What IS a College?

The defunct Green Mountain College, What exactly was lost? Depends on who you ask.

So yesterday we talked a little about the ontological work of the metaphor, that a metaphor represents a base-level claim about what a thing is. So what is a college?

We know what a college does, but that’s different. A college brings people together to take and to deliver courses, and sometimes to conduct research. That’s its role, not its essence. It’s remarkable how many different definitions people bring to the core nature of a college.

A college can be thought of fundamentally as a business. It’s a specific kind of business, to be sure, but so is Starbucks or Sony or your neighborhood tattoo salon. What a business sells is irrelevant to its nature as a business, with its financial responsibilities and outcomes. This kind of examination of a college leads to sentences like this, in today’s Chronicle of Higher Ed email briefing: “If you don’t know the cost of your college’s programs and departments, and their return on investment, this information is essential.” ROI has become its own metaphysical master term, a thing people say when they want to sound sophisticated.

A college can be thought of fundamentally as a member of its community. Community colleges, by name and definition, are built to be one organ within the urban body. But that same role is played by innumerable lesser state colleges, who pay local people to educate the local kids for local lives. The Chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges, who can read a spreadsheet as well as the rest of us, last week proposed the closing of the two campuses of Northern Vermont University and one campus of the Vermont Technical College. This led State Senator Richard Westman to say “It will have devastating effects to all of the Northeast Kingdom, all of Lamoille County, and all of the region across the northern part of the state.” Those devastating effects had nothing to do with education; they were about state subsidies and the jobs they create, the peripheral jobs they sustain.

A college can be thought of fundamentally as a branch of government. As such, its role might be to provide opportunity to those who have less social and economic capital, just as other branches of government take responsibility for children and the elderly and those who are ill and homeless. Government, in the great configuration of Jane Jacobs, is by necessity a countervailing force to business; it keeps rapaciousness in check, and provides opportunities that businesses don’t find profitable but that citizens deserve.

The diametrically opposed definition of a college is to be the training arm for industry. Its fundamental role is to serve businesses with young people ready to go onto the assembly line, whatever form that might take. It’s an apprenticeship program with specific, nameable client employers awaiting newcomers.

There are colleges that configure themselves as empires, based only on acquisition and dominance. Harvard and NYU and Duke are basically the Dutch West India Corporation of the 20th and 21st centuries. There are colleges that are fiefdoms, in which all endeavors are conducted for the benefit and vanity of its president-overlord. And there are colleges that are God’s instrument, doing the earthly work of some deity or another. Sometimes these three are hard to tell apart.

This would all be merely interesting, an ethnographic study of varied language habits, except that these fundamental definitions determine the internal and external relations of the institution. The responsibility that a business bears to its employees (none) creates one form of faculty life; the responsibility that a community member bears to its employees and the larger local economy (significant) creates a different form of faculty life. An endowment based on empire would be evaluated only through growth; an endowment of a branch of government is a running balance spent for service and support. An overpaid president of a business is a common symptom of our CEO culture and thoughts about the worth of scarce talents; an overpaid president of a fiefdom is simply receiving the tribute that they are natively due from their subjects.

We might imagine that different lineages of ethical thought are interesting ideas that we deliberate and choose. But I think they’re just the set of relationship rules that are inherent within the underlying definition of an institution. An ethic of justice posits us as discrete individuals with competing interests that must be reconciled; an ethic of care posits us as existing within webs of relationships that have their own reality; a utilitarian ethic posits us as entries within a larger social balance sheet, “the greater good” devised as a simple mathematical function.

So listen closely to what colleges say, even in their most trivial (and thus least guarded) messages. What kind of relationships and responsibilities and actions are they proposing as native to their identity? If their messages seem to rely on a unified underlying metaphor, believe it. If not, question its coherence as an enterprise, and where the fault lines lie.