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Here is a model for a new kind of college that I think could compete well with the available choices today, put beneficial pressure on the whole market, and avoid the “institutional isomorphism” that makes so many of our colleges and universities similar to each other. In a sentence: It is a co-op college in which the faculty and students jointly produce scholarship and learning at low cost. The college is organized democratically, but not because democratic values are intrinsically superior or identical to intellectual values. (I have argued against those claims here.) Rather, the organization of this college is democratic and participatory because it is a common property regime. That form of economic organization can be highly successful, but only when all participants feel that they have a voice to match their obligations.
I’d suggest these features:
Location: It would be a commuter college (no dorms) in a large metro area with a shortage of high-quality existing slots for undergraduates. Los Angeles is an example. The facilities could be relatively cheaply reconfigured buildings, such as a former school.
Business model: The sticker price would be $11,000. With a student/faculty ratio of 10:1, that yields $110k per professor, which is plenty to cover salaries and benefits plus facilities and a small support staff for maintenance, IT, and accounting. (The mean associate professor’s salary in English is $62,000; in the natural sciences, $67,590). These numbers would compare favorably to UCLA–which I respect deeply–where the average student pays $13,723 and the student/faculty ratio is 17:1. I envision a student body of 1,000 and a faculty of 100.
Professors’ responsibilities: The teaching load would be two courses per semester. Faculty would be expected to be active researchers. They would also populate committees that would fully handle admissions, counseling, curriculum, hiring, tenure and promotion, discipline, and external relations. Especially heavy responsibilities, such as chairing a major committee, might earn a course release. There would be no full-time administrators, but professors would serve elected terms as leaders with titles like president, provost, and dean, and would have limited course loads for the duration. The whole faculty would also meet for deliberations and governance.
Student responsibilities: Students would meet as a kind of legislative body in a bicameral arrangement with the faculty for some decision-making purposes. Some students would also be elected to serve on committees along with faculty and to provide other forms of leadership. For instance, instead of coaches and extramural athletics, there would be strong student-led intramurals and club sports. Although faculty would be involved in counseling of various kinds, students would also play essential roles in helping their peers. Some jobs might be eligible for Federal Work Study, which would reduce the $11k sticker price for those with greater need.
A board of trustees. The faculty and students would elect a board of trustees, including a few of their own number along with prominent outsiders. This board would serve as an accountability and review committee and would be able to lend their blessing to the whole enterprise.
Culture: I would recommend not especially targeting zealous proponents of alternative economics for either the student body or the faculty. I believe groups dominated by people with that kind of motivation tend to devolve into ideological hair-splitting and factional strife. (See Jenny Mansbridge‘s work on 1960s communes–or think of the French Revolution.) Instead, I would be looking for pragmatists with maturity and people-skills, along with academic excellence and diversity of various kinds. I’d recruit the faculty from a generation of talented and dedicated younger scholars who are facing a terrible job market. I’d look for students with a high potential to benefit from the experience–in other words, not necessarily the highest test scores or GPAs, but serious interest in learning in a no-frills environment.
Curriculum: This would be developed and modified by the group, deliberatively over time. It would be disappointing if the results failed to be unusual. That would be a waste of the opportunity to innovate, given the absence of traditional silos and barriers. But it wouldn’t necessarily be wise to create one curriculum for everyone. Diversity and choice are not only intellectual values; they prevent self-governing groups from splintering over matters of principle. Specifically, there is a kind of conversation that goes: “‘X is important, so X should be a required topic of study for all.’ ‘Well, if X is important, so is Y, and why isn’t that required?'” (Repeat endlessly.) I’d expect some coherence and some distinctiveness to emerge in a wholly new college with a democratic process, but if I were in the deliberations, I’d probably be a voice for individual choice.