Dynamics of the Contemporary University: Growth, Accretion, and Conflict

Dynamics of the Contemporary University: Growth, Accretion, and Conflict

by Neil J. Smelser

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This book is an expanded version of the Clark Kerr Lectures of 2012, delivered by Neil Smelser at the University of California at Berkeley in January and February of that year. The initial exposition is of a theory of change—labeled structural accretion—that has characterized the history of American higher education, mainly (but not exclusively)


This book is an expanded version of the Clark Kerr Lectures of 2012, delivered by Neil Smelser at the University of California at Berkeley in January and February of that year. The initial exposition is of a theory of change—labeled structural accretion—that has characterized the history of American higher education, mainly (but not exclusively) of universities. The essence of the theory is that institutions of higher education progressively add functions, structures, and constituencies as they grow, but seldom shed them, yielding increasingly complex structures. The first two lectures trace the multiple ramifications of this principle into other arenas, including the essence of complexity in the academic setting, the solidification of academic disciplines and departments, changes in faculty roles and the academic community, the growth of political constituencies, academic administration and governance, and academic stratification by prestige. In closing, Smelser analyzes a number of contemporary trends and problems that are superimposed on the already-complex structures of higher education, such as the diminishing public support without alterations of governance and accountability, the increasing pattern of commercialization in higher education, the growth of distance-learning and for-profit institutions, and the spectacular growth of temporary and part-time faculty.

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University of California Press
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Clark Kerr Lectures On the Role of Higher Education in Society Series
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6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

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Dynamics of the Contemporary University

Growth, Accretion, and Conflict

By Neil J. Smelser


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95525-7


Dynamics of American Universities

It is a custom on this occasion to honor the figure for whom these lectures are named and to acknowledge how deeply honored I am to have been chosen to deliver them. I do both these things, not out of the pressure of ceremony, but from the heart. Clark Kerr was (and is) such an important part of my own career that I must add a personal note.

I met Clark Kerr in 1958, about two weeks after I arrived on the Berkeley campus as a new assistant professor. He, as new President, and Glenn Seaborg, as new Chancellor, had invited faculty appointees to a welcoming social occasion. We merely shook hands at the time, and to him I was a face in the crowd, but I knew of his heroics in the loyalty-oath crisis years earlier. I could not have known that in the coming decade he would lead California into its magnificent Master Plan, enunciate his historic conception of the multiversity, ride herd over multiple crises in the 1960s, establish his presidency as a legendary one, and become the century's leading spokesman for higher education.

In the following decade I myself was drawn into campus affairs in such a way that Kerr came to notice me, and he invited me to join the Technical Advisory Committee of his Carnegie Commission on Higher Education. There I, along with Martin Trow, Sheldon Rothblatt, Bud Cheit, and Fred Balderston, came to constitute a group that I called "Clark's boys." My relationship with Clark was cemented in those years, and he sought my advice on diverse matters, and ultimately my help with his memoirs. Clark Kerr and I would meet in the Clark Kerr Room of the Men's Faculty Club, sit under the portrait of Clark Kerr, and I would always order the Clark Kerr Special from the menu, even when I didn't like the plate. It was a humbling honor when Clark invited me to write the foreward to The Gold and the Blue (Kerr 2001; Kerr 2003) from a crowd of much more visible and notable candidates. I apologize for this too-personal introduction, but I felt it important to reveal the depth of memories and feelings I have on this occasion.


I now offer another apology, this on how I am going to proceed. In covering the recent literature on higher education, reading the press, and conversing with colleagues and friends, I get a picture of urgency and crisis. We are being starved by the public and the politicians, tenure is disappearing with the proletarianization of the academic labor force, the idea of the university is being eroded by the forces of the market and corporatization, and we are being threatened by the spectacular growth of online, for-profit organizations of questionable quality.

I know these questions are on your minds as well, and I feel the pressure to put my two cents' worth on these overwhelming issues right away. In the context of such urgency, it is almost a matter for personal guilt if I don't. I can assure you that I will comment, but not right away, not from the hip, and not in the language of the day. If I did so, I am confident I would add nothing to the babble of voices. As an alternative, I am going to try to elucidate a few first principles about the nature of higher education (especially the university), particularly about its change and stability. So, in the first chapter I will develop some principles about change in higher education, using historical and contemporary examples. In the second I will trace some of the endless ramifications of these principles. And in the third—using the foregoing analyses—I will develop assessments and conditional predictions about higher education's major contemporary problems as they are superimposed on its structural history.

