Tag Archives: higher ed

The Marketplace of Ideas

The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (Issues of Our Time)The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University by Louis Menand

Our greatest fear as academics might be the fear of being proven futile. We know we’re probably in some respect self-serving and that perhaps we magnify our own importance in the face of what we consider a hostile, indifferent, or Philistine public. But we like to maintain the fiction that we are free from parochialism to pursue the search for truth or something like it (maybe call it “free inquiry”) in a value-free arena. Or at least that’s the ideal, though I don’t think anyone would go so far as to say this is ever actualized or even completely possible. These are ideals, and Louis Menand’s slim volume offers insightful and sometimes piercing examinations of at least three aspects of these ideals: ideas about general education, interdisciplinarity, and the self-selecting nature of how we train PhDs and what we get as results.

This is not a comprehensive critique or “state of the academy” study, though as a recognized scholar Menand has done his homework. Rather, it’s a collection of thoughts from someone who has made a career in the academy and who has passion and respect for what it can be. As he states near the work’s conclusion:

It is the academic’s job in a free society to serve the public culture by asking questions the public doesn’t want to ask, investigating subjects it cannot or will not investigate, and accommodating voices it fails or refuses to accommodate.

Amen. So what’s the problem? As valuable as academic endeavors are, Menand feels certain claims about higher education are not true or have been taken out of their correct context, and he’s biting in his critique when he feels we need to be disabused of such claims. Because some of the chapters in this work were originally speeches, they are for the most part easy reading, even when what he is saying is difficult.

Menand begins with what has become something of a cause in higher education over the past few decades: the idea of general education. Like all of us, he’s sat through seemingly endless meetings of faculty trying to decide what general education actually is and how to provide it to students, whether in shared common core courses or in a system of electives. “General education, he explains, “is where colleges connect what professors do with who their students are and what they will become after they graduate—where colleges actually think about the outcome of the experience they provide. General education is, historically, the public face of liberal education.” Despite a clear importance though, Menand feels that what these conversations at universities across the country lack is a historical context of where this idea came from and why it’s a distinctly American ideal. From its origins at the nation’s oldest and most prestigious colleges and its evolution in response to broader societal changes, Menand argues against a perceived antiquity or changelessness in general education. Rather, he seems to be saying, general education is historically contingent– not unimportant, but neither as uniform, enduring, or timeless as some might argue.

Another topic Menand examines involves another contemporary buzzword (or, depending on your perspective, bugbear): the idea of interdisciplinarity or teaching across the disciplines. Menand argues here, by providing another historical analysis– this time of professionalization of the academic disciplines– that the concept of interdisciplinarity in actuality serves to magnify and cement disciplinary distinctions and divides that are already problematic and largely artificial. The whole discussion of teaching across disciplines, he argues, masks an anxiety of scholars who realize on some level that their disciplinary divisions and structures are at least partially vacuous. “Is my relationship to the living culture,” Menand asks us, “that of a creator or that of a packager?”

All of which brings us back to the fear of futility and Menand’s final and most damning critique. “It takes three years to become a lawyer,” Menand points out. “It takes four years to become a doctor. But it takes from six to nine years, and sometimes longer, to be eligible to teach poetry to college students for a living.” Why is our method of creating PhDs so time-consuming and inefficient? More importantly though, what does this cost the field? Institutions gain cheap graduate student labor, but students labor for years gaining knowledge and expertise that quite possibly will never land them a job or even a completed degree. It’s hard to argue with his views here that in at least some respects the academy has become another professionalized bureaucracy that exists to propagate itself and churn out clones already committed to its ideals and modes of thought.

“Possibly,” Menand argues, “there should be a lot more PhDs, and they should be much easier to get. The non-academic world would be enriched if more people in it had exposure to academic modes of thought, and had thereby acquired a little understanding of the issues that scare terms like “deconstruction” and “postmodernism” are attempts to deal with. And the academic world would be livelier if it conceived of its purpose as something larger and more various than professional reproduction.” What begins as an inquiry into why most college professors tend to lean the same direction politically becomes a critique of the system that produces them and that may actually be counterproductive to fostering the very free-thinking the system enshrines.

At just over one hundred fifty pages, there is a lot to chew on here. Whether or not you agree with all Menand’s claims or buy his arguments, if you’re part of the academic machine this is a book to consider seriously.

Baylor at the Crossroads

Baylor at the CrossroadsBaylor at the Crossroads by Donald D. Schmeltekopf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m coming to realize how much has been written about the nature, state, and ultimate fate of Christian higher education. Universities and colleges– my own included– seem to be at a kind of crossroads, with several tensions at play. Some of these are financial pressures, the forces that compel a university to take a hard look at its bottom line and dig into best practices from business and administration (often to faculty dismay). But there’s also the related tension between the liberal arts approach and professional training, as well as the tension between teaching and research, and between a school’s historic religious or denominational affiliation and a slide toward secularism.

Things are messy and complicated in the academy.

In other words, business as usual.

Against this background, the few Christians schools that have successfully navigated a transition from traditional undergraduate college to thriving research university while remaining true to their Christian identity markedly stand out. Chief among these in evangelical circles is Baylor University.

Baylor at the Crossroads: Memoirs of a Provost is a slender volume written by Donald D. Schmeltekopf, Baylor’s provost for more than a decade during the key period in the school’s transformation. His readable, straightforward recollection outlines his role in the transition of Baylor from a traditional undergraduate university with strong professional programs and a few graduate degrees to the premier research university in the evangelical tradition. Central to this though, as Schmeltekopf is anxious to make very clear, is a consciously maintained commitment to Baylor’s Baptist and Christian identity.

