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No Pain, No Gain

The metamorphosis in progress promises to be gut-wrenching for traditionally staid campuses. Still, the historical record suggests that the university will survive. A little more than a century ago, the United States saw the emergence of polytechnic-type schools that walked hand in hand with industry by offering programs in the application of electric power and chemistry to business processes. But mirroring the country’s blossoming as an economic and cultural power, most schools evolved into broad-based institutions with many departments. A new, more academic model of the university arose, with campuses devoted to acquiring and dispensing “pure” knowledge without regard to direct commercial gains.

This ivory tower expansion also saw the embrace of science. By the 1930s, America’s scientists were vaulting to the world’s highest levels. Their ranks swelled after World War II, when the success of science in everything from the atomic bomb to penicillin prompted the government to pour money into academic research-resulting in a dramatic expansion of research universities. It’s the end of this era that is shaking up campuses today. Moreover, just as social and economic changes drove the push to ivory tower education, today’s revision is taking place in the context of a shift from a largely insular industrial economy to a global, knowledge-based or “conceptual” economy.

The need to adapt to a changing world forms the essence of “de-Harvardization.” But Rhodes and others also call it the “corporatization” of the campus, in part because it mirrors many changes recently undergone at companies such as IBM, General Motors and 3M, whose own golden age ended in the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, facing fierce international competition, all realigned their structure and strategic direction. They cut costs, shed operations not related to core technologies, bolstered internal cooperation and formed new alliances-all strategies now being adopted by university leaders.

Money, of course, drives much of the university’s transformation, just as it did for corporations. In recent years, schools have somewhat offset the slowdown in federal and state support for research by cutting administrative overhead. But other forces, such as the need to keep professors’ salaries competitive and the hard-to-dispute conviction that more research does produce more knowledge, combined to make more substantial cuts impossible-and keep tuitions rising.

Inexorably, the need for new funding sources drove universities to industry. The bonds between the two had loosened in science’s golden age. But the new university need, coupled with corporations’ desire to offset their own slimmed-down research programs through better access to academic science, changed all that. Industry’s contributions to academe are approaching $2 billion a year-some 10 times 1979 rates. Meanwhile, a series of legislative changes encouraged universities to become patent and spinoff machines (see article: “The TR University Research Scorecard,” this issue).

But even these monetary measures and countermeasures could not stem the pressures on the “Harvard” model. No one understands this better than the veterans of the corporate wars. As former IBM vice president for science and technology John Armstrong noted in a 1996 talk, “There is no leading university of my acquaintance which does not have faculty deadwood, outdated programs and a few departments whose disappearance would raise the overall quality of the institution.” Although deadwood had been tolerated historically to protect campus stability, Armstrong argued that things would have to change “if the quality of good programs is not to be eroded because resources are being wasted on mediocre programs.” More than a few universities heard this message-or similar ones-and moved to create a leaner, meaner campus.

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