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One Owner Lays His Claim: Rosovsky Lends Counsel

The University: An Owner's Manual Defends Status Quo

By Matthew M. Hoffman

If The University: An Owners Manual is anything to judge by, Henry Rosovsky's view of the modern American research university is something like the popular view of the U.S. Marine Corps. Harvard, and a few institutions like it, are the few and the proud, an elite handful of educational institutions. We--Rosovsky has a penchant for the first person plural--advance the front lines of human knowledge, and we never wallow in the trenches.

The University: An Owner's Manual

By Henry Rosovsky

W. W. Norton

$19.95; 309 pages

Consider the advice the former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences offers to prospective undergraduates: "If you prize participation above all else--Without special regard for natural or trained talent--choose a college that adopts a familial attitude (on the family softball team, all the members are entitled to play). Competition is never absent in university colleges."

In essence, Rosovsky is asking the same question which advertisments for the armed services ask ad infinitum: Do you have what it takes to be one of the best?

That Rosovsky has what it takes is indisputable Not only did he serve as dean of the Faculty for 11 years, but he also currently sits on the seven-member Harvard Corporation, the University's chief governing board. Consequently, he is in a unique position to provide advice to the "owners" of research universities in general and Harvard in particular.

"Owners," in case you were wondering, is a group Rosovsky loosely defines as administrators, students, faculty, alumni and anyone else who has a long-term interest in the future of the institution.

Rosovsky's preface neglects to mention, however, a crucial difference between these broadly-defined "owners" and himself. Students, faculty and administrators may claim partial ownership of a university. As a member of the Corporation, however, Rosovsky really does own Harvard--in a legal sense.

This status gives Rosovsky and his Corporate cohorts a degree of power and responsibility that is denied to the other "owners" of the University. Part owner though I may be, when people sue Harvard they do not sue me; they sue the President and the Fellows.

It therefore comes as no surprise that Rosovsky has few harsh words for the University system. In fact, much of The University: An Owners Manual reads as a tightly-written defense of the way Harvard conducts its affairs.

To be fair, Rosovsky does not mean the book to be a panegyric to the Harvard way of life. He acknowledges the flaws inherent in the university system--students are often isolated from faculty members, established work is often given preference over new, and resources are distributed unevenly between the "academically sexy" disciplines (biology, economics) and drier ones (Sanskrit, Classics). But for the most part, Rosovsky's intention is to show how well the system works overall.

At times, his principles seem unbelieavably reactionary. His number one rule of University governance reads, "Not everything is improved by making it more democratic." But Rosovsky has been around long enough to anticipate the criticisms that such forthright remarks will inevitably raise--a post-script to one chapter is entitled "I can hear it already."

Rather than rebutting his critics, though Rosovsky generally tries to take the middle ground, arguing that the benefits justify the flaws in the system. None of the University's critics, either from the right or from the left, are likely to be won over by this method, but they may learn some interesting historical details in the process.

Rosovsky's writing is, for the most part, clear and forceful, although some readers may object that it is a little on the cutesy side. Chapter One is a perfect example; it is written as a Japanese-style letter of introduction in which he refers to himself as HR.

A few passages in the text prove amusing. Discussing the fine points of the tenure system, Rosovsky writes that"...I believe the virtues of our customs and arrangements are far outweighed by the vices. To make certain that this remains a major responsibility of academic administrators."

Virtues outweighed by the vices? Is this a typographical error or a Freudian slip? No doubt most Harvard administrators see their jobs somewhat differently. I would suspect the former, since he offers his comments as a "defense" of tenure, but one never knows. Other errors of this kind are not infrequent.

The University: An Owner's Manual is clearly not what it purports to be: a helpful guide to an unfamiliar object. Rosovsky's agenda is to defend the university system from its critics on all sides: disgruntled junior faculty, misinformed student activists, and right-wingers on the model of Allan Bloom and E.D. Hirsch.

Rosovsky's message is that, for the most part, the system works, that most of the problems attributed to universities are the result of elevated expectations. The danger in this approach, of course, is explanation often turns into apology. Rosovsky seems to be well aware of this trap, however, and generally avoids it. Read in proper vein, however, The University: An Owner's Manual represents a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate over the proper role of higher education in America.

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