A century ago, Weber both diagnosed the ills of the corporatized, modern university, and pointed out the path beyond it.
By Chad Wellmon – The university was a modern-day patronage system. Intellectuals had long relied on the powerful and wealthy to provide for their material needs. In return, intellectuals advised princes and kept bureaucracies running efficiently. With the rise of the modern research university in 19th-century Germany, they assumed an even greater social role as members of a community that created knowledge for society at large.
Leipzig University, where Eulenburg taught, was founded in 1409. It began with a few hundred students, and remained roughly that size for centuries. In the 1830s, enrollments began to increase dramatically. As the state started to invest significant financial resources, a modern scholarly infrastructure and a division of intellectual labor emerged. In 1909, Eulenburg noted that although Leipzig University was 500 years old, it had become an ‘industrial operation’ in just the past 50.
The university’s evolution, he added, was a ‘microcosm’ of how life had changed in just a few decades. Modernity showed itself not just in urbanization, industrialization and steam-engine train travel, but also in the remaking of intellectual life. The transformation of the German university had far-reaching effects on the production of trustworthy knowledge. The conditions of intellectual life matter, and at the beginning of the 20th century many of the German cultural elite, especially younger people, felt like they were breaking down.
Weber began with a blunt account of the material conditions of the university. He enumerated the structural problems: terrible teaching, workplace discrimination, the exploitation of the labor force, an arbitrary hiring process, and a businesslike and, thus, uninspired understanding of the scholar’s vocation. The universitas litterarum (the ideal of the university as a corporation of scholars devoted to learning), he concluded, had become a ‘fiction’.
The transformation of the university into a capital-intensive, bureaucratically organised enterprise was not simply an effect of academic specialization. More than a century earlier, Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant had observed how some universities had begun to function as factories and organize themselves around the division of intellectual labor. Weber considered what he called the ‘Americanization’ of German universities – their saturation by the ‘spirit’ of American capitalism – more consequential than specialization. They now required largescale funding. They separated the academic ‘worker from the means of [scholarly] production’ – libraries accumulated unprecedented numbers of books, research institutes stockpiled instruments, and state-appointed bureaucrats controlled access to both. Universities had become ‘state capitalist enterprises’. more>