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March 15, 2010

Recapturing the University: The Hybrid Alternative

By Robert Weissberg

In the contemporary battle within the social sciences between free market think tanks and liberal- dominated universities, the former labor under a huge disadvantage: they lack students. Think-tank based scholars may daily issue erudite policy analyses, write incisive op-ed columns galore, dominate talk radio, publish in widely admired magazines like City Journal but the half-life of these missives seldom exceeds a few days. By contrast, a professor typically has fifteen weeks, two to three times per week, for usually 50 minutes, to expound his or her views to a captive audience, two to four courses per semester, and over a thirty-five plus year career. Of the utmost importance, professors can compel students to read stuff and insist on minimal familiarity, a power unimaginable to even the most professional think tank PR department. That these students are of an impressionable age---the pedagogical equivalent of droit de seigneur-- and are hardly in a position to argue, only adds to this built in indoctrination advantage.

In graduate education the propagating-the-faith advantage multiplies, since most Ph.D. students will become tomorrow's teachers. Ideological domination can persist for decades, regardless of events. So, to use a depressing example, the Marxist analyses that first filtered into America's college classrooms in the 1960s are still going strong a half century later and can only continue on as the torch is passed from professor to Ph.D. advisees. Perhaps only centuries from now will Marxism go inert and like spent weapons-grade Plutonium, the last lead-brained but still radioactive Marxist professor will be entombed in a deep Nevada salt mine. And it may require additional centuries for him to be joined by ideologically exhausted feminists, deconstructionists, ethnic studies experts and all the rest.

This monopoly of early access cannot be overcome by think tanks churning out more reports, better public relations, or ensuring that every "important opinion leaders" receives a free copy of their sponsored research (which may not even be read). And keep in mind that professors get to students first (the droit de seigneur), so the glories of free markets, low taxes, and limited government etc. etc. must overcome years of prior exposure. It is no wonder that many free-market think tank scholars must feel like they are trying to push boulder up a mountain. They are---the professors got there first and designed the obstacle course terrain.

A Possible Solution

Leveling the ideologically playing field requires gaining access to undergraduate and graduate students. To some extent this is already being accomplished in what I have previously called the "Monastery approach" where donors establish semi-independent academic centers on campus (e.g., the James Madison Program at Princeton, among others). Though an important step in reaching students otherwise immersed in campus liberalism, these are, to be frank, only a tiny drop in the bucket and undoubtedly very costly per classroom instruction hour (and their survival is always iffy given liberal faculty aversion). Far more is required---contrary messages must be brought to thousands, even tens of thousands of students, per semester and in ways that do not require establishing donor-funded legal entities that often battle entrenched liberalism.

This subversive goal is hardly beyond reach. Let's call this a hybrid solution, a combination of regular university and free market think tanks. In a nutshell, students would interact with think tank-based scholars in regularly scheduled for-credit classes over several years depending on the degree but receive their degrees from the university, not, say, Heritage, Cato or the American Enterprise Institute.

This could be excellent synergy. Academically ambitious schools would gain off-the-shelf graduate program (particularly an MA program in public policy with specialties in fields like health care, taxation, education, and environmental policy), faculty and administrative structure included, versus building from scratch. Graduate students might also find employment as research assistants. Financial costs for hosting colleges would be modest---college tuition-paying enrollees would just take seminars from "free" think tank scholars, participate in colloquia and otherwise use newly accessible intellectual resources. That schools ultimately control the relationship is critical (and, on the other side, the think tank can also leave if things falter). The college would set degree requirements, dictate teaching credentials and administer the usual details of campus life plus attend to accreditation. Conceivably, groups of like-minded think tanks could share students and resources so while the degree would be awarded by a single school, course work would have occurred at multiple institutions (a think tank consortium to use academic jargon). Physical separation could be handled by the familiar "year in..." or even distance learning via the Internet.

If the aim is merely exposing undergraduates or MA students to ideas typically neglected on contemporary campuses, the awaiting problems are quite manageable. At the graduate level, however, the obstacles are more formidable. It is one thing to have schools award MA's in public policy with think tank input, but it is quite another to bestow Ph.D.s to those who will teach thousands over a career. A "hybrid" doctorate must satisfy stricter standards if the recipient is to be employable and without graduates landing good teaching jobs, re-taking the university will fail.

