A Mission of Amenities, Not Education

Reviewed by Pilar Mendoza

Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University. Gaye Tuchman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009

In Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University, Gaye Tuchman describes the transformation of an ordinary public research university into an institution that is “better in the rankings.” Administrative leaders of Wannabe U (a pseudonym) wanted the university to conform to its aspirational peers. In the process, Wannabe U did jump up in the rankings, but its faculty members lost power, were asked to do more with less, and were increasingly subject to time-consuming and empty accountability measures. While students got a campus with better amenities, their class sizes increased, and they received a poorer education.

Although Tuchman’s book is a detailed and clever ethnographic account of the transformation of a particular research university, she could have been describing my own institution. In fact, the issues Tuchman summarizes are so pervasive in higher education that Wannabe U could be any U.S. research university where shared governance seems a distant reality and corporate ways are the norm. As I finished reading the book, I was saddened by the thought that corporate values are eating away at the essence of research universities.

Tuchman begins Wannabe U with a description of the university within the broader national context of research universities. She offers an overview of the changes affecting Wannabe U, including declining state support, increasing interest in workforce development, calls for greater accountability, growing use of part-time faculty, and the push to find alternative sources of income through commercialization of research. Other challenges Wannabe U faces are rising attendance costs, emphasis on efficiency, and competition for faculty members and students.

In chapter 3, Tuchman describes Wannabe U as “middle-status conformist,” imitating what other institutions do, especially in the realms of branding and commercialization of research. Chapter 4 discusses the changing attitudes of presidents, provosts, and deans. Tuchman describes modern-day academic administrators as professionals embracing corporate values for their own personal benefit, moving away from the academic culture and principles of shared governance. Chapter 5 tackles the politics of centralization as administrators engage in administrative fiat, bureaucratic methods, and ritual compliance. Chapters 6 and 7 examine the tensions created as Wannabe U administrators emphasize undergraduate education and encourage faculty members to allow teaching audits as part of a business strategy of “quality control,” rather than out of genuine concern for educating students.

Chapter 8 describes the implications of these changes for faculty members. Tuchman highlights the problems that arise because of rapid turnover of upper-level administrators (such as provosts). She points out that high turnover is one of the results of applying business practices to contemporary higher education; administrators build their careers by moving on to positions with more responsibility every five or so years, adversely affecting the continuity of practices at the institutions they leave behind. Of particular interest was Tuchman’s description of Wannabe U’s inconsistent emphasis on diversity issues owing to the differing views of several successive provosts, each of whom was in office for a limited time.

In chapter 9, Tuchman addresses the variety of ways faculty members are held accountable—sometimes without fully understanding how— through merit raises, tenure and promotion reviews, and program evaluations. The chapter includes an informative discussion of the highly centralized British higher education system and the regular departmental audits by the British Quality Assurance Agency. These audits involve reviews of reports that departments must prepare according to established guidelines and standardized measures, interviews with faculty members, inspection of syllabi, and learning-outcomes assessments. This comparative analysis is particularly useful as a warning about the dangers of U.S. higher education continuing down the corporatization path. Finally, in chapter 10, Tuchman presents an analysis of why U.S. faculty members have been dormant, compliant, and complicit in the emergent accountability regime described in the previous chapters.

Like all other ethnographic accounts, Wannabe U is limited in some ways by the perspectives and positions of the researcher. Ethnographies attempt to describe fully a variety of aspects and norms of a cultural group to enhance understanding of the people being studied. However, the empirical evidence collected by way of field observations, interviews, and documentation is colored by the researcher’s subjectivity. Theoretical assumptions, research strategy, and other individual characteristics such as social status, race and ethnicity, gender, age, the role of the researcher within the group or organization under study, and personality all have a bearing on the study results. In addition, given that the researcher cannot be omniscient or omnipresent, the reported evidence is limited to the specific time and space where data collection took place.

Tuchman is a faculty member herself, and the reader may infer that Wannabe U is in fact her home institution (University of Connecticut), although she has publicly declined to name it as such. The main sources of data for the book were her own observations of meetings, ceremonies, informal conversations, and news communications in print and online media, as well as a few interviews with faculty members in the early stages of the ethnography. Interviews with administrators might have provided a more balanced description of the transformation of Wannabe U, but Tuchman relied instead on literature about how administrators think and act.

Finally, to maintain ethical integrity, Tuchman disclosed her intentions in the field, which might have prevented some informants from speaking freely about certain topics. Nonetheless, like any other good ethnography, this work is replete with rich descriptions that render Tuchman’s arguments convincing. She also does a fine job of including sociological underpinnings to contextualize and explain the happenings at Wannabe U without overwhelming the reader with theoretical discussions.

After reading the book, I was left with an incomplete picture of the motivations and actions of the administrative leaders of Wannabe U. But Tuchman’s compelling depiction of how institutional aspirations to be more highly ranked can lead to compromises in mission and motive make Wannabe U a powerful story. Unfortunately, it is one being repeated throughout higher education, often to the detriment of student learning and faculty governance.

Pilar Mendoza is assistant professor of educational administration and policy at the University of Florida. Her e-mail address is pilar.mendoza@ufl.edu.

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