In some ways, this book provides a good counterpoint to Benjamin Ginsberg’s Fall of the Faculty, which I reviewed several weeks ago. In that book, the author rails against administrative bloat and the growing power of bureaucratic administrators interested in little beyond the pursuit of their own agendas. Schemltekopf’s account is certainly one of a dizzying array of meetings, provosts, vice provosts, assistant vice provosts, committees, centers, and campus initiatives, but it offers an example (at least through Schmeltekopf’s eyes) of how this administrative arsenal can be arrayed to effectively lead a university, catalyze research, and set a guiding course for the integration of scholarship and faith.

This doesn’t take place without bumps in the road, of course. Schmeltekopf is honest in his retrospective in examining the resistance among the faculty to some of the changes he helmed and in particular administrative endeavors such as the Polyani Center, created for foster scholarship on the relationship between science and Christianity and but becoming quickly embroiled in controversy related to exploring questions of intelligent design. In many of these cases, he admits that problems arose when administration didn’t get enough “buy-in” from faculty or were too top-down in their practices.

Some of the details in this book will be tedious to those unfamiliar with either the ins and outs of life on in university in general or with Baylor in particular. Schmeltekopf goes into detail on many of his initiatives, to the degree of what was discussed at specific faculty retreats and who the speakers were. At the same time, it’s interesting to see the curtain drawn back on the nuts and bolts of what from most external signs looks like a very successful provostship.

It’s also interesting to hear Schmeltekopf’s clear appeal that the missional emphasis of Baylor’s Baptist heritage not be lost. This is a primary theme in the work and throughout Schmeltekopf’s career: finding the balance between academic rigor and success in the academy without the drift into secularism that often accompanies. For Baylor, this meant an awareness of the difficulty in walking this line, campus and faculty dialogue on these issues, and a careful hiring practice in which provost and president played a close role in the hiring of faculty and were not hesitant to block hires they did not feel were missional fits.

There’s not a lot of Schmeltekopf’s philosophy of education in here; rather, it comes across in the account of his praxis. He writes on his initiatives to promote the liberal arts at Baylor, resulting in the formation of an Honors College and great books major, but here the book is most helpful in offering reading suggestions that shaped the thinking of someone who put these things into practice in his own institution.

For me, this book was also helpful in formulating my own vision and wish list for my own institution, a place in a situation somewhat similar to where Baylor found itself a few decades ago: a teaching university with some strong professional programs, a few graduate programs, and a proud denominational heritage.

But where to go from here?

Like Schmeltekopf’s Baylor, I feel we’re at a crossroads. Will we go on to be the “Baylor” of our own denominational affiliation? Or the University of Phoenix of the evangelical world? Or maybe something more like a tiny, Christian MIT– focused on producing engineers and scientists of excellence? None of these would necessarily be a wrong choice, but we can’t become all three.

Luckily for me, that decision and casting of that kind of vision are well above my pay grade. But I still look at Schmeltekopf’s account for ideas I think would benefit my own context, recognizing the important difference between us, a difference that remained a block box in Schmeltekopf’s account: money. Whatever else can be said about Baylor’s transition to a world-class institution, it certainly seemed to have all the money necessary to make this possible (or at least connections to that money).

Whether or not these can be instituted in my own particular setting, at least according to Schmeltekopf’s work the following seem things necessary in the transition from denominational college to world-class institution:

1. external advisory committee – One of the things Schmeltekopf talked about was the importance of having a large group of external but invested individuals help provide guidance in steering Baylor toward the future. This is different than hiring consultants; these seemed to be primarily well-placed, influential alumni who had important connections and experience but who also a genuine interest in seeing the university succeed. Involving this large group and giving them an official capacity as an advisory board not only generated good external insights, but it also made this group even more invested in Baylor’s future, something I imagine had monetary pay-offs eventually as well.

2. internal faculty panel – In addition to this large external group of advisors tapped to help plot Baylor’s course and review its priorities at its 150th year, Schmeltekopf talked about less official faculty advisory groups that met regularly throughout his tenure with no specific goal or objective but to dialogue about the relationship between faith and scholarship and how that played out on Baylor’s campus. This was a rotating group that met for breakfast regularly with the provost, and by the time it was done it had allowed the majority of faculty-members on campus a chance to dialogue closely and informally with their administrators. An institution will not move toward being a world-class university without enthusiastic participation of the faculty, and keeping a wide variety of avenues of communication open and consistent seems essential.

3. fund-raising for academic positions (attracting quality professors) – Baylor under Schmeltekopf moved from fund-raising focused on building projects alone to securing funds to attract and maintain the best qualified professors, primarily through the funding of endowed chairs. Besides the resources to attract quality candidates in academia though, Baylor also had to have the confidence in its own identity and mission to maintain its missional standards while doing this. It didn’t feel it had to hire faculty only through prior connections to Baylor or Baptist contacts. It did what it needed to attract the best faculty out there, and then it maintained its standards in who it hired. This is a tough stance, and it can’t happen at all without financial resources invested in drawing and retaining the best teachers and researchers.


Again, these aren’t necessities everywhere, and they might not even be necessities where I am. There’s no clear consensus that we want to follow in Baylor’s footsteps. But if we decide that we do, Schmeltekopf’s account is a good place to being looking for ideas of how to craft an outstanding research university that keeps faith with its Christian heritage.