Why the ‘Academic Social Contract’ Is Breaking

The administration of the University of Florida recently denied several faculty members permission to testify in court cases against the State of Florida, before reversing that decision on Friday. “As UF is a state actor,” the university’s assistant vice president for conflicts of interest wrote initially, “litigation against the state is adverse to UF’s interests.” This is a novel idea, but some version of the “conflict of interest” it names has dogged the academy for a long time. As the Stanford education historian Emily J. Levine writes on the first page of her new book, Allies and Rivals: German-American Exchange and the Rise of the Modern Research University, “Since antiquity, a tension has persisted between the independence of scholars” on the one hand “and higher learning that serves the state” on the other.

As Levine shows, scholarly autonomy and scholarly state dependence were often entwined. The American version of academic freedom was borrowed from Germany, where universities were embedded in state bureaucracies, which guaranteed a large measure of autonomy to professors in exchange for training experts of service to the state. This was academic autonomy with strings attached. When Daniel Coit Gilman founded Johns Hopkins, in the 1870s, with private money, his ambition was to erect a German-style research university that, unlike the German original, would be independent of the state. Allies and Rivals, just out from the University of Chicago Press, explores the “competitive emulation” between the German and American research universities from the 19th century to the postwar years.

I spoke last week with Levine about the state and the university, positive and negative conceptions of academic freedom, and whether a longstanding truce is now unraveling.

The tension between the university and the state is resolved, or managed, by what you call “the academic social contract.”

The tension between the scholar and the state, or the polis, goes back to Plato. The main challenge to understanding the university is that it occupies both the world of ideas and the world outside its walls. Most histories of the university have taken an internal perspective, focused on the university ideal, or an institutional perspective, focusing on organizational issues. I aim to tell the story of the university as a history of compromises — the academic social contracts — iterated by cultural brokers over time.

The history of the modern research university begins in 1810 with the founding of the University of Berlin. That institution was tasked with developing a professional and civil service and a competitive military, and it would operate with an unprecedented amount of autonomy. Scholars received the autonomy to pursue research in exchange for providing services to society.

You say something that really struck me, which is that “the period leading up to and including the World Wars shares more in common with our current world than with the subsequent period that began in 1945, the contractual basis of which is now unraveling.”

Most works about higher education begin where mine ends — with the expansion of the university through the GI Bill, in 1944, the Truman Commission of ’46, Sputnik in ’57, and then the Higher Education Act of ’65. This period witnessed an extraordinary bipartisan investment in higher education. And it’s that system that began to crumble in the 1970s with the erosion of public support, followed by the so-called permanent tax revolt of the ‘80s, increases in tuition, and ensuing student debt.

When I say that the contract of that period has run its course, I mean the idea that the university provided solutions to national problems. Today a journalist from The Atlantic can ask the president of Princeton whether his university should exist. A generation ago that question would have been incomprehensible. And there are many more questions now being asked: What earns universities the right to be tax-exempt? Why do they get all these federal subsidies? What is society getting in return? How do institutions of higher learning contribute to the public good? These challenges represent the end of a narrative.

Emily Levine

You tell the story of Abraham Flexner, a fascinating character who helped reform American medical school. Flexner said, “Education must, of course, be provided for the mediocre, but not at the expense of the able.” The highly stratified system of U.S. higher education is premised on some version of Flexner’s logic: concentrations of talent at the top are an integral part of the system. But that sort of elite formation is recently the object of much skepticism across the political spectrum — from books like Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit or Daniel Markovits’s The Meritocracy Trap to Ross Douthat in the Times. What are your thoughts about the current debates over meritocracy?

The story of the Flexner Report illustrates the advantages and disadvantages of raising standards and of professionalization. It was published in 1910 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching after a year of research in the United States and Canada, and it was an exposé revealing embarrassing details about the subpar conditions and performance of the for-profit medical schools that were prevalent at the time. The report recommended entrance requirements, a graded curriculum, and small classes. It became the model for the improvement of education in every other field.

It’s also an allegory for the problems of meritocracy. After the report was published, many of the schools that could not meet its standards collapsed. That’s exactly what Carnegie and Flexner intended. Of course some filtering for quality is a good thing — you might look at the for-profit universities today and say, well, they’re swindling students from low-income backgrounds and saddling them with debt, and for what? At for-profit universities as of 2020 only a quarter of students earned their bachelor’s degree within six years.

Raising standards and holding institutions accountable are important, but not everybody wins. Who were the losers of the Flexner Report? HBCUs for one, since most Black colleges couldn’t fund the changes Flexner required.

When Flexner was criticized for the undemocratic consequences of his standards, he said the mediocre medical schools weren’t doing anything for anyone — in fact, they were harming people, especially those in rural and poorer parts of the country. Don’t worry, he said, in the end the right distribution of better providers will come about. Graduates of the better medical schools will go everywhere.

