause them to look at the various things that they fund and to try and see if they can reduce costs or increase the effectiveness of what they’re doing. So that’s one piece of it. The second piece of it is the MOOC [Massive Open Online Courses] phenomenon. So the MOOC phenomenon gives people the idea that you could actually educate people a whole lot cheaper by having everything streamed through a computer and you wouldn’t have to pay faculty who are less efficient and can teach much smaller numbers of students ... Unfortunately, that’s become the leverage of this argument — that the MOOCs are going to solve the problem for us, basically automating the teaching process.

DT: What do you think about that?
Menand: I think it’s a bad idea if that happens. But I think it’s going to happen.

DT: When?
Menand: Look, I don’t like to predict things, so it’s hard to say. I think that one thing that could happen — not in Austin but at other schools in the UT System — is that they will stop hiring faculty because they’ll be able to for nothing get online instruction from people at Stanford, Harvard and UT-Austin, who will create these MOOCs. And that’s a very low-cost way of getting high prestige faculty to teach your students for you even if they don’t go to that university. Insofar as governors and legislators think that this is a good solution, it’s definitely in the wings.

DT: And why do you think it’s a bad idea?
Menand: Because, for one thing, it’s going to really disrupt the professional ecology of the academic business because our graduate students, the people we’re training to continue to teach what we teach won’t be able to get jobs. Those are the schools where people get jobs. And if those jobs are starting to disappear because those faculty are being turned into basically teaching assistants or they’re being phased out, then our graduate students won’t be able to get work done and the profession will start to wither because we need something like a robust economy. The second reason why, I think, is that for many fields, obviously there’s some courses in some areas where MOOCs are probably an adequate form of pedagogy, but for many fields, certainly the stuff that I teach, you can’t do it that way, you need to have interaction in a classroom with human beings.

DT: What forces exist today that you think will contend with the force that is the argument in favor of MOOCs? What optimism do you have that it won’t become totally automated?
Menand: I think that the reason I would worry about it is that there’s always been distance learning, and for most of the time, the elite institutions have always just looked down their noses at distance learning. Now, suddenly, who are the people who are the big movers in the MOOC world? Stanford, Harvard, [UT-]Austin, Wesleyan — the big name schools are trying to get involved. And they have the capital to make it happen. [Harvard] plunked down $30 million to be part of edX, which is our MOOC, [and UT’s], so we can get in where smaller schools and less wealthy schools can’t get into the game, we can get our brand product out there. So when you’re taking a course on Henry James and you want to MOOC it, you’ll get the Harvard Henry James.

DT: This digital revolution in the context of higher education is one area, but is there any other historical precedent, not for the digital revolution, but for these kinds of changes?
Menand: Well, one parallel is in the 19th century when the research university became the model institution and replaced the old college. And the research university was, as the name implies, founded on the assumption that the chief business of the academic mission was to produce research and scholarship, and so teaching was always part of that but the main thing was to produce knowledge. And the norms for knowledge production at that time were heavily scientific. ... There was a real struggle in that period to try to establish a place for the arts and humanities and the non-hard sciences in the university system, which is really set up ideally to produce science and scientific knowledge. And it was partially successful. But basically, the research model won. That’s the model that we have.