How ‘synthetic’ solutions can help universities survive

The Synthetic University: How higher education can benefit from shared solutions and save itself, by James L Shulman, is published by Princeton University Press, 2023. ISBN 9780691190990.

James L Shulman, the vice president and chief operating officer for the American Council of Learned Societies, can tell a good story, actually, several of them.

Chapter two, for example, tells the story of Artstor. In 2001, Shulman became the first executive director of the start-up that aimed to replace the many unique collections of slides used by art history departments with a common digitised collection.

Shulman, a Yale University-trained art historian, told “gripping detective stories” to convince the New York City-based Mellon Foundation that, rather than fritter money away on a number of universities requesting funds to digitise their art history slide collections, Mellon should support the fledgling Artstor.

One story was of an Ohio State professorial couple who “hiked through jungles” to reshoot a site that they had already documented because they wanted the same shot at a different time of day.

Helped, no doubt, by the fact that he had worked at Mellon for almost a decade, getting the money was easier than getting buy-in from the very people – art historians – Artstor was meant to help.

The reason for this, and much else, as we will see, is contained in what may be the most memorable passage in The Synthetic University: “We learned pretty quickly that ideas of an institution and institutional savings [Artstor was sold partially on the grounds it would save libraries and art history departments money] were much too broad and had little meaning on the ground. At the operational level, a college isn’t one institution; instead, it is composed of hundreds or thousands of loosely coordinated autonomous units for whom the greater good of the institution is basically irrelevant to their decision-making processes.”

Whereas Mellon is in the philanthropic business, librarians and professors are not. The latter, as Shulman avers, is because of the need to constantly police academic freedom’s borders.

Today, as governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis announce a new attack on academic freedom almost weekly, Columbia University art historian James Beck’s concern in 2004 that Artstor threatened his “academic freedom” – to choose the “facts” of a work of art by choosing what images constituted it – seems almost quaint.

Even though the narrative arc of this chapter is to get us to the moment when Beck, wowed by the addition of 2,000 high quality photographs from the Italian publisher Scala, becomes a convert, it is to Shulman’s credit that he reminds us that Beck’s concern was parochial or pedantic.

“To be fair, this kind of change, which from afar might seem trivial, matters a great deal. As a society, we want and need experts to be experts and to care deeply about their work” and, by extension, the materials they use to teach.

Resistance to change

Shulman’s discussion of the various structures that both define and make academe and academics resistant to change made me think of quantum mechanics and the ‘uncertainty principal’.

As the physicist Werner Heisenberg showed, we can know the speed or the position of an electron, but we cannot know both at the same time because the very act of measuring changes the physics.

Hence, building on his observation that universities are really a concatenation of units, he discusses the “department-organisation split”.

In North America, university departments or, to be more precise, the faculty that comprise them, have the primary responsibility for “curriculum, subject matter, methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process,” he quotes from the 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities issued by the American Association of University Professors.

Faculty or departmental control is part of academic freedom and, even before the present attack on academic freedom, could be in tension with institutional goals. As one blogger Shulman quotes put it: “Do we really owe our institutions loyalty? I feel loyal to my profession, vexed as it is, because I think what historians do is valuable and worthwhile … But I don’t feel particularly loyal to the institutions that have employed me.”

This blog posting dates to 2010, two years after the 2008 financial crash, a period when universities across the United States made significant budget cuts (and about 20 years after states began their massive disinvestment in public universities, which transferred much of the cost of higher education on to students, and which is largely responsible for the ballooning of student debt to the US$2 trillion it is today).

The budget cuts led to a steep rise in the number of contingent faculty and a drop in the percentage of faculty with tenure.

I raise this because Shulman himself discusses this later in the book, albeit in a discussion of student finances. I would have liked to hear Shulman’s views on whether faculty feel less allegiance to universities because as states cut their funding – since 2007, Colorado, he notes late in the book, has cut its funding to the state’s flagship university from 72.2% to 4.3% – universities cut jobs or hire more contingent faculty.

One of the other two structures Shulman considers is the “alliance of individuals to their national peers”. The former is composed of national and-or international discipline-defined organisations such as the College Art Association and the Society of Architectural Historians”, the support of which, of course, was key for Artstor.

