By Steven Wille

If the first faculty had met in a tent, this still would have been a great university

–Robert Hutchins, Fifth President of the University of Chicago.


During the last five years, Ecuador has struggled to rebuild its system of higher education.  Debate has led to legislation, confusion, rankings and insults.  There are mandates, laws and the promise of regulation.  There are commissions, programs, plans, promises and still more debate.  What has been missing is some fundamental notion of both the history of the extremely complex institution known as the university and the diversity of models of functioning universities throughout the world.

In 1890 John D. Rockefeller founded the University of Chicago and William Rainey Harper was named its first President.  Rainey, a theologian trained at Yale, designed an innovative institution, combining the structure of the German research university and the English college.  Within a few years, the University of Chicago would become one of the great universities in the world, known for curricular innovation, scholarship, gender equality, interdisciplinary studies, and its world-class faculty.  There are more Nobel Prize winners from Chicago than at any other university in the world.

I have often wondered what would happen if some modern philanthropist were to adopt the cause of higher education in Ecuador.  Imagine for a moment that Bill Gates, arguably the world’s foremost philanthropist, were to decide to build a world-class university in Ecuador.  Here are just a few of the challenges Gates would face.

He would first need to find a brilliant leader, someone who could design and administer the project, a topflight scholar capable of leading for many years.  Gates would know the importance of stability and leadership in the creation of any new enterprise.  But Ecuador’s law of higher education requires that the leaders of universities old or new be elected.  Would Gates invest millions of dollars in an institution that by law needs to change leaders every five years? Robert Hutchins was President of Chicago for 22 years. Charles William Eliot led Harvard for 40.  Gates himself was at the helm of Microsoft for over 25 years. As economist Paul Collier has pointed out, we often confuse democracy with elections.

The Ecuadorian government’s position on higher education has also confused quality with quantity.  The President has said on several occasions that there are too many universities in Ecuador, and the new law seems designed to eliminate small institutions. I’m not sure where Plato trained Aristotle, but I don’t think it matters.  The University of Chicago now includes buildings designed by I.M. Pei, Eero Saarinen and Frank Lloyd Wright, but most of the world’s great universities began with only one building.  St John’s College in Sante Fe, New Mexico, with less than 500 students, has a brilliant record of achievement, while the Ohio State University system has nearly half a million students.  Allama Iqbal University in Pakistan has nearly two million.  There are more universities in Massachusetts than in Ecuador.  Some are large; some are small.  Some are great; some not so great.  But neither in Massachusetts nor in Ecuador is there a logical connection between size and quality.

Gates might also be surprised to learn that undergraduates need 225 credits to complete a degree.  An undergraduate degree in the US requires approximately half of that amount.Indeed, with 225 credits at Harvard, a student would have completed a PhD. The University of Chicago has always offered classes year round and allowed students to graduate as quickly as possible.   Moving away from norms agreed upon in the rest of the world, the Ecuadorian university seems designed to keep students as long as possible.  Giles Deleuze and Michel Foucault have written about carceral societies, finding unfortunate similarities between schools and prisons.  It is clear that in the United States one of the unstated functions of the prison system is to keep poor young men off the streets.  It seems reasonable to wonder if Ecuador’s universities are designed in part to serve the same purpose.  Young men, with little opportunity for employment, pose less of a threat to society when kept busy.

While Ecuador’s higher education law seeks to correct problems of quality and provide reasonable standards, in so doing it strictly limits the nature of one of the world’s most complex institutions, prescribing a series of impossible, unreasonable and confusing requirements.  Let us imagine that Gates decided to hire 40 winners of the Nobel Prize, all retired and all wanting to spend half the year in Ecuador, a country recently recognized as one of the best places to retire in the world, and that they all want to teach part time.  The project might seem like science fiction, but it is not that different from the founding of the University of Chicago.  Nearly every key element of this university design would be illegal under Ecuador’s new law.

While the desire to reform higher education in Ecuador is both necessary and laudable, the plan inscribed in the higher education law is antiquated and doomed to fail. The world has accepted standards to measure and guarantee academic quality.  Ecuador needs to discover and adopt those standards and believe in the imagination and the integrity of those building the dream of quality higher education.

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