Silence at the Top of the Ivory Tower

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Stanley N. Katz
Title: Silence at the Top of the Ivory Tower
VTR: 9/16/94

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is an old friend and distinguished scholar and academic leader no one could ever accuse of a failure of nerve or lack of verve in frankly and boldly identifying, and then projecting, his educational or broadly social beliefs. Yet, Stanley N. Katz, the president of the prestigious American Council of Learned Societies, was, I think, both kinder and gentler, certainly more knowledgeable than I would have been, in commenting recently when The New York Times’ William Honan reported “silence” to be the watchword at the top of today’s ivory tower. The Times had identified a new reluctance on the part of university leaders to speak out boldly on major public issues, as had Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia, James Conant of Harvard, Robert Hutchings of Chicago, and Clark Kerr of the University of California, in generations past.

Today, “silence” is the watchword, perhaps because silence may have become golden. Even the once outspoken Vartan Gregorian, Brown’s president, says, “I have come to agree with Lord Chesterfield, that wisdom is like carrying a watch. Unless asked, you don’t have to tell everybody what time it is.”

Well, Stanley Katz has always told Americans what educational time it is. As a consequence, perhaps, he was dropped by the Clinton administration as its candidate for national archivist in the face of arch conservative political opposition. Yet Dr Katz seems to be enormously forbearing and sympathetic concerning silence on the part of others at the top of the academy. And I want to ask my guest if indeed there is rightly some new kind of golden rule among contemporary university leaders.

Stan, is it right? Wrong? Understandable?

KATZ: I think it’s understandable. Whether it’s right or wrong is a different question. I think really the basic problem is that the nature of the university has changed so much over the last, say, two generations, that the job isn’t what it used to be, the same sorts of people aren’t recruited, and the same tasks can’t be addressed by a university president anymore. I don’t think this is a lesser breed of person; I think it’s a different breed of person.

HEFFNER: You say the same sorts of persons can’t be recruited. What do you mean?

KATZ: I think that if you are thinking of the university as a business, a very complex business with many different departments and organizations, and you think that the bottom line is keeping the budget balanced and bringing in the resources necessary to keep this complicated organization going, you’re probably looking for a very different sort of person than the sort of person who used to be a moral and a, certainly an educational leader, whose main job was to lead the faculty and to shape an educational system. That simply isn’t the job of a president anymore.

HEFFNER: Need it be? Must it not be?

KATZ: Must it not be? I don’t think so. Although I have to say I have great sympathy for people who do these jobs. They’re killing jobs. They’re seven day a week jobs. They’re 15 hour a day jobs. And there isn’t any time to do the things one wants to do. Having said that, I still think there are examples of people who are trying desperately to keep themselves involved with the educational part of the job, and to provide an example to speak at least to their own communities on issues that are really central to the educational enterprise. But it’s very hard to do it. These are vast enterprises now.

HEFFNER: You say, “Very hard to do it.” Again, you’re kinder and gentler than I perhaps would be. But isn’t that the job of a president to do something that’s very hard to do?

KATZ: Well, I think the job is whatever the boss thinks the job is. And the boss in this case is the board of trustees. And the board of trustees, I think, is looking for a manager. And indeed, I think, by and large, it’s a disqualification to be a candidate for one of these jobs if one has very strong views, well, on almost anything, but certainly on education. That isn’t what they’re looking for. That’s the job of the dean of the faculty or the provost or the dean of the college or somebody else. This is the chairman of the board. It’s not even the COO.

HEFFNER: Who? You mean this is the role that’s played. Well …

KATZ: The president. The president. That’s right.

HEFFNER: I mean, you sort of point that out. You asked, you said before, if you’re thinking in terms of a business enterprise, and The Times quotes you: “Mr. Katz said that current academic leaders are silent largely because they are overwhelmed with administrative burdens since universities have exploded in size, complexity, and cost. These institutions require feeding 24 hours a day.” I thought that was very nice. “It’s the same in industry. Nobody even knows who the head of Chrysler is today. That’s because the people who run these organizations are swamped with administrative work.”

