Implausible Dream: The World-Class University and Repurposing Higher Education

Implausible Dream: The World-Class University and Repurposing Higher Education

by James H. Mittelman

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Why the paradigm of the world-class university is an implausible dream for most institutions of higher education

Universities have become major actors on the global stage. Yet, as they strive to be “world-class,” institutions of higher education are shifting away from their core missions of cultivating democratic citizenship, fostering critical thinking, and safeguarding academic freedom. In the contest to raise their national and global profiles, universities are embracing a new form of utilitarianism, one that favors market power over academic values. In this book, James Mittelman explains why the world-class university is an implausible dream for most institutions and proposes viable alternatives that can help universities thrive in today’s competitive global environment.

Mittelman traces how the scale, reach, and impact of higher-education institutions expanded exponentially in the post–World War II era, and how the market-led educational model became widespread. Drawing on his own groundbreaking fieldwork, he offers three case studies—the United States, which exemplifies market-oriented educational globalization; Finland, representative of the strong public sphere; and Uganda, a postcolonial country with a historically public but now increasingly private university system. Mittelman shows that the “world-class” paradigm is untenable for all but a small group of wealthy, research-intensive universities, primarily in the global North. Nevertheless, institutions without substantial material resources and in far different contexts continue to aspire to world-class stature.

An urgent wake-up call, Implausible Dream argues that universities are repurposing at the peril of their high principles and recommends structural reforms that are more practical than the unrealistic worldwide measures of excellence prevalent today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691165189
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/31/2017
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

James H. Mittelman is Distinguished Research Professor and University Professor Emeritus at the School of International Service, American University. His books include Contesting Global Order: Development, Global Governance, and Globalization; Hyperconflict: Globalization and Insecurity; and The Globalization Syndrome: Transformation and Resistance (Princeton).

Read an Excerpt


A Crisis of Purpose

THE PURPOSES OF HIGHER EDUCATION — the very reasons for under-taking activities — are literal and symbolic. Official mission statements express an institution's moral values, claims about its accomplishments, and aspirations. Mission proclamations may thus be read as philosophical documents: transcripts subject to myriad interpretations and tacit understandings reached through consensus and conflict. They may also be used as rhetorical strategies, public relations devices, and tools for recruitment and fund-raising. To grasp their intended and unintended consequences, one must look at and beyond public pronouncements in which higher education institutions tout themselves. It is important to search for subtexts and their contexts. Normative values and deep philosophical ideas are educational policy issues. The challenge is to come to grips with the workings of multipurpose universities and how they are evolving.

The language used in their public statements is emblematic of changes in the purposes of higher education institutions. They have become preoccupied with strategic planning, benchmarking, branding, visibility, rankings, productivity indices, quality assurance systems, students as customers, and measurable outcomes. Before the 1980s, members of the higher education community rarely expressed themselves in these terms. Just as this parlance is commonplace in the business world, it is customary in the academy.

Yet the purposes of the university have long distinguished it from those of other endeavors. By purposes, I mean the premises and values on which the university rests. Understood as steering mechanisms, purposes provide a basis for making decisions, galvanizing stakeholders, and legitimating policy. They can be used to transform thinking and action.

Universities, however, are not solely mission-driven; they are mission- and market-driven, with varying degrees of state intervention in their development.


Scrutinizing the business of the university in 1852, John Henry Newman, a Roman Catholic priest and later a cardinal, presented a series of lectures on "the idea of a university." He laid the groundwork for enduring debates about reforms in higher education. Schooled at Trinity College, Oxford, Newman emphasized the teaching mission of the university and contemplated the "real worth in the market of the article called 'a Liberal Education.'" Newman held that "to set forth the right standard, and to train according to it, and to help forward all students towards it according to their various capacities, this I conceive to be the business of the University." In this respect, the university is for cultivating the intellect. Newman deemed this pursuit as a sufficient good.

