Steve Fuller–an American philosopher who currently teaches at the University of Warwick in England–recently published an article that has ruffled academic feathers on both sides of the Atlantic.

As the title states, the purpose of the article is to explain why, in Fuller’s view, “The university must be the site of the next Reformation”:

Legend has it that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg Castle on October 31 1517, sparking the Protestant Reformation. … As we commemorate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s protest, there is a comparable institution whose practices might be targeted by a latter-day Luther: the university. …

Luther’s protest focused on the practice of indulgences, which provided a means by which Christians could increase their chances of salvation by confessing their sins and paying some money to a priest. …

I would like to suggest that the dispensation of academic credentials performs the same function in 2017 as the dispensation of indulgences did in 1517.

Credentials are a form of payment and ritual that students are told they must undergo at university in order to be absolved of their ignorance and be permitted to enter a world of lifetime employment – the proverbial “Heaven on Earth”. I use the word “proverbial” deliberately: it is by no means clear that universities can, or should, promise any such thing.

Credentials come in the form of degree certifications, which students receive once they have paid tuition fees and have submitted themselves to a set of examinations. …

What is missing from this blaze of credentials – aside from the potential mismatch to the job at hand – is any sense that the candidate understands either the limits of the applicability of her field’s knowledge or how the very basis of her field’s knowledge might be constructively extended. …

Luther’s anniversary should remind us that we are living in an increasingly competitive environment for the providers and consumers of knowledge. Universities cannot presume to hold an institutional monopoly over it. This may require academics … to demonstrate that a university-based education can provide some added value that cannot be provided elsewhere.

In Luther’s day, this was called “evangelism.”

In response to the article, an American academic of my acquaintance wrote:

Fuller says “Credentials come in the form of degree certifications, which students receive once they have paid tuition fees and have submitted themselves to a set of examinations.” At my school, they must PASS the examinations, and that is the source of the credentials, not the tuition. This makes a mockery of Fuller’s analogy and completely undermines his argument. But maybe his university is more like the University of Phoenix.

And an English academic, also an acquaintance, agreed:

He’d have a stronger argument if he criticized the Wizard of Oz for granting the scarecrow a degree.

Wizard of Oz: “They have one thing you haven’t got: a diploma. Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universitartus Committiartum E Pluribus Unum, I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of ThD.”

Scarecrow: “ThD?”

Wizard of Oz: “That’s … Doctor of Thinkology.”

When I wrote back to my friends, I acknowledged that they had identified a fatal flaw in Fuller’s argument. “Nevertheless,” I said:

I think Fuller’s onto something. Universities have become enormously rich and enormously powerful. They pay no taxes (indeed they are heavily subsidized by the state); they are largely self-governed by their own, self-interested, members; and they persuade students to pay them hugely inflated fees by promising a better life to come (a promise that is often unfulfilled). Maybe a better analogy would be with the English monasteries in the time of Henry VIII. Maybe someone should write an article explaining why, “The university must be the object of the next Dissolution.”