Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Silverglate on How Corporate Academic Leaders Try to Control the Message

In the US, and most countries, academic medicine, including medical schools and teaching hospitals, are situated within larger universities. The leaders of academic medicine report to university presidents, who in turn report to university boards, who are ultimately responsible for upholding the universities' mission.

Perhaps one reason that universities, and their academic medical components seem to have worsening difficulties upholding their missions is that their top leaders increasingly are people to whom the academic mission may be a foreign concept. For example, we recently discussed how the board of trustees of one prominent university with a prominent medical school has been taken over by leaders from the finance sector, the same sector which brought us all the global financial collapse.

In an article in the Boston Phoenix, civil liberties expert Harvey Silverglate discussed some other aspects of academic integrity failures, that is, how academic institutions now operate counter to their fundamental mission.

Harvard is accustomed to turning other universities green with envy. So it comes as no surprise that its alumni publication, Harvard magazine, which is largely financially self-sufficient and editorially independent of the university, has become a model to which other universities aspire. But rather than take pride in the bi-monthly’s stellar 108-year-old reputation, university administrators effectively declared war on Harvard magazine earlier this year when they brought out an in-house competitor. The new rag, The Yard — which Harvard sends four times a year to alumni, big donors, and parents of students — strikes a decidedly more self-flattering tone than its independent counterpart.

Why the change, and why now? In a word, the answer is: fundraising. As the Wall Street Journal reported in June, 'fund-raisers determined that Harvard magazine was no longer serving their best interests.'

In an era when corporations and politicians pay public-relations consultants big bucks to control the 'message,' one would hope that universities, devoted to the 'free marketplace of ideas,' would resist the trend. Yet in recent years, Harvard, like almost all universities, has been eager to limit how much the public in general, and alumni in particular, learn about what’s really happening on campus. This is especially true as many universities continue to sacrifice traditional academic values — free speech, academic freedom, and fair disciplinary proceedings — in favor of censorship and closed administrative proceedings that function as kangaroo courts, in a misguided attempt to avoid controversies that might gain public attention.

The reality is that alumni fund a major portion of private universities’ budgets, and even public institutions are increasingly dependent on former students to supplement stagnant or decreasing state education budgets.

Growing increasingly anxious, officials at public universities turned toward upbeat alumni mags to buoy fundraising efforts. Over the past 15 years, schools that had never previously published alumni mags began cranking out thousands of the things....

The image-above-all mentality is part of a lamentable trend 'Freedom Watch' has long identified as 'the corporatization of higher education.' Increasingly, university presidents operate more like CEOs than academic leaders: they emphasize the bottom line, large endowments, U.S. News and World Report rankings, and highly visible campus construction (and donor-naming) projects, while they neglect or marginalize academic excellence, intellectual inquiry, academic freedom, and students’ rights.

A sampling of local [to Boston] alumni glossies reveals a near-universal practice of praising the university, even if it means demeaning the intelligence of alums.

As Alan Charles Kors and I pointed out in our 1998 book, The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses, academic freedom is being sacrificed so that academic administrators can play-act as empire-builders and careerists rather than serve as educators. The typical modern college president’s goal is to have no controversy, no trouble 'on my watch,' we wrote.

This article suggests several important points.

First, there is a growing realization that academia's mission is being increasingly subverted as the leadership of academic organizations, including, in particular, academic medicine, increasingly resembles corporate leadership. (We, of course, have repeatedly discussed the prominent movement in health policy in the 1980s that advocated breaking the "medical guild" while handing power over health care to bureaucrats and managers.)

Second, there is a growing realization that academic leaders who ape their corporate peers have a penchant for propaganda promoting their interests, and for suppressing discussion of their faults. Clearly these are causes of the anechoic effect. Never mind that controlling speech and communication in this manner is antithetical to the fundamental academic mission to discover and disseminate the truth in the spirit of free enquiry.

A practical lesson for those interested in what is going wrong with academic medicine. Do not expect to find much out about what is going wrong from academic medical institutions themselves, and particularly from the publications and media they sponsor. Just because academic medical institutions are supposed to promote discussion of important issues in medicine, health, and health policy, do not expect them to allow discussion of issues that reflect baldly on their fearless leaders.

But Silverglate warned administrators intent on controlling the message:

For administrators to think that they can mold alumni opinion by monopolizing the universities’ messages sent to grads ignores the growing realities of our increasingly sophisticated and informed electronic-media-saturated culture.

Now that no-nonsense alumni are seeing through the smoke and mirrors, cutting off donations and asserting control of alumni associations and boards of trustees, colleges may have no choice but to pay attention to the rising chorus of voices saying 'enough!'

We hope that Health Care Renewal and some of the blogs to which we link are part of an "increasingly sophisticated and informed electronic media" which will help people see through the "smoke and mirrors," and encourage them to say "enough."

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