Los Angeles Times

Valley Edition

Sunday, April 4, 1999

PERSPECTIVE ON EDUCATION

RUNNING THE BUSINESS OF KNOWLEDGE

Imposed on a university, conventional corporate notions of productivity and accountability will eventually destroy its soul.

By B.A. SETHURAMAN

The California State University chancellor, in collusion with the university Board of Trustees, recently imposed a set of salary and employment conditions on the faculty that the faculty did not want.

The faculty senate at Cal State Northridge, in a recent meeting, passed a resolution of noncooperation with the chancellor on the newly imposed conditions.

The chancellor, Charles Reed, was exercising his legal privilege. More than a year of contract negotiations with the faculty union over salary and working conditions had failed and, by law, he was within his rights to impose his "last best offer." But enlightened leadership calls for more than mere exercise of legal privilege. It consists of listening with respect to the voices of the rank and file, the people who actually do the work of the organization.

Instead of listening with respect, the chancellor has, throughout the failed bargaining process, taken every opportunity to ridicule the very faculty that is at the heart of the university he leads. Public utterances, made to business leaders and magazine editors, suggest that he holds the faculty in deep contempt.

The fundamental work of the university, teaching and scholarship, is carried on by the faculty, a body of people who have devoted their lives, often at considerable financial sacrifice, to the service of knowledge. The Cal State University faculty is a dedicated lot, toiling long hours, teaching undergraduates, designing curricula, writing books, pushing the envelope by doing fundamental research, exchanging new ideas in seminars and conferences and, in general, guiding the students who will lead the next generation. Much of this happens beyond the view of the public and certainly extends well beyond the 12 to 15 hours per week spent in class contact.

What do faculty members want? First and foremost, they want a leader who respects and understands the mission of the university. The university is very different from that other institution so dominating our lives today, the for-profit corporation. The two march to different drums.

The university is predicated on the free pursuit of knowledge, both for the public good and for its own sake, and not necessarily for the possibility of commercial profit. It is based on the belief that the serious contemplation of a diverse range of human achievements and human philosophies must be allowed to shape value systems, and that different modes of thought and outlooks on life should all be debated passionately but given equal respect. * * *

The primary mission of the for-profit corporation, on the other hand, is to gather the talents of individuals and direct them toward making profit for the owners. The constrained operating ranges of corporations, their narrow vision and focus on bottom lines would not serve the university, whose mission is to draw out the best in human beings and prepare them to be productive citizens as it engages in the unfettered service of knowledge.

Reed is attempting to graft a corporate structure on the university, and at root, this is where the faculty has balked and where negotiations have failed. The university thrives on intellectual freedom, yet Reed wants to change the governance structure of the university so that the faculty would have to answer to higher-level administration. More and more, higher-level administrators in universities are proving to be a breed apart from the faculty, removed from the service of knowledge, too ready to destroy the mission of the university as they go about visualizing themselves as corporate chief executives.

Borrowing language from the business sector, the chancellor would have the faculty accountable to the administration for its "productivity" and "efficiency." But Reed does not seem to understand something fundamental: Conventional corporate notions of productivity and efficiency do not apply to the knowledge business. For instance, in the conventional corporate sense, the most productive university would be one that shepherded students fastest through the degree program by drastically cutting the number of courses and lowering standards--surely a frightening scenario.

As he imposes his unpopular conditions, Reed will win his battle in the short run. He will take credit for raising faculty salaries (these were in fact long overdue--faculty raises in this decade have been sporadic and have averaged only 1.4%), he will claim to have made the faculty "accountable."

But in the long run, as he continues with his mission to convert the university into just another corporation, he will destroy its soul. Talented faculty will leave the academy in droves, to be replaced by those to whom teaching is merely a job. The quest for genuine understanding, which is at the heart of the university, will be replaced by the mere peddling of information. And the ultimate losers will be the people of the state of California.

- - - B.A. Sethuraman Is a Professor of Mathematics at Cal State Northridge

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