But you went on to say something else.

KATZ: Right.

HEFFNER: I don’t know if it fits into the kinder and gentler category. (Laughter)

KATZ: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: “There’s another reason, too,” Mr. Katz said. Both institutions and individuals today are looking for the main chance. They want to be rich, and they won’t let anything distract them from that. It’s too bad, but it’s an attribute of American life today.

KATZ: Well, I think it is. And I think it’s, as I said, to some extent it’s a necessity. That is to say, no university, I don’t believe, is trying to raise money simply to raise money, simply to say that it’s higher than the next university in the table of endowments. On the other had, look at Harvard. Harvard has now launched into a $2 billion campaign. They need the money. There’s absolutely no doubt about it. I’m an alumnus; I’ll give them money for the campaign. But there’s something really quite odd about an institution which already has far and away the largest endowment in the United States, which now needs more or less to double – well, it’s more than that – makes this dramatic increase in what it has. The reason is, of course, that everybody is growing in endowment. That means you only recover about four percent a year on the endowment. That’s not very much money, even when you get to these very large figures for campaigns. So it means that you throw all of this – well, I’m going to give a bad metaphor – you put a lot in, and very little comes out is what happens. But it means that it takes all of your time to find the wherewithal to put in.

HEFFNER: What happens to the university in the meantime, while all of your time as the university president is being taken up with business maters?

KATZ: Well, I think the answer is that it’s left to somebody else to run. And that’s why we have … It is like a business. It’s like a conglomerate, indeed, with the separate professional schools and parts of the university more or less on their own, raising their own funds, setting their own policies, not relating to a single notion of educational purpose on the campus. So it’s two things, I think, really. One is that we don’t have the organizational skill for the office of the president to run these institutions. But the other is, we’ve allowed the institutions to become so large and complex and contradictory that it really isn’t, logically as well as organizationally, possible to make them work like the university we imagined, at any rate, used to exist.

HEFFNER: When you say “contradictory,” do you mean the contradiction between a business and an educational institution?

KATZ: No, I don’t. I mean the contradiction, for instance, between different kinds of professional education and liberal undergraduate education, for instance. And conflicts among different kinds of professional, and even different kinds of undergraduate education. For instance, I mean, you have an undergraduate school of engineering cheek by jowl with a separate conservatory for the arts cheek by jowl with a liberal arts college and so forth. You have to stop and ask yourself: How do you make all of that integrate? Do you make all of that integrate? Are these kids on separate tracks? Do we have separate faculties? Are we trying to produce a similar effect in all of these people. And I think the answer is: ordinarily not. Most people think there’s nothing wrong with that.

HEFFNER: Now, in business we hear so often these days the word “downsizing.”

KATZ: Right.

HEFFNER: Or, one could say “devolution.” Is this what you’re suggesting for the university?

KATZ: Well, it’s what’s being talked about. And I think no, because what happens in that is you simply, what you can do in business, most importantly, that you can’t do in the university, is not downsizing, but divesting. They can’t sell off the unproductive units in the university. If they could do that, they would, indeed they’re close some small ones. By and large, not, though. What was the last law school you heard of shut down?

HEFFNER: Oh, no, but wait a minute, wait a minute. You’re talking about law school.

KATZ: Right.

HEFFNER: There are – I won’t say “lesser” parts of the university …

KATZ: Sure.

HEFFNER: … but there are other parts of universities, schools of mining perhaps, and others, pharmaceutical schools. No? Am I wrong?

KATZ: In the major universities, very few whole units have been shut down. There have been some. The University of Chicago shut down its school of education when I was there.

HEFFNER: Oh, well, small fry.