But already by 1920 a study showed that geographic access to well-trained physicians was correlated with regional per-capita income. Notwithstanding the impacts, Flexner’s high standards and excellence marched on, from medicine to other fields, elevating the best professional schools and universities, and lavishing them with resources — at the expense of those on the edges. They took the German model that was intended for a select few and wedged it awkwardly into American democracy, emphasizing the pursuit of excellence over systematic attention to democratic values. This is the historical background for the difficulty colleges have in serving individuals on the periphery. Now we bear the consequences of that compromise.

In some ways the tension between excellence and access is built into the design of the research university. Consider the conflicting values of research and teaching, the former emphasizing opportunities for the best and the brightest, and the latter connected to the more democratic value of social mobility.

Gilman’s Hopkins, you write, “reflected a financial model that required constant fund raising and whose success depended on the capital markets.” I was reminded of an essay we ran recently on Robert Nisbet’s opposition to “academic capitalism.” How pertinent — or not — does Nisbet’s style of critique seem to you now?

What excited Gilman about this project was that it would be freed from sectarian bias — “entirely plastic in the hands of those to whom its founder has entrusted its organization and development,” as the president of the board put it. So the question becomes, whose hands? That’s what leads to Nisbet’s critique of academic capitalism. The new contracting partners were private donors, in this case a childless industrialist philanthropist, Johns Hopkins, and his fellow moneyed, learned railroad men of Baltimore.

So it’s not that Gilman had no shackles. The donors were individual personalities, with human frailties and flaws. They were not an abstract entity like the state, and not uncomplicated contracting partners. Donor intrusion, which is much in the news, was not always for ill.

You point out that much of coed education was a consequence of donor pressure, and also the extent to which, in both Germany and the United States, the decline of anti-Semitic exclusion was a consequence of donor pressure.

Exactly. We’ve forgotten all of that. When railroad stocks plummeted in the 1890s and Gilman was short on cash, Martha Carey Thomas (of Bryn Mawr) told him, I’ll make up the money if you accept women into the first class of Johns Hopkins Medical School. And lo and behold, her pile of cash turned the old guard into believers in coeducation. It’s coercive philanthropy for a just cause.

And Gilman got a great deal out of it too, because he kept asking for more money.

It doesn’t come cheap. But to get back to Nisbet — academic capitalism is a critique of a contract gone awry. Nisbet actually uses the language of a contract. He says that the university enjoyed a social contract in which academics were permitted to indulge in what he calls the aristocratic pleasures of knowledge for its own sake in exchange for staying out of moralizing and politics. What he doesn’t like is that the terms have changed. But this is not as new as Nisbet makes it out to be. Autonomy has to be negotiated again and again.

6422 Heller Lyhus

Randy Lyhus for The Chronicle

Academic freedom is key to any version of the academic social contract. In your account, Americans found the freedom they imagined the German model provided very seductive.

I tell the story of what I call the invention of academic freedom. Excavating its origins is revealing of how it became unmoored from its original purposes. Its invention initially occurred in 1915, when controversies around World War I gave Arthur Lovejoy and John Dewey an opening to establish the American Association of University Professors. They drafted the Declaration of Principles of Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, which the historian Walter Metzger called the philosophical birthright of academic freedom. But in 1917, their Committee on Academic Freedom in Wartime revised the Declaration of 1915 — something that is rarely included in the celebratory history. It was an attempt to dial back academic freedom because of the responsibility of American universities to prepare the American people for war. It is not an honorable story.

But there’s another problem that is uncovered by the origin story of academic freedom in America: The Americans mistranslate the German concept. They emphasize what Isaiah Berlin would call a negative liberty rather than a positive one. That is, their sole purpose is in protecting academics from the constraints of the outside — the pedagogical and research purposes get lost. Part of why we have such an impoverished debate about academic freedom today is because this emphasis on “freedom from” — whether it’s from donors or boards or presidents — rather than “freedom to” fashions the values and purposes of the academic community.

What would that look like?

There’s been a lot of focus at The Chronicle and elsewhere on the resignation of Beverly Gage from the Grand Strategy program at Yale. She cites academic freedom in her resignation. But the biggest loser in that incident, from my perspective, is the students. There’s a pedagogical loss in an incident like this. She was trying to incorporate social movements into a syllabus that was about princes and diplomats. She was teaching students how to engage with difference. This could have been a teachable moment, but instead her lesson was undermined.

I think I agree with all of that. But if I were Gage, I would still be focusing on formal prohibitions on donor influence. I would very much be focusing on the Yale president Peter Salovey’s decision to follow the donors’ wishes despite not being contractually obligated to do so, because without those constraints in place, you can’t even get to the conversation about how a transformative director like Gage can implement the kind of pedagogy you’re talking about. Why shouldn’t academic freedom be both negative and positive — with an emphasis on the negative?

It should be both negative and positive. But the problem with prioritizing the negative aspect is that it treats academic freedom as self-evident. There’s this notion that it’s an inalienable right that academics get, and we need to protect it. But the history shows that academic freedom is part of an ongoing exchange — in which we earn the right for clear purposes. Those purposes have been different at different times. There are research purposes, teaching purposes, public-good purposes. If we focus too much on the negative liberty, then we risk letting judges define it in court. Educators should have a voice in articulating the values of academia.

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