Purpose of University

A university is a self-perpetuating oligarchy.

A university chooses its own members, restricts membership, and governs from self-selected internal member promotion.

Ok, so this a somewhat platonic abstraction of a private university, and the selection is from the meta-pool of members of the ensemble of universities, that are suitably like the particular university.
But, a self-perpetuating oligarchy it is.

Public universities, well, it gets complicated - they may be totally under external control or under nominal external control or have some open feedback loops to the external world with loose coupling.

I'd argue all universities are pulled to the ideal of the autonomous and self-perpetuating oligarchic model, but most are resource constrained.

This is not by design, it is emergent behaviour: universities that do not do this do not survive as institutions.
Further, the universities that exemplify this best are those with oldest continuous histories are coherent institutions.


  • Self preservation and perpetuation.
    This is done at several levels: the production of future members of the university from the pool of students; the production of future students from the pool of ex-students; the production of new students; the production of administrators from the pool of university members; and, the production of an external pool of sympaticos who can act to protect and perpetuate the university.
    This almost all emergent behaviour stuff.
  • Preservation of knowledge.
    Especially abstract, obscure and useless knowledge.
    It is why universities tend to have libraries and museums and stuff.
    It is where people who speak dead, or dying, languages are; where people worry about the patterns of numbers on multi-dimensional symmetric dice; and bridges to nowhere; and where they obsessively measure the magnetoresistivity of rare earths, and layers of two different rare earths, and three different rare earths and... useless crap, at the time, just in case.
  • Accumulation of new knowledge.
    Every different kind of ant. The dying languages we didn't know we couldn't speak.
    The nine billion names of god. The hidden links between think tanks and newly elected legislators. The change in magnetoresistance in thin layer rare earth films when you change the magnetic field.
  • Generation of new knowledge. Research.
    Like algorithms for efficiently searching large digital libraries. Got to sort all that knowledge.
  • Provide higher education opportunity to sufficiently capable, motivated or well prepared graduates of the secondary education system.
  • Socialize students of heterogenous background and provide social networking opportunities for a targeted and self-selected population. Including meritocratic opportunities for social mobility.
  • Generate a broad reserve of a well educated population with a broad range of general knowledge of higher education topics, providing context, and, in particular, encourage distribution of concepts, methodology, and the motivation to learn and understand through independent thinking.
  • Provide technical training in advanced fields; generate new practical techniques; provide professional training at the masters level and higher.

      Learning, per se, is actually way down there.

      Vocational training to provide short term technical skills for "jobs": not so much.
      The professional schools do tend to come under the university umbrella, but even they generally want students to first get the liberal arts education and then the advanced professional training.

      This, unfortunately, is not what a lot of people think universities ought to be doing.
      They want the guaranteed return of a well paid job through practical training.

      But, the effect by which university educated people tend, on average, to get higher paid jobs overall, and have lower unemployment rates in aggregate, is not so much a direct consequence of some vocational training, it is incidental to the general education and the meta-learning.
      Sure, students learn skills, advanced techniques, key concepts etc., but the purpose is not job training, it just happens to have mostly generated the sort of people who do well in good jobs.
      With the caveat of the postgraduate professional training - any employment field which is controlled by a professional association which requires an accredited advanced degree.

      Subtle distinction.

      So, there are institutes of higher education that do vocational training.
      They give people directly applicable skills for immediate job tasks.
      This is good.
      It is not, generally, the purpose of a university, per se.

      Some people think it ought to be.
      I think what they want is more vocational training which is not actually done terribly well or effectively at universities.
      Really some would be better done by guild training and apprenticeships.

      But you still need the universities.
      For all those other things.

      So, the next big questions are: what is the education of the university students; and why should the general population support the universities when what a lot of them want are jobs requiring vocational training, not liberal education?


More like this

"Provide higher education opportunity to sufficiently capable, motivated well-connected OR well prepared graduates of the secondary education system. "
Fixed that for you.

"Socialize students of heterogenous socially inferior backgrounds and provide social networking opportunities for a targeted and self-selected population. Including very occasional lottery opportunities for social mobility designed to create the illusion of social mobility. "
Those that are already well-connected don't need college, it's a finishing school type thing. But the few lower class individuals allowed to claw their way into the middle class, or the even fewer middle class allowed to claw their way into the upper classes... it is necessary that those people adopt the correct mental outlooks before being allowed to do so. Including the mental attitude that you yourself have- that meritocracy is part of the purpose. That 'vocational training' is not. That you can tell everything you need to know about the quality of a person by the institutions they attended. Indoctrination in the University Myths.

Not quite.
The "well connected" part is under the "perpetuation" - universities survive in part by inducing its members to encourage those they are connected to to join them - both directly: "I went to this university, it was great, you go to it also", and indirectly "I went to a university, it was great, you also go to a university".