KATZ: Exactly. It shut down its library school. Columbia, your university, shut down its library school last year. But these have been small units, in fact. They weren’t important units, I don’t mean intellectually now, but in terms of the number of tenured faculty and in terms of the number of students and so forth. So, that is downsizing, and that does go along. But people don’t decide, for instance, they can’t decide, “Well, we’re going to make it just a college,” or, “We’re going to cut out … We can have business and law, but we’re not going to have medicine,”

HEFFNER: But wait a minute. Don’t they speak that way in business terms? “We’re not going to do that, not for philosophical or educational reasons; but we couldn’t get away with it. We couldn’t, in a business sense.” Isn’t once again there a business consideration here?

KATZ: Well, I think there sometimes is. I think most universities could divest themselves of the medical schools and improve their bank balance. There are schools you can do that with. I suspect there are others you couldn’t and wouldn’t. There are good reasons to keep them. Don’t get me wrong. But I think the model of downsizing doesn’t work terribly well. And there are lots of reasons. Tenure for faculty. You can’t get rid of faculty unless you shut an entire unit. And that’s a tough decision to make. You alienate the alumni you’ve built up who went through that particular part of the school. Things like that drive it incredibly. And, you know, I do understand that. But you simply don’t have the control of it, because you don’t go to the shareholders and say, “If we divest ourselves of this, that, and the other, we can return more money to you at the end of the year.”

HEFFNER: Unless you’re a state university, in which case you know who the shareholders are.

KATZ: Well, that’s right. That’s a different sort of problem, and in some ways a more difficult sort of problem, I think. The point I’m trying to make, though, is that what would be downsizing of a proper kind, I think, in higher education would be reducing the scale of things in accordance with an educational principle. And that’s what I don’t hear much discussion of.

HEFFNER: That’s kind of irrelevant, isn’t it?

KATZ: Well, it’s become irrelevant, I think. Exactly. And that’s why we do hear a lot of business metaphors. A university president who is quite close to me, and whom I won’t name, gave a speech. I criticized him for it. And what he said was that we had to downsize, that cost control was what we needed, and so forth. And I said, “Look, if you can convince me that our product is really analogous to the product of General Motors, then I’ll agree with you. But if you don’t think that, if you think that the training of young people is somehow different than making widgets, then we need another metaphor, we need another way to think about the whole thing.” But the constraints – and I think they are financial constraints, largely – are simply enormous. And so, as I say, I have great sympathy for the people who are in these positions. But what we’re not getting, that I’m most distressed about, is thoughtful consideration of what the alternatives might be. There’s very little national discussion, within the universities, or outside the universities. We hear a lot of university bashing, which I think is mainly poorly based. There are plenty of problems in the universities. They don’t get credit for the incredible job they do at most of the things they do do.

HEFFNER: But usually we don’t think or talk about the unthinkable. You obviously think that it is thinkable that deep concern, accompanied by real thought …

KATZ: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: … could bring about some change, some positive change.

KATZ: Sure. Some, and cost will drive us to some of them. And the best example I can think of is what’s happening to libraries today. I mean, even Columbia and Harvard, the largest universities, can’t afford anymore to have libraries that are relatively the size they used to be. That is to say, most of the books and other materials you would want to consult. There are too many books, there are too many different kinds of materials, they’re too costly. So we’re being driven to dispersed collections and to sharing. It’s very slow, and it’s very reluctant, but it’s coming. And it’s the electronics will help that.

HEFFNER: Excuse me. How will electronics help that?

KATZ: Oh, well, electronics are an enormous help. Because if information is in a database …

HEFFNER: Ah ha.

KATZ: … the database can be accessed from anywhere.

HEFFNER: But let’s not kid ourselves. You’re not talking about books; you’re talking about a different context for information.

KATZ: Oh, but I’m also talking about books. For instance, there is an important plan afoot now to distribute the collection of foreign language serials – journals, periodicals – and I think it’s the only, we’re not going to collect them otherwise. Columbia, for instance, can’t afford to collect all of the foreign journals which it has because they go up about 300 percent a year in cost. So the only thing we can do in a situation like that – and they’re about to do it – is that Columbia will collect in one area, the University of Chicago will collect in another, and so forth, and these will be available in the United States. We’ll have to think of them as national resources. And the same thing is happening in other kinds of book collections and newspaper collections and so forth. It has to come. We also, we don’t have the space to store these materials anymore. And we’ve almost reached the point where new libraries and expanded libraries aren’t going to be built. It’s simply too expensive.

