Some years ago, the student government at the University of Chicago considered a plan under which it would hire one professor who would be selected by a majority vote of the student body. This was advanced as a way to expand the university beyond consensus scholarship. Such a proposal exemplifies the intellectual failure of the New Left. The objective of decentralizing academic power in order to allow controversy and diversity is an admirable one. The means proposed, the choosing of faculty by majority vote, is positively inimical to that objective. Democratic decision making is a means for finding and implementing the will of the majority; it has no other function. It serves not to encourage diversity but to prevent it. Intelligent members of the New Left are surely aware of the futility of such a proposal; perhaps that is why they are so reluctant to describe how a society should work. They have not grasped, emotionally or intellectually, the concept of noncoercive cooperation, of a society that lets everyone get what he wants.
Before discussing how a free-market university would work, we must analyze what is essentially wrong with the present system. The lack of student power which the New Left deplores is a direct result of the success of one of the pet schemes of the old left, heavily subsidized schooling. Students in public universities and, to a lesser extent, in private ones do not pay the whole cost of their schooling. As a result, the university does not need its students; it can always get more. Like a landlord under rent control, the university can afford to ignore the wishes and convenience of its customers.
If the subsidies were abolished or converted into scholarships awarded to students, so that the university got its money from tuition, it would be in the position of a merchant selling his goods at their market price, constrained to sell what his customers most want to buy. That is the situation of market schools, such as Berlitz and the various correspondence schools, and that is how they act.
A university of the present sort, even if financed entirely from tuition, would still be a centralized, bureaucratic organization. In a free-market university, on the other hand, the present corporate structure would be replaced by a number of separate organizations, cooperating in their mutual interest through the normal processes of the marketplace. These presumably would include businesses renting out the use of classrooms to teachers, with each teacher paying for his classroom and charging students who wished to take his course whatever price was mutually agreeable. The system would be ultimately supported by the students, each choosing his courses according to what he wanted to study, the reputation of the teacher, and his price.
Other organizations might coexist with these. There might be one that did nothing but give examinations and grant degrees to those who passed; presumably, teachers would be hired to spend part of their time writing and grading such examinations. Another might perform clerical functions, printing a course catalogue listing courses that were being offered and their prices or compiling transcripts for students who wanted them and were willing to pay for them. There might be groups publishing and selling evaluations of teachers and courses, like the Confidential Guide compiled by the Harvard Crimson.
There might be research groups, working in the same community in order to use students as inexpensive research assistants and allow researchers to supplement their income by teaching. Some members of the community might be simultaneously teaching elementary courses in a subject and paying other members for advanced instruction. There might be companies providing privately run dormitories for those students who wished to live in them.
The essential characteristic of this scheme is that, like any market system, it produces what the consumer wants. To the extent that the students, even with the assistance of professional counselors and written evaluations of courses, are less competent to judge what they are getting than are the people who now hire and fire teachers, that may be a disadvantage. But it does guarantee that it is the students’ interest, not the interest of the university as judged by the university, that determines what teachers are employed.
Under the sort of market system I have described, a majority of students, even a large majority, can have only a positive, not a negative, effect on what is taught. They can guarantee that something will be taught but not that something will not be. As long as there are enough students interested in a subject that a teacher can make money teaching it that subject will be taught, however much other students dislike it. The market system accomplishes the objective of the new left’s proposal.
It might be possible to reform our present universities in the direction of such free-market universities. One approach would be by the introduction of a tuition diversion plan. This arrangement would allow students, while purchasing most of their education from the university, to arrange some courses taught by instructors of their own choice. A group of students would inform the university that they wished to take a course from an instructor from outside the university during the next year. The university would multiply the number of students by the average spent from each student’s tuition for the salary of one of his instructors for one quarter. The result would be the amount of their tuition the group wished to divert from paying an instructor of the university’s choice to paying an instructor of their own choice. The university would offer him that sum to teach the course or courses proposed. If he accepted, the students would be obligated to take the course.
The university would determine what credit, if any, was given for such courses. The number each student could take for credit might at first be severely limited. If the plan proved successful, it could be expanded until any such course could serve as an elective. Departments would still decide whether a given course would satisfy specific departmental requirements.
A tuition diversion plan does not appear to be a very revolutionary proposal; it can begin on a small scale as an educational experiment of the sort dear to the heart of every liberal educator. Such plans could, in time, revolutionize the universities.
At first, tuition diversion would be used to hire famous scholars on sabbatical leave, political figures of the left or right, film directors invited by college film groups, and other such notables. But it would also offer young academics an alternative to a normal career. Capable teachers would find that by attracting many students they could get a much larger salary than by working for a university. The large and growing pool of skilled freelance teachers would encourage more schools to adopt tuition diversion plans and thus simplify their own faculty recruitment problems. Universities would have to offer substantial incentives to keep their better teachers from being drawn off into free-lancing. Such incentives might take the form of effective market structures within the university, rewarding departments and professors for attracting students. Large universities would become radically decentralized, approximating free-market universities. Many courses would be taught by freelancers. The departments would develop independence verging on autarchy.
Under such institutions the students, although they might have the help of advisory services, would have to take the primary responsibility for the structure of their own education. Many students enter college unready for such responsibility. A competitive educational market would evolve other institutions to serve their needs. These would probably be small colleges offering a highly structured education with close personal contact for students who wished to begin their education by submitting to a plan of study designed by those who are already educated. A student could study at such a college until he felt ready to oversee his own education and then transfer to a university.
It is time to begin the subversion of the American system of higher schooling, the objective not destruction but renaissance.