A Brief History of Accountability in Higher Education

Article excerpt

To whom are colleges and universities accountable? That is a question Europeans and Americans have answered in different ways in previous centuries. Before campuses are smothered with new regulations in the wake of the recent recession, it makes sense to see how learning was sustained in the past.

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Europe's medieval universities arose as a result of several faculties coming together in a single city--typically, law, medicine, and theology--to prepare men for professions. Philosophy, thought to underlie the other fields, explored the nature of things via a fourth smaller faculty. Professors were clerics and schools termed under the auspices of the Catholic Church. Yet instructors considered themselves part of something like a guild., as "masters," they preserved knowledge and imparted their "craft" to students, or "apprentices," who endured quasi-trials by engaging in disputations with more and more experienced opponents until ready to join the august ranks.

As in any craft, it was understood that members would at least in part police themselves. Inevitably, some individuals lacking qualifications were promoted anyway and others didn't spend much time actually teaching. Rather than being paid salaries, most faculty occupied endowed positions or made their living outside the classroom. Some charged fees for courses. The Church allowed professors to query some aspects of scripture to prepare them to defend the doctrine against heresy. And secular rulers protected those who rebuked the Church to enhance the sway of a given prince. This was part of the recipe that allowed the 14th-century Oxford theologian John Wycliffe to criticize papal power and advocate translating the Bible into vernacular languages. He also insisted that in temporal matters the clergy should be subordinate to the king. Wycliffe died with his income and title intact but later was declared a heretic, his body due up and burned.

Similarly, Martin Luther got away with proffering his 95 Theses, some of which verged on the heretical, in 1517. It was not the University of Wittenberg but the Church that tried to shut him up after the theologian/priest subsequently published even more inflammatory, publicly-circulated pamphlets that challenged religious orthodoxy and promoted what would be termed "Protestant" ideas. Luther continued to lecture until appearing in public became too dangerous after his excommunication. His senior colleague, the radical Andreas Karlstadt, perhaps took things further, denouncing church iconography, infant baptism and clerical celibacy. But Karlstadt HI the university only in 1523, after he likewise was excommunicated, to continue the Reformation by running his own house of worship. A secular prince, Frederick the Wise of Saxony, forced him into exile in 1524, not because Karlstadt had served the university improperly, but because Frederick did not like his views on reforming the Mass. In an example from Catholic France in the mid-1500s, Guillaume Postel was appointed Professor of Mathematics and Oriental Languages at the College Royal despite publishing works that encouraged tolerance for Muslims and Jews. But Postel decided to resign in order to travel more extensively. It was only after he became a private scholar--and made the mistake of staying too long in Rome--that the Inquisitors jailed him on the charge of insanity. Medieval universities, that is, sometimes tolerated even flirtations with heresy in the interests of getting at the truth.

But the Reformation and the rise of state bureaucracies ate away at the corporate privileges of the professoriate. As endowments and church livings gradually disappeared, especially in Protestant countries, faculty began to be paid wages by the state, or, in the case of the Jesuit colleges, by the Church. Consequently, those bodies inquired more regularly about what their investments were yielding. …