HEFFNER: Okay. Suppose one says, “Stanley Katz is right in what he just described.” And also – and you haven’t really mentioned it – your enthusiasm for computerization …

KATZ: Right.

HEFFNER: … is there. And I don’t share that with you, and you know it.

KATZ: Right.

HEFFNER: But that doesn’t make any difference. (Laughter) Because you’re in a position to deal with this real problem. What will be the impact of the kind of redistribution that you’ve just talked about, and of computerization upon the nature of education in this country, upon the nature of the educated person …

KATZ: Person.

HEFFNER: … whatever that may mean?

KATZ: Well, I think potentially it can be the most democratizing thing that’ s ever happened in higher education in this country, also, by the way, and elementary and secondary education. If you imagine a situation, for instance, we have a project now, we’re cooperating with Cornell and a bunch of other universities and libraries to create a database which is going to be called “The Making of America: 1860 to 1960.” And it will be a database that has the equivalent of something like 10,000 volumes. Although there will be sound, there will be visual material. But it will be carefully selected by scholars, organized around certain themes in American history over that period of time. It will be centrally accessible. Now, imagine that you are a student, not at Columbia as you were, but at a rural, small college which has a library of maybe 50,000 volumes, and when you were an undergraduate, say, when you were, you would have only had those 50,000 volumes to work with. Now the teacher and the students in that college will have exactly the same access to that database as the undergraduate at Columbia. And furthermore, the teacher, for instance, will be able to interact with other teachers around the country in planning what to do with these materials. The students themselves will be able to communicate with other students around the country. And I can imagine, by the way, courses that involve several different colleges and universities working, let’s say, on some problem in 20th Century history.

HEFFNER: Stanley, you hit the right theme, because you know that my field was American history. But suppose one says, “Yes, I will stand up and salute at the use of the word “democratization.” And there is a big smile on your face when you talk about that.

KATZ: Right.

HEFFNER: You’re keenly interested in that. Democratization in the area of education, of learning, has not always been an upgrading …

KATZ: No.

HEFFNER: … phenomenon. In fact, one could make the case for its having been a downgrading – not downsizing, but downgrading …

KATZ: Sure.

HEFFNER: How do you respond to that? Does that dampen your enthusiasm at all?

KATZ: No, not at all. I mean, anything can be abused. I think, in fact, the real danger is not a lowering of the norms. It’s just the opposite. That is to say, if we don’t build the system correctly, so that, in fact, only Columbia and Harvard and Berkeley can access it, and this little college I’m talking about can’t access it, then it’s going to make the differences which already exist across institutions even worsen, and it will mean that the elite institutions will become that much more specialized and restricted to a certain clientele. That’s, I think, the real danger in all of this. The problem of the lowest common denominator, as you know, is always a serious problem in education.

Let me put it slightly differently. I think the real problem of democracy in education is how you achieve two different goals, two contradictory goals. One is democratization. That is the extension of learning to everybody. But the other is maintaining the highest kinds of standards. That is maintaining elite standards.

HEFFNER: But, Stanley, wouldn’t you concede that the fact is that over the past half century we have, in our enthusiasm for democratization, seen just exactly the reverse happen in terms of standards, of quality of education? Yes, we’ve spread wide but thin. Is that something that you would reject? Am I talking about something that you just say didn’t happen?

KATZ: Oh, no. I think it has happened. Absolutely. I’m not as troubled by it, I think, as you are, because we’ve done two things. We are, after all, educating an extraordinary percentage of college age youth, much larger than any other country. I think Canada is very close.

HEFFNER: Wait, wait, wait. Would you accept one modification? We’re putting them through school. You say “educating.”

KATZ: Okay. Fine.

HEFFNER: I’d say they’re going to school.