Newman compares his belief in the transmission of knowledge as the university's principal objective to the familiar view that the end of higher education is professional knowledge. While granting that practical courses in law or medicine, for example, should be taught, he responds to the contention that an education must be useful to university graduates — in today's terminology, "relevant." After all, "a cultivated intellect, because it is a good in itself brings with it a power and a grace to every work and occupation which it undertakes, and enables us to be more useful, and to a greater number." In other words, Newman's riposte to the claim that higher education ought to be useful is that the business of a university is to stimulate minds and build character.

For the sake of brevity, I want to fast-forward to the first half of the next century when Abraham Flexner, the founding director of the Princeton-based Institute for Advanced Study, extended Newman's position. Flexner argued that utility means that universities are supposed to do useless things. In an essay titled "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge," he maintained that researchers should strive for knowledge without an anticipated outcome. He claimed that useless knowledge is the source of unmatched utility. Citing Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the wireless radio, Flexner submitted that this innovation resulted from technical detail added to a lot of useless work by major theorists in the field of magnetism and electricity. In this case and others, the scientists who offered useless ideas had no practical payoff in mind. What then motivated them? The driver was their intellectual curiosity, which eventually provided immensely useful rewards for humankind. Crucially, training students in the scientific spirit in seemingly useless but vital investigative areas can yield unforeseeable ways to address concrete problems. According to Flexner, enabling free inquiry untrammeled by demands for usefulness promises illumination.

To wit, the famous British scholar G. H. Hardy took pleasure in pure mathematics and expressed disdain for applied research, leaving it to other minds. In his cogent formulation: "they [branches of applied mathematics] are indeed repulsively ugly and intolerably dull." He made a landmark contribution to what became known as the Hardy-Weinberg law, a theorem that addresses controversies over what proportions of dominant and recessive traits spread in a sizable mixed population. Several years after his formulation first appeared, Hardy's work had tangible spinoffs in genetics that he had not intended and would not have imagined. This experience suggests that the ivory-tower stereotype of universities misses the point: the programs of scholars with their own agendas for basic research can have relevance to the "real world." Seen from this angle, the knowers and the doers may be one and the same.

These modes of reasoning about the value of useless and useful knowledge resonate in times like our own when the value of higher education is widely debated. By all means, some present-day educational leaders share Newman and Flexner's vision of the role of the university. In the words of Daniel Zajfman, president of Israel's Weizmann Institute:

When we look at the values of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, we realise 100 years later what we can do with this. If you look at the history of science, you will find that most of the discoveries were never made by trying to solve a problem, rather by trying to understand how nature works, so our focus is on understanding.

But today's public skepticism about this thinking, when used to defend the performance of universities, is palpable. A concern is that given their high costs, universities are providing insufficient returns, variously understood in light of the informational needs of prospective students and their parents, learning outcomes, student loan debt, qualifications for jobs, salaries earned by alumni, and the employment rate among graduates.

These sorts of expectations of the university were brought home to me in a conversation with the parents of a student admitted to our MA program in International Relations. Her father got right down to business and asked me how much his daughter would earn upon graduation. I deferred, explaining that my school offers an interdisciplinary degree and that the salary range varies depending on which career track a student takes. I mapped five of them: government, nongovernmental agencies, intergovernmental organizations, transnational corporations, and research and teaching. The father would hear none of it. He wanted a single figure for a pay grade. When I reinforced my message and also mentioned the long-term benefits of higher learning, he hammered his point: parents seek a yield on their investment. What would it be worth in two years? I tried to provide helpful information and recognize that for a family, university education is a big expense and commitment of time. While the expected economic dividends can be quantified, the social and intellectual bounty is hard, if not impossible, to denominate. The conversion of building character into a currency would be a hazardous exercise.

