The Future of the Public University in America: Beyond the Crossroads

By Rhoades, Gary | Academe, November/December 2003 | Go to article overview

The Future of the Public University in America: Beyond the Crossroads


Rhoades, Gary, Academe


The Future of the Public University in America: Beyond the Crossroads James J. Duderstadt and Farris W. Womack. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003

In The Future of the Public University in America: Beyond the Crossroads, James Duderstadt and Farris Womack, respectively president emeritus and former chief financial officer of the University of Michigan, discuss what they believe must change in public universities. The first half of the book discusses the distinctive features of public universities and the forces that necessitate profound change in such institutions. The second half addresses impediments to change. Along the way, Duderstadt and Womack discuss strategies for transforming the public university. Of most interest to readers of Academe are the chapters on university leadership, equated with "strong, decisive, visionary" presidents, and governance, equated with a shared governance system that "is cumbersome and awkward at best and ineffective and indecisive at worst."

Reading the book, I was often reminded of the words of my own institution's president or of other university presidents. The book contains recurring references to the new knowledge-based economy, to dramatic changes driven by technology, to greater competition for declining public monies, to the needs of changing student populations, and to the need for universities to increase productivity and generate a greater share of their revenues through entrepreneurial activity. Chapters focus on universities in the new century, responses to the changing needs of society, technology, market forces, and finance of public universities.

Unfortunately, the book does not offer a concrete sense of the struggles that surround change in large, public universities. Duderstadt and Womack are well positioned to give insights about major initiatives at Michigan, and in a few spots they begin to do that. They briefly discuss the university's efforts to enhance the diversity of its students, faculty, and staff. They mention failed efforts at "experimentation," with regard to health care centers and athletics. But these brief passages lack useful detail as well as analytical bite. For the most part, the book's argument remains suspended at a general level.

In some respects, the authors' tendency to speak in generalities reveals something about the perspective of senior academic managers. For example, an interesting duality characterizes their definition of the public university. On the one hand, Duderstadt and Womack appropriate the legitimacy that public universities derive from their egalitarian and civic social functions-functions that largely characterize not elite public universities like Michigan or the University of California, Berkeley, but less prestigious state universities such as Central, Eastern, and Western Michigan, and the California State Universities. On the other hand, many of the points Duderstadt and Womack make about the increase in private funding sources for public universities largely characterize elite public and private institutions. Such duality reveals an inherent tension between a commitment to higher education's public-good mission and a commitment to becoming increasingly like large corporate enterprises.

The most concrete recommendation made by Duderstadt and Womack is that public universities should become "privately financed, public universities." Not surprising, perhaps, to read this from the former senior academic managers of a "public Ivy" like Michigan. …

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