KATZ: I think, in fact, a lot of education is going on. In any case, we are attempting to educate very large numbers of people. I think more often than not we’re doing it successfully. And I think the proof of the pudding is to compare our educational system to any other national, post secondary educational system. And I think it compares not only very favorably. And here is where the market test that everybody wants to apply to us really shows how well we’re actually doing. But the challenge is still to work with the system so that we make it possible to educate different students in different ways, and to think harder about – and I’m, as a matter of fact, writing about this now – how we do raise the level, how we do ensure that we know what quality means in higher education, and that we make higher education institutions accountable for it. I’m with you on that. But I don’t think to say that is to say that we’ve done a terrible job and nobody is learning anything. I just simply don’t think that’s the case.

HEFFNER: Well, you, with your enthusiasm for democratization, of course, you wouldn’t. And I cheer you. Somebody’s got to be optimistic and democratic, and with a small “d.” What do you think is going to happen?

KATZ: Well, I think, by the way, in the short run, what’s going to happen is that we’re becoming under pressure now to apply the same sorts of national standards, or at least state standards, to higher education that are being developed in the Goals 2000, Education 2000 program for the schools. There’s some threatening things about that. There’s some good things about that. The good part of it is that I think it’s going to force, begin to force institutions to ask seriously what it is they’re trying to achieve in undergraduate education. I think that’s perhaps one of the things that you were taught. It came out. I think we’ve gotten away from that. So we run, even in very good places, we run students through departments, and they come out certified little political scientists or biologists or something. I’m less sure that they have the kind of general education that I think citizens in a country like this need. But if we can come back to thinking of it in an integrated way – and I think these notions of quality may force us to do that – I think that’ll be a big help.

HEFFNER: Of course, didn’t you a moment ago indulge in, not a contradiction, but you were talking about comparing higher education in this country with higher education abroad, rather than talking about K to 12 …

KATZ: Right.

HEFFNER: … where I don’t think you would say we have done so well, comparatively speaking.

KATZ: Comparatively … I think, that’s by the way, a very hard call. I don’t believe that our system is anything like K to 12, anything like the disaster that for the last 20 years we’ve been told certainly there are severe problems. But there are severe problems in this society, and education reflects those, it doesn’t cause those. On the whole, I think that many of our schools do a superior job, and on a comparative basis. My own daughter moved at one point from a high school in New Jersey to a gymnasium in Germany, and much the worse for the school experience, much the better for the larger educational experience. And I don’t think that would be untrue in a lot of instances. But that’s not the point. The point is that at least for that large number of people who go on to post secondary education – it certainly isn’t everyone – we think of it as K to 16. And that’s the right way to think of it. And for those students – I must say it’s those I’m mainly thinking about, since I’m a college teacher – but for those students, I think we do a superior job. And one of the reasons is that there’s something really left to do once you graduate from the 12th grade.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

KATZ: (Laughter) I have to be careful how I say that.

HEFFNER: It’s a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful way to look at it.

Going back, in the minute that we have left, to the question that we began with: Can we bring about the changes we want to see with this business metaphor that we started with for the universities?

KATZ: Yeah. No, I certainly don’t think so. And that’s what I was saying to Bill Honan. I really think we need voices to speak out for education, to begin to articulate what education is at the end of this century and what it might be. We need to focus, for undergraduates, on how they learn, not on what we teach them. We do that in the schools; we don’t do that in the colleges. But leadership in a democratic society is the clarification of alternatives; it’s not setting out a rigid agenda. We need the voices to clarify the agenda.

HEFFNER: Do you see the sources of that leadership, given what Honan had written about and what you commented about?

KATZ: Well, I’m a little pessimistic about that. There is where I think institutional dynamics are simply working against us. And we’re going to have to try to find some alternatives to get that discussion going.

HEFFNER: Stanley Katz, I’m so glad that you joined me today. I don’t know whether I’m glad that you begin to share my pessimism at the end.

KATZ: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … or that I’m so buoyed by your optimism. But thanks so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.

KATZ: Thank you, Richard.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

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