Another illustration from personal experience helps elucidate the university's business. Toward the end of my stay as a visiting professor in Japan in 2000, I was pleased to receive an invitation to join four professors from the University of Tokyo for lunch. After graciously welcoming me, they inquired about my assessment of Japanese universities. I shared favorable impressions and added that I thought I had been well prepared for my teaching post in Japan. After all, I had visited Japan on previous occasions. Nevertheless, I was in store for surprises. For example, students enrolled in about twenty courses each term. At the last class session, reserved for the final exam, a student could decide whether to complete the course. I recounted other unanticipated aspects of this system of higher learning as well. My colleagues replied: "Your observations are correct. But you do not understand one thing. Japanese universities are not about education. The role of the university is to credential and rank students for jobs in corporations and government."

My Tokyo colleagues were being earnest rather than ironic or cynical. They had a point about pragmatic aims in higher education. Under the banner of institutional reforms, credentialing is often understood as a principal purpose of universities. The Japanese case, of course, has its distinctive features. But which case is not special in certain respects? My hosts' remarks bring to light a move, in general, toward career preparation as the business of the academy. Many proponents of professional degree programs subscribe to the notion that university curricula should have closer ties to the employment market in the contemporary "knowledge society" and "knowledge economy." As my student's father asserted, the idea is that a degree is a return on financial investment. But there are other perspectives on the purposes of universities.

Drawn from nineteenth-century England, twentieth-century America, and twenty-first-century America and Japan, the foregoing perspectives epitomize the university's conundrum. From Newman's era to our own, the purposes of the university are being redefined. Notably, his notion that the university should attend to the moral and religious supervision of students is set aside. And arguably, higher education's missions have always been evolving.

Relative to other institutions in the corporate sector and the health care industry, the university has been sluggish in adapting to shifts in society and economy. Concurrently, the state is in the throes of restructuring. It acts less as a shield that protects the domestic economy against the international economy, as it did during the 1960s and 1970s, and more of a facilitator of domestic interests and an agent that promotes globalization.

In this dynamic, the university is instrumental for a people's aspirations. "Knowledge," C. Wright Mills wrote, "is no longer widely felt as an ideal; it is seen as an instrument. In a society of power and wealth, knowledge is valued as an instrument of power and wealth, and also, of course, as an ornament in conversation." An emphasis on the production of useful knowledge spiraled after World War II. But it became instrumental to precisely which groups and whose interests? A particular religious order? Certain social strata rather than others? A political persuasion? A business-model bottom line? Is higher learning an end, as Newman believed, as well as a means? If the answer to the latter question is yes, then the mix is rapidly changing.

True, the specific aims of the modern university reflect variations in the history of individual locales and institutions. Yet from the early 1800s, the core purposes developed gradually and, at a broad level, remain similar, at least in nonauthoritarian contexts. But the settings cannot be neatly classified on the basis of democratic and undemocratic systems, and the implicit goal at universities in a democratic country like France, unlike in instances such as Britain or the United States, is preparation for republican citizenship with emphasis on laïcité (secularism). While such differences are salient, the key point is that the primary missions are training for democratic citizenship, nurturing critical thinking, and defending academic freedom. In our era, however, historical transformations are supplanting these established principles.

To trace this path, just imagine in Newman's day, a major university in England, Germany, or the United States defining its mission as serving as an engine of economic growth and increasingly orienting its academic programs to the job market. Furthermore, try to conceive of them as preparing graduating students for national security and building a country's "soft power," even while the academy still professed its devotion to promoting a love of learning. These images of the makeover of universities are hard to conjure because the precepts that Newman and like-minded educators denoted have had a lasting impact, even if, bit by bit, they are fading.

Strikingly, it was only a generation ago that universities were not enamored with the keywords — strategic planning, benchmarking, branding, visibility, rankings, productivity, and quality assurance — that have been translated into metrics. In this move, more is at stake than modish ways of burnishing an institution's reputation. Rather, as we shall see, numbers have power and are insinuated as policy. The new shoptalk portends changing priorities, with costs and benefits. The current narratives spring from a political and economic context far different from, say, the landscape of Newman's Oxford University and of the Catholic University of Ireland (now University College, Dublin), where he was the first rector, in the 1800s or Flexner's Princeton almost a century later.

