William M. Chace

Moral Dimensions of University Economies

Descriptions of college students in the 1950s and of those in the 1990s suggest that these two generations, separated by a gulf of history, are united by certain traits: conformity, professional ambition, aversion to risk, and flattened emotions. A recent survey of college freshmen found that the first graduating class of the new millennium is thoroughly conventional in its attitudes toward marriage, children, politics, religion, and careers. The evidence leads one to wonder whether the 1990s could be the 1950s anew. Could the current decade, like the fifties, be followed by one of intense social upheaval?

Robert Reich, former secretary of labor, draws attention to fundamental economic disparities in the United States. These disparities are evident at many colleges, which are not havens from the world of work, money, and need. One marker of a college's involvement with that world is financial aid.

At America's twenty-five richest campuses, more than half of undergraduates have qualified for financial aid. On these campuses, students qualifying for aid graduate with an average debt of $16,000. Very good students, that is, have economic realities constantly thrust upon them.

Those realities are brought home in other ways. At Emory, 25 percent of students' families make more than $200,000 a year, and 25 percent make less than $60,000. The rich and the not-rich-at-all make up a campus. Classmates together, friends together, but debtors not at all together. As go the stratifications of American society, so go the stratifications of campus society.

So, to imagine the aftermath of the 1990s is to imagine that one immensely important cultural landmark--the college campus--will be the site of an encounter between two very different roles of the university.

The first university role has been interpretative, to make entering students keenly aware of the past, and of the present emanating from that past. The second role has been promotional, to turn students toward social functions and symbols deemed valuable for them and society. Many private colleges began with this role in mind; their missions underscored the social cachet and higher values attached to professional callings. The first role is informative; the second is inspirational.

Today, however, the latter role has achieved preeminence, and students have no trouble learning the source of status. It derives, by and large, from the insulation from social anxieties that can be bought with high-paying jobs. The campus has become a full-time vendor not only of classroom learning but also of health care, entertainment, food, job training, remedial improvement, alumni solicitude, psychological counseling, and industrial and corporate relations. Virtually no one on any campus, however, has sufficient moral credibility to proclaim what the better life might be other than the security provided by a good income. The campus as moral inspiration is a nostalgic vestige. Of the university, both parent and child now ask the same questions they ask of anyone with whom they have a contractual relationship: what are the costs and the benefits to me? That kind of question ignores any higher obligations a student might have to the world beyond the campus. Both society and student therefore become impoverished.

To the degree that universities mirror social realities, to the degree that such realities are evident in the economic stratifications and consumer mentality of campus life, the future of the university as a cultural medium becomes clearer. That future is suggested by the conundrums with which campuses now wrestle.

The first of these is the serious trouble affirmative action now faces in the courts and public opinion. Certain leading universities have sought new ways to help the most fiscally disadvantaged groups by ignoring affirmative action altogether and simply stating they will not require disadvantaged students to take out burdensome loans that other students carry. This move will bring home more vividly to every student the differential of wealth vs. poverty. As controversial as affirmative action has been, what will replace it is more crass, less noble.

A second reality is the increasing presence of part-time, non-tenure-track faculty, who make up some 40 percent of the American professoriate. They migrate from job to job and thus have little institutional loyalty. Their presence reminds students that the coin of the realm is efficiency, reduced costs, "out-sourcing," and, as a result, diminished community spirit. Students now see the bottom line setting standards for what once was postulated to be a distinctively high-minded place.

A third reality is "technology transfer," by which on-campus research is supported by off-campus commercial entities, in the hope that the latter will benefit from the former. Technology transfer also offers lucrative advantages for researchers, and some corporations have significant fiscal interest in academic programs. The result is to make the academy potentially beholden to nonacademic interests.

All of these changes are driven by a logic against which it would be folly to complain. But each defensible change is part of a greater cultural transformation. The change most important to the academy is that the "hallowed" idea of the campus is eroding. In this, it is not alone. The lawyer today is a hireling, not a "priest of democracy." The physician today is an HMO employee, not a bearer of the code of Hippocrates. The culture will feel even more different in the next decade.

That decade will likely see the emergence of manifest class differences. If the current boom has bypassed too many, then the gap between winners and losers, and all of its consequences--in financial aid, salary distribution, job opportunities, and debt--will be impossible to hide on campus.

President William M. Chace

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