what is a university?

I’m taking a training course for managers at Tufts, in which I learn techniques for assessing staff performance, mentoring, and so on. The idea is that Tufts University is a single entity that succeeds or fails as a whole. The job of managers is to maximize the degree to which all Tufts employees promote the organization’s success. We can use carrots and sticks–but also the softer skills that I’m learning in the course, such as how to give advice effectively. For anyone who has absorbed a dose of Foucault, these softer methods may seem the most troubling, because they promise to reshape people’s souls, not just their behavior, to fit the organization’s imperatives.

My value-judgment is less negative. Tufts is an entity–a nonprofit corporation–that charges nearly $50,000/year for its main service (undergraduate education) and is heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Those of us who receive Tufts paychecks need to promote the valid goals of the university in an efficient way. We could call Tufts a “bureaucracy,” but that isn’t a term of abuse. Bureaucracies arise to reduce slack and get things done.

At the same time, Tufts is several other things:

It can be a seen as a partially democratic community, in which autonomous agents (especially faculty and students) make collective decisions after giving reasons in public. Hence the faculty “senate,” the student government, the newspaper, and the right of tenure, meant to protect freedom of speech. The Tufts community does not stand alone; faculty, in particular, also belong to disciplinary associations that are self-governing and quite powerful.

It can be seen as a zone of individual autonomy. An academic doesn’t want to be The Man (or Woman) in a Gray Flannel Suit. Academics set a high value on doing what they think is right in relation to their own readers, students, colleagues, and The Truth. Autonomy trades off against bureaucracy and also against democracy, since one’s colleagues may not know what is right.

It can be seen as a market competitor. Tufts is like a firm, competing with other universities (and some private companies) for faculty, students, grants, and contracts. Insofar as Tufts is a competitor, it must operate internally like a bureaucracy in order to ensure that its “agents”–faculty and staff–promote Tufts’ interests and not their own. But it is not autonomous. The market, not the Tufts administration, decides what to value. If, for example, a senior professor gets an offer from Brown, we must match it to hold onto her. So Brown has made a decision about our personnel.

Finally, Tufts can be seen as a collection of individual entrepreneurs who are maximizing their own salary, security, status, fame, and quality of life in a marketplace. They are expected to seek external offers, publish for international audiences, form teams with colleagues at other universities, and otherwise pursue their own market position.

I don’t actually believe that the ideals of democracy or autonomy can prevail, although they have some actual force and deserve moral respect. I think a university must be something of a bureaucracy and something of a platform for individual entrepreneurs. The hard part, for me, is when these competing values clash in borderline cases. For example, there may be a single process for evaluating, supporting, and disciplining all employees. But if the tenured faculty cannot actually be disciplined, the process is merely formal for them while it is highly consequential for receptionists and food workers. It is important to be clear about when we are each kind of institution, and why.