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Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education
David L. Kirp
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
$29.95, 328 pages, ISBN 0674011465.

George D. Oberle III
George Mason University


The higher education environment is a complex amalgam of institutions that are steeped in tradition. These organizations have not proved themselves to be immune to the new organizational paradigm, which is that change is constant and everything is changing. Universities are facing greater competitive pressures to adapt in order to manage change by understanding and utilizing market strategies.

David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at Berkeley, has written an engaging work on the current state of higher education and the market place. This work is clearly written and poses several important questions. Kirp's thesis is that traditional institutions of higher education are acting more like businesses that are focused on the bottom line in their accounting statements. This eye on the marketplace and the factors that influence the bottom line is creating an environment filled with competitive zeal. Kirp is not overly romantic about the traditions of the university. He believes that money has always been an important component to running a university. Nevertheless Kirp worries that "what is new and troubling, is the raw power that money directly exerts over so many aspects of higher education. [T]he American university has been busily reinventing itself in response to intensified competitive pressures" [3-4]. Universities seem to be in the marketplace but they don't necessarily want to be part of the marketplace. Kirp seems to be able to capture this schizophrenic attitude through the use of case studies of several institutions to illustrate the challenges of the existing academic landscape.

Universities are actively engaged in marketing and trying to establish their "brand" in order to attract the best students. Kirp points out that this is becoming a common practice among all institutions because "what matters most in picking a college, students report, is not the quality of the education but rather its prestige" [12]. The goal of a college education is to get career-training to obtain a high-paying job. Many parents hire consultants for their children who work with them to gain entrance into the most prestigious schools. Higher education has become very conscious of their image and how they rank in a variety of magazines like US News & World Report. This awareness has led several institutions to hire consultants themselves, which can lead to a makeover much like the "hot" reality shows. Some of these makeovers are substantive while others seem superficial. For example, Beaver College completely changed their administrative structure to make "customer orientation" the key to their operation. This even included its name which was taken from the county that it was founded in in 1853. However, "pop culture had long since turned an innocent animal into a double entendre" [13]. The new administration believed that the name scared applicants. The name was changed to innocuous Arcadia University. Colleges feel that they have to be responsive to the consumer aspects of the marketplace in order to effectively compete with other institutions of higher education. Sometimes this is as simple as a name change but in many cases Kirp shows that the core curriculum is revamped to make their schools more attractive to their customers.

Students are often attracted to universities by their amenities like big screen TVs at Michigan State, or leisure sporting activities at DePauw University, or even the choices in food and beverages like Starbucks coffee. In addition, students are being given merit scholarships to attract the best students. This leads to less scholarship money for those who have financial need. This theme is expressed in several chapters but it seems strongest when Kirp looks at the University of Chicago. This chapter reads like an expose on the inner workings of an academic institution. The students at Chicago were found to be unhappy with the rigors of academic life and student life conditions. More importantly "alumni, though enthusiastic about the education they'd received, were reluctant to put their children through similar rigors" [46]. This was a great concern for the university because they simply needed to generate more revenues. Consultants were hired and it was decided to try to attract a larger number of students through flashy marketing and by changing the core curriculum which were designed to make the university look like it was more fun. Some wanted to adapt the core classes. This was viewed by many, including a large number of current students, as a watering down of the curriculum. Kirp writes,

Fifteen hundred students showed up at a 'Fun-In,' where much of the 'fun' was at the expense of the president. A photo of his face was superimposed on a cardboard cutout of Darth Vader as well as on a T-shirt depicting a can of 'University of Chicago Lite […] specially brewed by the freshest consultants and coerced into its refreshing taste.' [41]

The greatest fear of the opponents of this change was that increased numbers of students would lead to slow and dim-witted students into their hallowed club. Kirp is masterful in finding sources and he tells a compelling story that demonstrates the impact of the marketplace on even the most insulated academic institutions.

Kirp cleverly titles his chapter on New York University "Star Wars." This refers to the practice of using fund-raising to create well-endowed chairs to attract star professors from other institutions rather than putting it into an endowment. Several institutions, have used this practice to build elite departments. For example, NYU transformed a Philosophy department from an adequate well rounded department with no PhD program into a tie with Princeton for the top ranking in philosophy. The university allowed the department head to recruit the "best" minds, all of which were from the analytical philosophy school of thought. They used fat salaries, good housing and reduced teaching loads to attract their stars. Kirp writes "What George Steinbrenner did for the New York Yankees, creating the best team that money can buy, NYU's recent presidents have tried to achieve for the university" [67]. In the meantime a second group of philosophers began to concentrate in the NYU School of Law to address the issues of law and ethics which were not being addressed by the analytical scholars at NYU. These stars are constantly trying to publish rather than focusing on teaching in order to keep up the reputation of the department but in the mean-time the number of adjuncts teaching undergraduate classes in the top ranked philosophy program continued to increase.