These associations and the refereed professional journals they own, are central for understanding how new knowledge becomes accepted by the profession. It is in journals where new ideas, new interpretations and new scientific discoveries are announced and argued for – and, in many cases, at their conferences where young academics are interviewed for their first positions.

Shulman’s book is called The Synthetic University: “synthetic” not meaning, of course, fake, but, rather, a place of synthesis. And it is these horizontal associations that bring faculty together from different universities that he points to as a prime example of synthesis that enriches all members of the academic ecosphere.

Non-monetary sweeteners

Save for those interested in, for example, divesting from investments in fossil fuel companies or those that profit off of private prisons, very few academics know or care about the nuts and bolts of their institution’s endowment office. Mercifully, Shulman keeps the business jargon to a minimum.

He missed a fun moment by not pointing out the similarity between the principal-agent dilemma – whether an outside agent really has the university as their main concern or, for example, the size of their professional investment portfolio – and the prisoner’s dilemma.

How Alice Handy, who had worked in the University of Virginia’s investment office, went about convincing recalcitrant board and faculty members to sign up with her new company, Investure, shows the kind of non-monetary sweeteners that make up the story or mythos entrepreneurs use. Shulman’s reading for his doctoral thesis that became The Pale Cast of Thought: Hesitation and decision in the Renaissance epic (University of Delaware Press) serves him in good stead when discussing how entrepreneurs spin their webs.

The officials at Smith College responsible for signing on with Handy noted that she checked the correct boxes: sharing her business strategy, listening, understanding campus politics and the importance of environmental sustainability. As was Shulman’s success with Artstor, Handy’s success was also due to “convey[ing] a compelling story as to why Investure would be a partner, and she told it in their language and in a way that responded to a range of genuine institutional needs”.

Like any good entrepreneurial story, Handy’s company had its ups and downs, meaning some schools, Smith being one (somewhat ironically), leave.

“I always knew that these relationships might not last forever,” Handy said. “When an endowment grows large enough or when paths diverge, there needs to be a way out. We were built with that in mind.”

Handy retired at the end of 2018.

‘Artifacts’ of higher education growth

Perhaps because I spent a year as a coordinator at Algonquin College in Ontario, Canada, during which one of my duties was approving transfer credits, which, even from other Ontario colleges, was devilishly hard, I am less than sanguine about credentialism by third parties.

That said, anyone interested in the theory behind grading must wrestle with Shulman’s quote from an online article by Tim McKay, associate dean for undergraduate education at the University of Michigan, that argues that grading as we know it is an “artifact” of the growth of higher education in the United States in the early 20th century.

“This explosive growth was enabled by adopting industrial approaches: standardisation of tests, credit hours, degree requirements and academic majors. The modern academic record and official transcript are deeply influenced by the tenor of these times, shaped as much by the practical needs of record keeping and correspondence in the 1920s as they are by a desire to accurately represent the student experience. The essence of the transcript – a single line recording each course taken and the grade received, grouped by semester taken – was designed to allow the transcript to fit tidily into an envelope.”

Likewise, readers will also be indebted to Shulman’s precis of a debate amongst music theorists about the “whiteness” of their domain.

In 2019, the keynote address at the Society for Music Theory’s annual conference was titled “Music Theory’s White Frame”.

In this speech, Professor Phil Ewell (Hunter College, New York) showed that Heinrich Schenker (d 1935), one of the founders of musical theory as a discipline, was a racist. “Comparing Schenker’s racist political writings with his music theory,” writes Shulman, Ewell showed that “whiteness pervades a racialised structure of music scholarship”. Schenker’s racism “was not a side-course; it was the defining ingredient in the main course” of his and others’ work.

From here, Ewell turned his analysis to the field the professors in front of him studied and told them that 98.3% of the “music that we choose to represent the entire field to our undergraduate students in our textbooks is written by composers who are white”.

A few pages later, in a discussion that praises the humble, oft-criticised textbook as the model of synthetic learning, Shulman tells us that Ewell is under contract with Norton to write a new music theory textbook.

“Instead of 30 Mozart examples,” Shulman quotes Ewell as saying, “let’s have one, maybe two.

“Approaching music theory from this non-white/non-male angle, but not to the exclusion of white men, will enrich music theory for everyone.”