Now, the well connected don't need universities, they have country clubs. But, there are emergent behaviours: while the country clubs would cheerfully absorb all their upper class twit of the year contestants, social groups who sent all their propagators to country clubs would rapidly cease to exist - there are benefits to the well connected to receive other university amenities than the networking.
If nothing else, you won't keep grandma's trust fund for long if you are innumerate, you need trusted competent associates.

Also, universities that become too exclusive for too long and ignore merit, well they have emergent phenomena - they decline - universities certainly assume some aspects of the country club (and they like it, rich friends can be fun), but they can't survive as country clubs, the country clubs are better at it.

Further, the meritocracy and social mobility aspect are both internally motivated, and externally driven - universities that become social clubs don't receive social subsidies for long and may be actively extinguished by social forces.
There has to be realistic promise for social mobility for the not well connected.
More directly, the members of the university LIKE to induce social mobility, and reward merit, consciously so - doesn't mean that they are very good at it, and there are many mistakes made, particularly of omission, but they do try.
If nothing else the faculty have disproportionate representation from the socially upwardly mobile and only some of them sell out and pull up the ladder.

"If nothing else, you won't keep grandma's trust fund for long if you are innumerate, you need trusted competent associates."
That's just silly. The nummeracy required to make sure your accountants /financial advisors aren't cheating you isn't taught at university anyway. Getting connected to the right kind of people to be able to hire talent is much more valuable- and uni can help there.

Country clubs offer only exclusivity. Universities offer the incredibly potent combination of the pride of 'exclusivity' and the fairness of 'meritocracy'. There is a lot of tension in trying to achieve both.
I think that is what fundamentally leads to the conflict in what people think univeristies should do ('liberal arts' vs. 'vocational training' being proxies).

"If nothing else the faculty have disproportionate representation from the socially upwardly mobile and only some of them sell out and pull up the ladder. "
Citation? Are faculty more likely to have been the kids of coal miners or the kids of professors?

If anything, it seems to me faculty are most likely to come from a higher social class than the students they teach.

Furthermore, I think large percentage do 'pull up the ladder'- or at least ignore the fact it isn't very long. After all, if they were invested in equality first and foremost, why not teach at K-12 or in a community college?

At least in physics and astronomy, most faculty come from either middle class US or international backgrounds. Some upper-middle class, some lower-middle class. It's a competitive job market, so it's very tough for people from rough childhoods to make it to a faculty job. On the other hand, few from upper class backgrounds are willing to put in the work required to excel.

It probably varies from campus to campus, but at least where I am, the average family income of our undergrads in higher than the sum of what the university pays one faculty and one staff (not an uncommon situation for two income family). Once they get in, what they do with the opportunities given to them is largely up to them.

Why are we at universities, rather than K-12 or CCs? Largely because universities provide an opportunity for us to train students in how to do research, rather than exclusively classroom learning. Most other settings prioritize wrote learning and don't provide nearly the same extent of opportunity for one-on-one interaction that are essential to quality mentoring.

If anything, it seems to me faculty are most likely to come from a higher social class than the students they teach.

I'm sure there are some universities (HBCUs, for instance) where that is the case. But it's not universally true. People from the upper classes, unless they are unusually idealistic, tend not to go into academia because they have access to jobs that are both easier and more lucrative. People from the low end of the socioeconomic spectrum find it difficult to remain enrolled in university (between rising tuition and decreased availability of grants this is becoming even more true than it was in my student days), so they are underrepresented.

An anecpointal datadote: I work at a university where it is not unusual to see undergraduates driving late-model SUVs; most professors have less ostentatious tastes in motor vehicles. This is a state university. I'm sure that most private universities would draw from people with socioeconomic backgrounds as high or higher than the applicant pool here.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 31 Mar 2011 #permalink

Perpetuation of class distinction in the US is far more strongly influenced by primary and secondary schools and their varying quality than by universities (much less university faculty behavior, which is only a small part of what happens in universities), in my opinion.

Of course this leads to the issue that higher classes are over-represented in universities, but that's a symptom rather than a cause. A university can be as egalitarian as possible and it won't be able to offset the distinctions imposed by the feeder system.

This is a larger societal problem that has to do with how we (as a country) value, or don't value, both education and equality of opportunity. Individual idealistic people going to teach K-12 can have only a very limited effect on it, and trying to swim against a societal tide of lack of respect for education often leads to burnout in teachers. I don't think it's possible to say that profs are not invested in equality just because they didn't choose to teach K-12 instead.

You can argue for different distribution of resources, but not against the value of universities. Certainly a lot of students would be much better off at a Polytechnic or college, to get practical training for employment. Quite a few courses at Universities should be moved there. But research you quote can often lead to immensely important advances, for example rare earth magnetic study can lead to advances in computing, power generation and the like. So: reorganisation yes [with outside regulation]; abolition no. "Research" is not usually possible in Technical institutes.

By John Birkbeck (not verified) on 02 Apr 2011 #permalink