Kirp uses the situation at NYU to illustrate a broader point. NYU had 2700 adjunct professors when Kirp was writing this book. This is not unique to NYU. Kirp writes, "During the past generation, university teaching has increasingly become the responsibility of adjunct professors, who by 2002 accounted for 43 percent of all faculty" [86]. This trend has led adjuncts to seek union representation and in 2000 the National Labor Relations Board determined that teaching and research assistants had the right to organize despite NYU's opposition. The primary concern that is evident is that there is a conflict within academe over the mission of the university. This is an old question: namely is the mission of the university to teach or is it to produce research? Kirp does not answer this question. Instead, he demonstrates the tension between the conflicting missions in the context of a university that is driven by market forces.

The chapter on UVA is an interesting juxtaposition between the quasi-private Darden Graduate Business School and the rest of the university. Kirp tells a story of the crumbling infra-structure at the Department of Economics building compared with the Darden Business campus which is a mile away that boasts nine new buildings. The difference is that the "the schools situated on the historical grounds […] operate according to the convention of public universities; the state doles out operating funds and specifies how those funds can be spent" [131]. On the other hand the Darden school has turned its back on state funding in order to have more freedom on how their money can be spent. This trend is called self-sufficiency. This new model developed in response to the declining amount of state aid to universities in the 1980s and 1990s. Despite the fact that the state continues to give declining proportion of funding, legislators continue to insist on having complete control of how that funding is utilized. Therefore, pet projects of specific legislators get priority standing whether they are appropriate to the overall mission of the university or not. The Darden school decides to go it alone and simply pay the University of Virginia what amounts to a franchise fee in order to pay for the cache of being part of the UVA brand. Otherwise the school is very separate. This has led to close relationships with the private business community. This allows for good financial support and provides opportunities for students and faculty to work closely with the private sector but the other edge of the sword is that the faculty are expected to use proprietary materials from corporations.

Another important example of how market-place ideas have moved stealthily into academe is the notion of Revenue Center Management (RCM). RCM is a management strategy that is a reaction to the decreasing amount of public funds to higher education. This strategy, as well as others that have become commonplace in government, seeks to improve efficiency. Some of these practices include outsourcing anything that is outside the realm of academia including, dining, parking, student housing, and other related auxiliary services. RCM is a practice that "means each unit is expected to be a profit center. Whether it's the college of arts and sciences, the dental school, or the business school, the costs- which include salaries, space, and the like- cannot exceed the revenue, whether raised through tuition, contracts, grants or gifts" [115]. This becomes a challenge because it is hard to come to agreement on what services a unit provides are a public good and thus deserve an appropriate subsidy. For example, libraries offer services that are often difficult to quantify. How should collections money be split? Should it be based on the departments' size? Should it be based on the departments' prestige? Should it be based on the use of items? Kirp gives very interesting examples of how RCM failed in implementation because of lack of vision and an uncertainty over the mission of the university.

One of the most interesting examples of the power of entrepreneurial activism in Kirp's work is the small group of classics departments in the Associated Colleges of the South. Several scholars from campuses across the south have teamed together to build a unique major classics department that could rival any of the larger well know institutions in the country. The project is titled Sunoikisis after the ancient city of Lesbos's that rebelled against Athens. This project issuing the Internet to form a robust Virtual Department of Classics. These professors recognized that they could never create a top notch classics department on their own and as a result they decided to "band together or risk extinction" [151]. These professors are using new tools like streaming media, to provide more research and instructional experiences to their students. Streaming media provides students with lectures and all students can converse with the faculty member using a chat environment. This project is funded through the Mellon Foundation partly because "universities aren't inclined to commit their own funds to educational partnerships-they have their own identities to maintain, their own brands to market" [156]. They liken themselves as a rebel alliance against the evil empire of big universities. This projects offers smaller entrepreneurial professors more of a voice in the larger picture of Academe.

Kirp recognizes that the university has always had to contend with the market-place in order to survive. Universities are increasingly tied to the market-place due to increased operating costs and private competition. These realities must be embraced and understood if the university is to remain solvent and relevant in the changing economic environment. This is not to say that Kirp believes that the university should make its decisions in the same way that a business makes its decisions. Universities serve a purpose beyond the delivery of content to their customers. Kirp writes:

Market forces lead some schools to forget that they are not simply businesses while turning others into stronger, better places. Still, embedded in the very idea of the university […] are values that the market does not honor: the belief in a community of scholars and not a confederacy of self-seekers; in the idea of openness and not ownership; in the professor as a pursuer of truth and not an entrepreneur; in a student as an acolyte whose preferences are to be formed, not a consumer whose preferences are to be satisfied. [7]

The notion of students as customers is an idea that has crept into every facet of higher education. This is a problematic idea that leads administrations to look at short-term planning that relies on bean-counting and ignores the larger visionary values that these entities are supposed to have. These values have usually been seen as the academic mission to the public good. Students are not exactly customers and looking at them solely as consumers misses the point of what higher education is supposed to be about. Nevertheless colleges and universities exist within the framework of a free-market society and as a result must seek to balance reality with idealism. This is the argument of Kirp's work and I believe that he has made a compelling case and there are many subtleties in his work that deserve careful consideration.


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