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This Time It Really May Be Different

The University Under Pressure

ISBN: 978-1-78560-831-5, eISBN: 978-1-78560-830-8

Publication date: 5 February 2016


Since at least the 1970s, the American research university system has experienced episodic periods of austerity, frequently accompanied by expressions of concern about the threats that these conditions pose to U.S. scientific and technological leadership. In general, austerity has been tied to fluctuations in Federal Government funding of academic research and macroeconomic fluctuations that have shrunk state government budget revenues. Even amidst these episodes, the system has continued to expand and decentralize. The issue at present is whether this historic resiliency, of being a marvelous invalid, will overcome adverse contemporary trends in Federal and state government funding, as well as political trends that eat away at the societal bonds between universities and their broader publics. The paper juxtaposes examinations of the organizational and political influences that have given rise to the American research university system, trends in research revenues and research costs, and contemporary efforts by universities to balance the two. It singles out the secular decline in state government’s support of public universities as the principal reason why this period of contraction is different from those of the past. Rather though then these trends portending a market shakeout, as some at times have predicted, the projection here is that the academic research system will continue to be characterized by excess capacity and recurrent downward pressures on research costs. Because the adverse impacts are concentrated in the public university sector, they may also spill over into political threats to the current system of awarding academic research grants primarily via competitive, merit review arrangements.




I am indebted to Diana Hicks, John Jankowski, and Jon Nelson for their guidance through the data sources and literatures cited in this paper. Responsibility for the analysis and conclusions are mine, alone.


Feller, I. (2016), "This Time It Really May Be Different", The University Under Pressure (Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol. 46), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 453-488.



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