One final apology: my academic career has been that of a social scientist, or more precisely a sociologist afflicted with an incurable interdisciplinary impulse. I have also had a lifetime of immersion in my university's departmental, administrative, and academic senate affairs. Such diversity of experience often produces eclectic, contingent outlooks. But here my approach will be primarily that of a sociologist. In particular, I will be guided by the idea of a social system. This stress has weakened in the social sciences in the past several decades, along with the atrophy of interest in social theory in general, but it is clearly relevant to the study of higher education. Elsewhere I have argued (Smelser 2001: xx–xxi) that some of Clark Kerr's extraordinary success as chancellor and president could be assigned to his understanding of the "systemness" of his university—the intricate relations among its many parts and its relations to its environments.

By "system" I mean an entity with identifiable but interrelated parts, such that changes in one part influence the other parts and the entity as a whole. The campus-based college or university, with its departments, schools, layers of administration, and support systems—to say nothing of its array of internal constituencies—is surely a system. So is a multicampus system, though perhaps in a looser sense. And so is higher education as a whole, with its differentiated segments and types of institutions. The notion of open system gives importance to forces external to it. The idea of system also equips one with tools to analyze the ramifications of discrete changes and their consequences. Finally, a system perspective permits us to generate new insights about many murkier, evasive aspects of our history and our contemporary situation. In addition to this stress, I will make extensive use of the concepts of culture (including subculture), social structure, and groups and group conflict, all standard items in the sociological repertoire. Finally, however, to understand higher education and its dynamics, one must—and I will—selectively bring in tools and insights from economics, history, political science, anthropology, and psychology.

I might cite a final advantage of thinking systemically about higher education. We know so much and we say so much about the characteristics, the history, the nature, and the problems of higher education that our minds are in danger of being overloaded. We academics are great observers, talkers, writers, and worriers; our stock-in-trade is words and insights. This brings to mind the anecdote about a committee meeting at which the chair confidently states that he thinks the group has come to closure on an issue, but one committee member objects and says, "But we haven't said everything that's ever been said on the subject." I do not threaten to do that, but by appealing to the idea of system I hope modestly to make a few new connections between known or asserted things. Why, for example, is it that higher education is simultaneously known to be an institution with a history of spectacular growth and solid institutionalization and simultaneously proclaimed to be in crisis or doomed (Birnbaum and Shushok 2001)? Why are our universities so admired and emulated abroad and so bashed within our boundaries? Why are universities and kindred institutions, so splendid and serene in hope and theory, also fraught with internal ambivalence and group conflict? In these chapters I hope to make some sense of these and other questions.


I begin not with a formal definition of higher education but a listing of its most salient characteristics as a social institution—characteristics essential for the analysis presented in these chapters.


Describers, apologists, advocates, commentators, and historians of higher education often list a number of its functions, almost all positive. There is variation but some consensus on the following in the literature:

• To preserve, create, advance and transmit knowledge to the young, who will be future professional, political, and business leaders of society.

• To impart ranges of expertise to those who will be leaders.

• To serve society more directly by providing useful knowledge for economic growth and prosperity, and community development (Trani and Holsworth 2010).

• To foster individual achievement, social mobility, equality of opportunity, and social justice.

• To serve democracy further by improving the literacy, knowledge, rationality, tolerance and fair-mindedness, and responsible participation on the part of citizens. This has served as a main buttressing argument for liberal and general education.

• To preserve, develop, and augment the general cultural values of our civilization, both by cultivating those values among the young and honing of them through constant and responsible criticism.

• At a different level, to come to the assistance of the nation in its vital struggles—for example, wars, international political competition, and heightened economic competition associated with globalization (Duderstadt 2000).

The Problematic Status of "Functions"

This list is fair enough. However, I have come to regard this kind of presentation as problematical in some respects. I list my reservations:

• The exact conceptual status of these activities as "functions" is unclear. They may be regarded as descriptions of what institutions accomplish; they may be regarded as ideals or goals for which they strive but attain only partially; they may be regarded as a source of cultural legitimacy for institutions of higher education, which, like all institutions, require such legitimacy to secure their place, their support, and their continuity in society; or finally and more cynically, they may be regarded as a form of advocacy—namely, as claims to prestige and status, ploys in seeking support, or intellectualized defenses by spokesman in institutions under attack. They are all these things, of course, but the multiple connotations make for ambiguity and perhaps conflict with respect to the status and meaning of the claimed functions.

