November 25, 2005
The Modern University Has Become Obsolete

By Froma Harrop

The modern university is a relic that will disappear in a few decades. That prediction was made by Peter Drucker, the management genius who just died at 95 and usually got things right.

His words brought an uncharitable smile to my face as I recently strolled across the ivied campus of Brown University, in Providence, R.I. At the time, maintenance crews were busy removing leaves. Campus officials were still dealing with the aftermath of an especially drunken Saturday night. And most everyone was excited that the football team had taken the Ivy League championship.

No doubt, some education was going on, but the question nagged: Is this an efficient setup for improving young minds? Not very, according to Drucker. "Today's buildings are hopelessly unsuited and totally unneeded," he said. Satellites and the Internet can easily make classrooms obsolete.

We now read that professors at Purdue, Stanford, Duke and other universities are recording their lectures. Students download the talks on their iPods and listen to them whenever. The "whenever" can be while driving, lifting weights or between songs by Black Eyed Peas and the Pussycat Dolls.

The profs say that letting students hear the lectures on their own frees classroom time for penetrating discussions. The same conversations, however, could be held over the Internet -- or, for that matter, in a room at the public library.

Furthermore, the professors could let non-students download their lectures and charge them royalties, just like the Black Eyed Peas. Ordinary folks already buy courses on tape or CD. For example, The Teaching Company is now selling a virtual major in American history -- 84 lectures on 42 audiotapes -- at the bargain price of $109.95. It covers everything from "before Columbus" to Bill Clinton, and the lecturers are top-drawer. Some of them teach at Columbia University, where a single history course runs you $3,207.

Herman Melville said that "a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard." Melville didn't need college to write "Moby Dick." He needed to read and spend time in the world. Before sailing out on a whaler in 1841, he had already worked on his uncle's farm and as a cabin boy on a ship to England.

Peter Drucker urged high-school graduates to do likewise: Work for at least five years. If they went on to college, it would be as grown-ups.

You wonder whether colleges, stripped of their education function, wouldn't find other lives as spas, professional-sports franchises or perhaps lightly supervised halfway houses for post-adolescents. The infrastructure is already in place.

Over at Kenyon College, in Ohio, the students have a new $60 million athletic center. The highlights include a 12,500-square-foot workout area and an indoor track with eight lanes just for sprinting. The pool has 20 short-course and nine long-course lanes. And, like any upscale health club, this one has a cafe.

Speaking of sports, colleges spend huge numbers of "education dollars" on keeping their football coaches happy. For example, the University of Texas is giving Mack Brown a compensation package this year totaling $3.6 million. UT's highest-paid academic, Steven Weinberg, earns about $400,000, and he has a Nobel Prize in physics.

The universities claim that popular football and basketball teams are profit centers that help pay for learning. In truth, few produce a surplus even for their schools' sports programs. Athletics pay their own way at only about 10 colleges, according to Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College who specializes in sports.

And with all due respect to the Texas Longhorns, if they were such a fabulous cash machine, there would be no need for the Longhorn Foundation. The foundation, which raises money for UT athletics, notes on its website that revenues from ticket sales, television and ads cover less than half the operating expenses of the university's sports program.

University presidents, meanwhile, are working on their own pay packages. Several already make more than $1 million, which has become the new goalpost. Most justify their incomes by their ability to raise money for new buildings.

Of course, these are the buildings that will soon be relics, according to Peter Drucker. Look at these shining new facilities and think: What fine condos they will someday make.

Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate

Froma Harrop

Author Archive
Email Author
Print This Article
Send Article To a Friend

More Commentary

America's Uniqueness - Charles Krauthammer
What Flight? - Thomas Sowell
A Journalist For the Ages - George Will

More From Froma Harrop

Dems Need Another Scoop Jackson
Morning After Pill About Contraception
Choices Create Confusion