This last requirement raises awkward issues, but they must be addressed. I'll be blunt: if a freshly minted Ph.D.s from hybrid degree programs is viewed as an ideological advocate, no recruitment committee will take the application seriously. Few universities will knowingly hire a "Cato" professor but they might be enticed to hire a Ph.D. from a regular university who studied with Cato's experts. Forget abstract fairness. It makes no differences that Ph.D.s from even prestigious departments are often ideological zealots or that some of these degree-holders reflect affirmative action obligations. As with all novel products fighting for market share, the hybrid scholar must be better, probably a lot better, than his or her rival from traditional schools that currently fill professorial position. Think Japanese cars initially competing against Fords and Chevys. Though a think tank may have a clear ideological mission, and those who gravitate to these programs may share this worldview, hybrid programs cannot impose ideological litmus tests if it is be taken seriously.

A second potential obstacle concerns hybrid faculty certification. Under current university rules, only Ph.D.'s can turn out Ph.D.s, a potential problem if think tank instructors lack this degree. There is also the "academic gravitas" issue when judging job applicants. A standard hiring question is "Who was the advisor?" and it is essential to have an advisor and committee who have their academic bona fides in order. Here again, a potential conflict, i.e., think tanks are about skilled policy analysis, not hiring people adroit at building "academic" records that may consist of turgid journal articles having nothing to do with anything.

These obstacles are, however, readily solvable. Think tanks might recruit bona fide university-based scholars for a year to two who would lend the names and expertise to the certification process. In is inconceivable, for example, that somebody's doctorate would be disparaged if the dissertation committee included such well known (and think tank friendly) academics as James Q. Wilson, Harvey C. Mansfield, Richard J. Epstein or countless others with a reputation for honest, quality scholarship. Some like AEI already have scholars in residence whose credentials are academically kosher. Indeed, for many respected academics a year or two as a senior scholar at a hybrid university would be a great career opportunity. In exchange for occasional graduate advising they would receive a reduced teaching load and access professional, career-enhancing networks.

Nor must current scholars who lack the Ph.D. be put out to pasture. Knowledge and degree are not synonymous. It is easy to imagine, say, a year long colloquium on economic regulation drawing on experts without doctorates but provided the supervising instructor has, to use university terminology, "graduate school standing," everything will pass muster for the enrollee's transcript. Actually, the parade-of-expert-visitor formula is a familiar one in many graduate seminars and provided the readings and course requirements are sufficiently academic, few would challenge the idea of having non-Ph.D.s speak to graduate students. The non-credit colloquium is also a familiar feature of top graduate programs and a wonderful tactic to expose young scholars to leading experts and their ideas.

Make no mistake, this alternative universe to the current system cannot overthrow the contemporary liberal-dominated university. It will not supplant top prestige university departments since they obviously have no need for parallel degree-granting departments, let alone rivals offering antithetical perspectives to their orthodoxy. These elite institutions will also continue to hire each other's Ph.D. students, not job candidates from lesser schools relying on think tank resources. The aim here is to fill positions in "teaching schools" and while they lack the glamour of Harvard or Princeton, they collectively graduate tens of thousands of students per year (far, far more than the elite schools). That these instructors usually teach four courses per semester (versus one or two per semester at research-oriented schools) only multiplies access impact.

This hybrid approach is designed to expand intellectual diversity, not train conservative missionaries to preach Milton Friedman to the multitude. A few hybrid graduates may even "go native" and fall into the academy's dominant liberal orthodoxy despite earlier intellectual exposure. But, unlike nearly all of today's university trained Ph.D.s in the social sciences they will have at least been exposed to ideas that have seemingly vanished from the academic landscape.

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Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science, Emeritus at the University of Illinois-Urbana, and occasionally teaches in the NYU Politics Department MA Program.



Comments (2)

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Eleanore Klump:

Thank you for helping out, great info .

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