• Insofar as they are claimed to describe what educational institutions do, they involve causal claims—that is to say, usually implicit assertions that certain lines of activity (teaching, conducting research, advising governments) actually have the intended, usually positive effects. These claims are difficult if not impossible to establish definitively or scientifically. All that we know from evaluation research on "results of schooling," "educational impact," and the general relations between knowledge and policy demonstrates that multiple variables are at work and that it is extremely difficult to establish reliable relationships between intervention and outcome, even though elaborate quasi-experimental efforts to control the effects of contaminating variables are made (Rossi and Freeman 1992).

• It follows that there is inevitably a residue of generalized faith that the activities of institutions of higher education are fulfilling their functions adequately or fully. Moreover, this faith usually is not automatically granted and therefore rests on shakier grounds than in other areas (health, protecting the nation, and sufficiency in agriculture) in which the goals are matters of vital importance and high consensus.

As a result of these difficulties in describing abstract functions, I am going to view the "functions" of higher education more concretely and historically—namely, as sequence of "compacts" between agencies outside those institutions (states, the federal government, philanthropists and donors, interested commercial and industrial parties, and a real and imagined "public"). For example, Thelin concludes that "federal government support for higher education displays a distinctive characteristic: it often is a convenient means for the U.S. government to attain larger national goals" (2004b: 37). States are interested in the correlations between the proportion of their students enrolled in higher education and their rate of economic growth (Zumeta 2004)—even though the direction of causality may be questionable. Actually, the relationship is more complex; it is one of mutual opportunism. External persons or agencies perceive an opportunity, a belief that higher education is a valuable asset in pursuing one or more of their purposes, and educational institutions accept these offers opportunistically. Or, if they are more proactive, those institutions invent and seek out new functions as a way of enhancing their competitive position and survival.

The "compacts" emerging from these relationships are typically not strict contracts in the legal sense of goods or services being delivered for specific consideration. State governments expect that state colleges and universities will serve mainly the citizens of the state, and those institutions generally comply. Colleges and universities use philanthropic donations for designated purposes, but they resist conditions of regulation by donors, delivery of specific services, and guarantee of specific "outcomes." Academic freedom is granted with implicit expectations that academics will not exploit the privilege or behave in uncivil ways. Correspondingly, these compacts have had mainly generalized expectations, unspoken assumptions, and trust.

We may say at this early moment, then, that even at the most fundamental level institutions of higher education, both in their functions and in their relations with external agencies, exhibit notable levels of ambiguity, nonspecificity, and taken-for-grantedness. In my estimation these have been great institutional advantages for colleges and universities, essential for their freedom, autonomy, and adaptability. Yet those very qualities of vagueness increase the probabilities of misunderstandings, disappointments, conflicts, ex post facto accusations of promises made but not kept, as well as recriminations and defenses against those recriminations. The functions I have identified—what society has asked of higher education—do not guarantee such outcomes, but they tilt the system in the direction of producing them.

Moral Embeddedness

Cutting across these functional linkages between higher education and society is one final fundamental characteristic. Education in general and higher education in particular are inevitably matters of moral concern. This is grounded in two circumstances. First, all education is directly involved in the institutionalization, reproduction, and transmission of the fundamental values of society to succeeding generations—always a moral matter. Second, the historical heritage of higher education is profoundly moral. From their medieval beginnings, its activities were indistinguishable from religious morality. This translated itself to the view of the university as a sacred entity, and, for its members, the idea that involvement in the university represented a higher religious calling. Even though most universities have been "de-churched" (Tuchman 2009) and are by now fully secular institutions, versions of the sacred, ecclesiastical hierarchy and the calling survive in recognizable form (see Brubacher 1978). Brint recently observed that "[e]ducation is as close to a secular religion as we have in the United States" (2011: 2). In modern garb this includes the ideas that education's work is of the highest value (example: "The university preserves and interprets the best of what human intelligence has created and written" [Hearn 2006: 160]); that that work demands love; and that educators should manifest a certain ascetic, antimaterialistic attitude (which conveys further that one should not want and/or become too involved in worldly rewards). These ideals are held, in variable form and strength, by those in the academy and as expectations for the academy on the part of those outside it. The three basic historical roles of higher education—teaching, search for knowledge, and service to society—are each endowed with the connotation that they are publicly valued missions. Part—but only part—of the claims of higher education to status, public support, and legitimacy is a matter of representing itself and being regarded by outsiders as a higher activity, no longer fully priestly but having some of those qualities and roles.


Excerpted from Dynamics of the Contemporary University by Neil J. Smelser. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Neil J. Smelser is a University Professor Emeritus of Sociology and former director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. He is a former president of the American Sociological Association, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. He joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1958 and has authored fifteen books, including The Theory of Collective Behavior.

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