Relevant Universities

A superb blog posting by Anthony Grafton over at the New York Review of Books on the managerial crisis facing university research in the humanities. Around the world, not just in Britain where Grafton concentrates his focus, universities are under pressure to cut positions and research funds in the humanities because they are “not productive” and don’t attract grant money.

As usual, universities are twenty years behind the power curve in what is hip and trendy. They are only now adopting the downsizing and ruthless cost-cutting that was all the rage among corporations in the early 1990s. Now that the business world has realized that this was probably a mistake (or at least that they went too far, cut too deeply, and placed their continued viability in danger), the universities are latching on to these discredited ideas of management. (At UC Berkeley, for example, as a “cost-cutting” measure the university removed the phones from professors’ offices in the English and other humanities departments—but not those of science or engineering professors. Of course, now they are paying people to walk from office to office, knocking on doors, creating delays when people cannot be found, etc. and costing the school a lot more money in lost time and unproductive labor. These are the management wizards who are telling universities how to succeed.)

You never know what fields will be suddenly be relevant. Take the example of paleography which Grafton cites. We are in the midst of an information revolution. We are transitioning from a culture based on the printed word to one of electronically stored information. This will have deep and profound implications for every aspect of our lives. So much so, that we really can’t imagine what the world will look like in 50 years. (Remember Bill Gates’s 1995 book The Road Ahead, the one about coming technologies that didn’t even mention the internet gave short shrift to the internet? And that was from one of the most technically plugged-in guys on the planet.) It would be useful to look at the last time we experienced such an upheaval in the way we stored and distributed information—when we moved from a manuscript culture to one of print. And to do this, you are going to need paleographers and medievalists. The modes of information transmission in a manuscript culture are eerily similar to those of the digital culture in a lot of ways; there are differences too, and the two are by no means the same, but we’ve got a lot to learn from the pre-Gutenberg days as we move into the 21st century.

Now there are rumors (I don’t know if they’re true or not), that Google has hired several medievalists to help advise them on what the transformation to a digital culture might be like. It is patently obvious that cutting such positions right now is a stupid move for a university. It’s probably not a good idea at any time, but it’s egregiously stupid right now. This is especially so given that humanities research is dirt cheap. The money lost through mismanagement of equipment procurement in the sciences at a major university could probably fund the entire English department.

This is not to say that reform of the humanities may not be needed and that all change is bad. The field of literary criticism, for example, lays waste to entire forests in publishing a lot of nonsensical or, once the jargon is stripped away, glaringly obvious and trivial research. (I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent puzzling out the meaning from a blizzard of buzzwords in a published paper only find my reaction when finally discovering what is being said is, “duh!") The best of literary criticism, however, does not do this and is extremely insightful and relevant to understanding the human condition. But improving methods for separating the wheat from the chaff is not something that “management experts” will do for the universities. Metrics can be useful, but you have to use the right metrics. The current “marketability” of a particular field of research is not at all relevant to the long-term value and utility of that field.

The idea that the university can take a long view without being subject to the vicissitudes of the marketplace is precisely the value that such schools bring to society. If we only want research that is marketable today, then we should turn all the universities into trade schools and let corporations do all the research.

[Corrected statement that about Gates’s book and the internet--dw]

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