The Purpose of Academia

Chad has an interesting riff on tenure and academia and the "business model" for universities.
He touches some buttons.

Several things came together today for me, one was a website that required me to pick an occupation that "best fit" what I did. I reluctantly selected teacher, because I am not an administrator, certainly not an engineer and nothing else was even close.

But I am not a teacher, although I do "teach" classes. Nor am I that abomination of a neologism, the "educator". I do interact with students, I present material in a structured manner (I like to think). I guide students in a sequence of studies that are supposed to build successively upon each other. I provide instruction in what is required for minimal competence, and on what is wrong, and in my field much of that is not a matter open to debate.

But, the students are not "consumers" that I am servicing, and I am not a teacher.
I mostly provide students with an opportunity to learn, or even just to learn to learn. With some strange incentives for them to actually do so that are mostly meaningless cultural stigmata.
(if you do not do exactly as I instructed, you shall be assigned a Letter next to your Name, and the letter shall be A or B or C, or perhaps the Dreaded D or Fearful F, but very rarely E; and the letter shall have a number, and the number of it is the ordinality of the letter in the roman alphabet subtracted from the integer 5- and no, I do not know why such a ridicilous scale with poor dynamic range was chosen).

In the liberal arts concept of the university, the students are given an opportunity to learn, with some structure to get a coherent concept of some field of study.
But modern universities are split in this, with the liberal arts sometimes being a minor part of all the studies supported - rather, much of the education is professional (eg engineering, medicine, law) where the model of edcuation is necessarily much more focused on teaching rather than learning, and much more structured in content and testing.
Further, universities increasingly provide vocational studies, where they are teaching a specific skill, not providing a broad education or opportunity for general learning.
This distorts the ideal model of a liberal arts university, and a case could be made that these functions should be split, except that the "institutes of technology" tend if anything to be more focused on broad learning than the universities (in the US), and there is a strong case to be made that the professional schools need the diversity in offerings they get by being embedded in liberal arts institutions. Even a little bit helps.
Some of the vocational study should be, and to a large extent is separated from liberal arts, but it is sooooo lucrative, that most universities indulge.

Of course I do "service", which is sort of administrative in many respects. And a lot of my time, when the time is good, is spent on research, or at least on acquiring and managing the resources to do research, or thinking about doing so.
Some of the research is contractual - essentially there is a business transaction where some work is solicited or agreed upon, and there is some obligation to do it, or make some progress on it, within some time schedule with proportionate resource allocation.
Critics of academia have little concept of how close to a small business model much of the PI led researcher groups in academia have become.
But, there are differences, and not just the heavy reliance on government contracts, that is also true in many businesses. One key difference is that much research is curiousity driven, not application driven. That is a very important difference, it is also something very hard to justify in most non-academic settings.

But one aspect remains unexplored: when I was a student, I served at one point on a panel exploring some student grievances. There was a public presentation, including one particularly harrowing one by some student, and then a senior faculty member on the panel stood to rebutt, explaining why the requests were impossible to accede to, telling us firmly at the end that "[xxx] is not a charity!"
I leant over as he sat down, and asked him quietly, just what was the tax status of [xxx]?
Senior faculty are very smart and very fast. Without blinking he stood back up, and withdrew his previous statement, noting that [xxx] is in fact an IRS registered charity.

The students got some concessions shortly afterwards.

That is also one reason for tenure - academics are do-gooders, they're made to jump through hoops to prove they are serious about The Cause, and then they are rewarded with permanent positions as charity workers... right?

A more fundamental reason is that univerisites are self-perpetuating oligarchies, and they need to take care of their own in order to survive. Natural selection does the rest.


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