What is happening to American Studies is part of that larger deconstruction and reconstruction of traditional institutions that, under the pressure of the New Technologies, is happening everywhere; in the information age -- which means above all the global commodification of information -- the university's monopoly on large bodies of information and their distribution is being challenged by a host of other institutions, traditional ones that have adapted as well as startups that are busily working to capture new markets within the changing landscape. This isn't an entirely novel phenomenon. The liberal arts core of the university has progressively lost function and power to emergent organizations that the core was temporarily able to strike more or less tolerable alliances with, e.g., Education Schools, Medical Schools, Engineering Schools, Law Schools. Over time, many of these new schools become centers of power and profit that, not merely competed with the old center but, in many ways, became the center themselves. It is this much older process that is now being amplified, accelerated, and not so subtly commidified by the new technologies.
Ted Marchese, in AAHE Bulletin published by the American Association for Higher Education, explains that:
For established colleges and universities, the competitive threat is fourfold. First, all face threats to their continuing education, degree-completion, or extension arm . . . which in more than a few cases is a key financial base for the institution. Second, in the convenience part of the market, less-selective colleges will feel real pressure on their base enrollments at the associate's, bachelor's, and master's levels. Third, most institutions and their faculties will confront difficult, market- and quality-based questions about whether to replace existing, home-grown courses with nationally produced courseware. Fourth, all institutions, Ivies and medallions included, may see their undergraduate franchise eroded as enrolled students appear in the registrar's office with brand-name course credits taken over the Web.
More broadly, an essence of distance learning is that it knows no boundaries of time or place; it is inherently transnational. A big fear among U.S. university leaders and post-secondary start-ups alike is that - just as happened in banking and health care - major international combines will emerge to quash today's smaller-time competitors. What would the post-secondary marketplace look like if (say) Microsoft, Deutsche Telekom, International Thomson, and the University of California combined to offer UC courses and degrees worldwide? In time, its only competitor could be a combine of like standing and deep pockets: an IBM-Elsevier-NEC-Oxford combine, for example. We shall see.
Marchese points to a number of important threats to higher education; implicit throughout his account is the strong possibility that the competitive pressure will force a transformation of education inside the university along the lines of the emerging non-academic institutions - although the changes will undoubtedly be slower, more painful, and therefore even more costly. Just as in the world outside, it will mean the flattening of hierarchies and the redistribution and reconfiguration of power and authority; it will mean the replacement of formal structures -- rigid and reliable things that they are -- with processes that are unstable and flexible and unreliable; and it will mean profound changes in the notion of expertise which must, both as status and as commodity, move away from individuals and toward various kinds of collectivities - groups, associations, teams. And that, in turn, will mean that intellectual property will be contested for, on the one hand, by the larger institutions and, on the other, by the groups that can also lay claim to it. For all contenders, of course, there is also the disturbing possibility that the difficulty of establishing title and the costs of maintaining it will become prohibitive -- and the question of intellectual property for low profit margin operations like academia will be mooted. Each of these is, I suspect, troubling; in the aggregate, they suggest that we are about to be treated to a major reconstruction of the ways in which, not just American Studies, but all information, is acquired, processed, and distributed.