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MARCH 2004

Shakespeare, Einstein, & The Bottom Line:
A Teachers College Event at AMNH
by Joanne Kontopirakis

Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and author David L. Kirp joined Richard Heffner, the Host of Channel 13's "The Open Mind" at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) recently, under the aegis of Teachers College to discuss Kirp's recently released book, Shakespeare, Einstein, And The Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education.

A passionate teacher and scholar, Kirp has served for more than three decades at UC Berkeley and is the recipient of numerous awards, including the college's coveted Distinguished Teaching Award. An Amherst College trustee and Berkeley dean, Kirp has authored 14 books and a vast number of articles on subjects ranging from AIDS to affordable housing, from gender justice to student's rights. In order to properly prepare for the writing of Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education, Kirp interviewed scores of college administrators, professors, students, trustees, and knowledgeable outsiders nationwide.

Describing the dubious practices which have become the norm for colleges today, Kirp explained how universities "brand" themselves to achieve greater appeal in the competition for top students, how academic superstars are wooed with mega-salaries to boost an institution's visibility and prestige, how taxpayer-supported academic research gets turned into profitable patents and ideas get sold to the highest bidder, and how the liberal arts have shrunk, under the pressure, to become self-supporting.

Heffner opined that "Shakespeare, Einstein, And The Bottom Line was the most penetrating of all the books I've read on this topic." Kirp's observations were hard-hitting, stressing what relentless commercialization of higher education does to undergraduates and warned of its future consequence in society.

Kirp identified places where administrators and faculty have managed to make the market work for, not against, real education, as in the emerging for-profit higher education sector–and he described how some traditional institutions balance their financial needs with their academic missions.

Kirp related the story of university president Mark Udalf, and recounted how, when Jesse Ventura in Minnesota decided to cut the budget, Udalf hopped on a plane and began traveling around, lecturing parents about what was at stake, and actually turned the political situation around, resulting in saving current fundings.

"I mention the story to illustrate how one could become an advocate and fight for scraps of moneyÉbut it wasn't only money. There was an intellectually coherent agenda."

A term which repeatedly punctuated Kirk's brilliant vocabulary was "The Bottom Line," and it took on more than one meaning. He acceded that there is a place for the market, but that the market must be kept in its place. "If you don't pay attention to the bottom line, you don't live to fight another day.  Have a sense of who you are and what you stand for in this world," he declared. When asked to discuss the topic of grade inflating, Kirk, in a characteristic manner which was both astute and casual, said, "In an institution that I will not name–called Stanford–students will say: ÔI'm a full-payer,' and then they fill in the blanksÉWhen students come from a privileged background, they see their experience as a ticket to their future. The faculty feels the pressure to inflate the student's grades." Mr. Kirp decried the treatment of today's university educators, stating, "DeVries treats its teachers better than other schoolsÉNYU is one of the great success stories of the century. They've emerged from near-bankruptcy. The proportion of undergraduate classes that are taught by adjuncts is enormous. When I looked at the catalogue, ÔTo Be Announced' was the most popular instructor. At the New School, the dead-center of liberal radicalism, there were no faculty with any tenure. Faculty receive two thousand a course. But I said, ÔThat's immoral.' That's like what Nike pays workers overseas. It becomes a union issue. It's sad for a lot of reasons."

He asserted, "maintaining communities of scholars is not a concern of the market." In the question and answer period, which followed, Kirp was asked, to comment on issues regarding low-income students. The educator answered, "We pay a lot of attention to issues like affirmative action. But 80 percent of students go to non-selective universities. They are working-class first generation college students. "They are hugely affected by changes in financial aid. At the elite institutions, 70 percent of students come from the top 25th percentile income level in our society. Even if schools pride themselves on diversity, less and less middle class students are attending those schools. "Education is a way of leveling economic opportunity," concluded Prof. Kirk. "But the reality is that higher ed reinforces status differences."

"A generation ago, private universities were considered in deep trouble. Also, the value of a college degree was considered so modest, many were urged to drop out of school," said Kirp, adding, "The hope of the book is for people to consider for themselves the value of university."#



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