Science Should Leave the University

J Scott Turner:

A dozen years ago, National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood posed the provocative question: Could science leave the university?

Wood framed his question in practical terms. There has always been a bargain of sorts between universities and their science faculties. Universities provide the means for scientists to do science—laboratories, students, bookkeepers, etc. Scientists hustle the grant monies not only to do their work, but also to pay for universities’ costs. Wood argued that the bargain works mostly in favor of the universities, because they ride along on the substantial streams of research revenues their scientists bring in. While scientists were not exactly disadvantaged thereby, Wood suggested that they could prosper as much outside the university as in, raising the question that logically follows: who needs whom? 

Since 2011, academic scientists have largely stayed put in the universities. “Who cares what universities charge for their services, as long as we are left alone to ‘do science,’” was the prevailing sentiment. Such a blasé attitude is no longer viable. While scientists busied themselves at their benches, the terms of the bargain have been steadily shifting to scientists’ disadvantage. The unique attractions of academic life are relentlessly, if slowly, falling away. Tenure is on its way out. Freedom of inquiry is increasingly constrained. Pushy administrators presume to dictate hiring, promotion, and curricular decisions that should sit squarely in scientists’ hands. Faculty governance has become mostly performative, with no power to make decisions stick—particularly budgetary and personnel decisions, which have become concentrated in the hands of administrators, governments, and favored political activists. Accreditation boards brazenly impose political agendas on faculties of science and engineering. Challenging the new racial / gender / sexual orthodoxies can snuff out careers in the blink of an eye.