Monday, October 27, 2003

<***> Studies Depts. as aesthetic expression 

Arnold Kling argues that universities compete for students increasingly by offering aesthetic values. Following the theme of Virginia Postrel's new book, The Substance of Style -- which is on my nightstand but getting crowded out by The DaVinci Code right now, thanks Dave! -- Kling thinks that maybe those something-studies departments are just an expression of one's own quest for finding something that is like them.
Postrel argues that consumers use aesthetics to express their identity. Her bumper-sticker phrase that describes the identity-driven motive for consumption is, "I like that. I'm like that." This is very evident on college campuses, where there are special buildings for the African-American student union, for Jewish students, and for other segments. Ethnic-group clubs are the most thriving student organizations on campus. One of my academic friends wryly notes that "there is a dean for all three genders, for each ethnic group, and for every intersecting combination." Entire academic departments, such as Black Studies or Women's Studies, have emerged to serve no purpose other than "I like that. I'm like that."
That might sound good, and certainly the multicultis think it swell. But it doesn't bode well for the university to remain in its current form.
Another key to avoiding diseconomies of scope is the ability to let go of poorly-performing professors and uncompetitive departments. The information age rewards dynamic excellence, not stable mediocrity.

The sectors of our economy that are growing most rapidly are characterized by the highest rate of failure. Economic growth is a process of trial-and-error learning. If errors are not corrected and failures are not quickly shut down, then experiments become too costly to conduct. If most new businesses fail, then most new academic departments should fail, also. Without a process for quick failure, institutions have to be somewhat reluctant to create new departments.

Jack Welch of General Electric reportedly decreed that if a division of GE was not in the top three in its market, then that division would be sold. No such ruthlessness exists in academia. Mediocrity and failure are tolerated indefinitely.
I wonder how one measures the top three HURL programs? Hopefully not by GPA.