Allowing that in our day, conditions differ from those of bygone eras, Derek Bok, Harvard University president emeritus, plants his analysis of higher education on the terrain of academe's deeply rooted educational values. He certainly knows the importance of money for running a complex institution. Yet Bok points out that seeking revenue can be a never-ending proposition, luring institutions into more and more activities for pecuniary rather than intellectual reasons. To underline his point, he asks his audience to suppose that Coca-Cola offered Princeton University $25 million for the right to chisel the words "Things Go Better with Coke" at the entrance to Nassau Hall. Princeton would no doubt scotch a bid to advertise this product on a historic building. Bok asks why, since universities often bestow the names of corporate donors on endowed professorships and scholarships. The problem with this hypothetical deal is that posting the message in a location that symbolizes the university itself would suggest that "money can buy almost anything at Princeton." The Coca-Cola icon would imply that "no place is too sacred if the price is right." Bok adds: "By communicating its materialism so brazenly, the university would threaten to undermine any other efforts it makes to keep commercial pressures from eroding academic values."

I witnessed a real-life situation in Malaysia in 1997–98 just like Bok's made-up scenario. Administrators at the University of Malaya, the country's oldest and generally considered leading university, gave permission to Mc-Donald's to open a franchise at its main gate. This entrance is next to the university mosque. Faculty, staff, and students vehemently protested this initiative on the grounds that the golden arches are a Western commercial artifact out of keeping with a repository of higher learning in Asia and an affront to Islamic values. Confronted by angry demonstrations, the university's senior administrators backed down and found another location for this fast-food franchise.

Academic Globalization

While McDonald's originated in the United States, this transnational chain signifies the spread of market-oriented globalization. As in Malaysia, institutions of higher education throughout the world are in the throes of academic globalization: a transformation in the domain of knowledge. That is to say, educational transformation is not a self-contained phenomenon; it takes place in a globalized environment marked by expansionary tendencies.

In a prescient analysis, published in 1944, the social economist Karl Polanyi evoked powerful insights about transformation in general that extend beyond the particular object of his study, namely, the growth of the market economy in the nineteenth century. The title of his celebrated book, The Great Transformation, encapsulates the relationship between the market and the other central institutions of society. In the first phase of a double movement, Polanyi showed, market reforms wrought large-scale disruption in society. Hurt by the jagged effects of this massive transformation, some of the most vulnerable groups, especially workers, pushed back and engaged in collective action. Their response to economic liberalism constituted a countermovement that sought to assert greater control over market forces. Polanyi maintained that by the 1800s, a "planetary" surge of market economy supplanted Europe's old order: a system wherein political and social imperatives had maintained precedence over the market. The double movement, a thrust and counterthrust, soon transcended national territories. Polanyi's study revealed the way that these gears can advance a global transformation.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Tables ix

Preface and Acknowledgments xi

Abbreviations xv

A Note on Terminology xvii

Introduction Questions and Arguments 1


1 A Crisis of Purpose 15

2 Contending Purposes of Modern Universities 39

3 Drivers of Reform 60


4 The Neoliberal Model: The United States 93

5 A Social Democratic Path: Finland 137

6 Postcolonial Experience: Uganda 167


7 Polymorphism 205

8 Plausible Alternatives 221

Index 245

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"This is a superb book. With elegant and accessible prose, Mittelman shows how the virulent forces of globalization are threatening the essence of the university to such an extent that its original and fundamental purpose is being derailed at a heavy cost to the long-term well-being of society."—Ahmed I. Samatar, coeditor of The African State: Reconsiderations

"Original and insightful, this is the most comprehensive, multifaceted, and critical work on the globalization of higher education available today."—Manfred B. Steger, author of Globalization: A Very Short Introduction

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