I want to reply briefly to the question Mr. Warren asks about why universities aren’t run as many corporations are: “Consider the average workplace and how bosses are responsible for staff performance. Why aren’t most professors held accountable in some clear fashion for how much a student may, or may not, learn during a semester, or over four years?”
I believe in this question. It’s one of the most important we can ask about college educations, especially as tuition prices skyrocket. I agree strongly that many colleges and professors are not doing a good enough job of educating students. What we have to do, though, is be very careful about keeping in mind why we want accountability, because the obvious answer — so that students learn the content of the required number of courses — is one of the least important, and in fact it is positively detrimental to the more important reasons to get a college degree. As a means to an end, accountability is a dangerous tool, in part because it can bring the deadening hand of red tape down on a process that should exemplify democratic independence and participation.
First, we should question why the average workplace is a good standard for accountability. Forgive me for my skepticism, but I have very rarely heard anyone describe the average workplace as an exemplar of high efficiency, intelligence, creativity, entrepreneurial spirit, or moral worth. I think almost everyone experiences the management practices of corporations and organizations as at least as detrimental as helpful to the institution’s goals. The reason has to do with the underlying goal of enforcing accountability through bureaucracy: to remove any dependence on unpredictable, outside-the-box achievements. Bureaucracies achieve accountability through routinization and standardization. This is fine if the overall goal is producing something many times with nearly identical outcomes, like a car in a factory, but it’s not so good if the aim is to develop independent, creative, entrepreneurial human beings.
Now, many people no doubt believe that the purpose of a college education is to get a job, any job, that pays well enough to be middle class. They don’t care if the job is creative or a dead-end. While I respect the basic desire for a comfortable life, I think it’s in fact essential to the continued stability of our democracy that we aim to do better. To say why, it’s important to look not at the average work place, but the ones held in highest esteem who regularly succeed at creative, ground-breaking projects. What about these organizations leads to good outcomes even when they are creating inherently non-standard, non-routine products?
Ironically, I think some of the best exemplars are universities and the sort of open-ended R&D centers (like the old Xerox PARC) that were notorious problems for managers because there was no good way to run them in a routine way. We can argue about what the best cases are, but it’s worth asking why (at least historically) the employees at these organizations did such great work despite having considerable creative autonomy. One answer is that accountability doesn’t need to come from outside; in fact, the best scenario is holding oneself accountable for some task because one genuinely believes in its importance. That importance may be for the sake of others, or it may be simply for the challenge and pleasure of succeeding at a difficult goal. (It may be both.)
But the significance of our best work occurring outside bureaucratic standards goes beyond the workplace. The consequences are in fact quite broad: learning to think creatively and having the necessary agency to hold oneself accountable are important for public life in general, and especially for continuing the entrepreneurial, self-starter tradition of American politics.
As a result, it’s critical that we be very leery of imposing the deadening hand of bureaucracy on college education. Even if college were only for the sake of getting a good job, the requirements for a good job these days are not simply having mastered certain course material or technical skills. Indeed, the very best jobs require much more than subject-based knowledge: teamwork, critical analysis, quick learning, and flexibility are paramount. It’s difficult to imagine how colleges would inculcate these abilities in students if they were held accountable to regimes of testing, quotas, or other hurdles. In sum, while it’s true that we need to hold colleges more accountable for their results, it should be clear that importing the standards of the average corporate workplace would be a mistake, and indeed the very ideal of higher education is consonant with the sort of accountability, i.e. self-accountability, which cannot be produced en masse like cars in a factory.