by Benjamin Wiker 07/18/2016 Comment
The Catholic Church invented the university about a millennium ago. It isn’t an eternal institution, but it has lasted a very long time. Unhappily, the combination of economic pressures and virtual (online) classes may well bring its historical demise. I do not wish that to happen—I teach at Franciscan University—but the possibility is very real, and must be understood and addressed.
First, I want to begin with an economic lesson from an area outside education that offers a warning to us about the danger actual universities are facing. I call it the Amazon Effect.
Actual, physical bookstores have been around for hundreds of years—thousands, if you go back to the scroll stalls of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Amazon.com was started in 1994 by Jeff Bezos, whose personal net gain last year was almost 30 billion dollars. In a matter of a decade and a half, Amazon online—a virtual bookstore—eliminated an enormous swath of physical bookstores in the country, leaving only a relative handful of struggling, old-fashioned brick-and-mortar stores. One man, in particular, got unimaginably rich as a result.
The reason that Amazon squashed the local bookstore, as well as major chains like Borders and Family Christian Stores, is economic. Physical bookstores cannot possibly compete. It costs a lot of money to maintain a physical bookstore, keep it stocked, have employees, etc. A virtual bookstore has far, far fewer employees than all the physical bookstores it replaces, and it just needs one really big warehouse (wherein employees may soon be replaced by robots).
Further, because Amazon is selling through the internet to millions of potential customers, rather than hundreds, it can afford to sell books with a much, much slimmer profit margin, and has the economic muscle to compel publishers to accept very slim profits (the latter we might call the Walmart Effect, since Walmart is notorious for strong-arming supplier companies into accepting extremely low per item profits).
So, what does that have to do with universities?