The primary theme of Moo is that money drives university life. Budget cuts threaten programs, and fund-raising and grant-seeking occupy much of the time of the administration and faculty. A fund-raiser earns more than the provost. A faculty member accepts an invitation to a conference not to share information but because his family receives, from the sponsors, free airfare and tickets to Disney World. Diane is only one of the many students who see the university as putting her on a desired economic track. Lionel Gift, professor of economics, refers to his students as “customers,” a practice adopted by some members of the administration and by the governor. He is the highest paid faculty member and is prized for his ability to generate funds.
A lesser and more subtle theme is that universities are products of people and their personalities, rather than being inert disseminators and stores of knowledge. Loraine Walker illustrates this most vividly, redirecting university funds, changing staff assignments, and choosing what information reaches the provost, as well as citing “university rules and regulations” that are no more than her desires. Chairman X teaches students respect for the earth along with communist principles. Joy Pfisterer bestows a love of animals. Bo Jones bores acquaintances with hog lore and secretly uses funds that others would have put to different uses. In the absence of any of these actors, the university would be different in at least some small ways. Also marking this theme is the fact that very little of the action of the novel revolves around learning, and research by faculty focuses more on funding than on achieving useful results.
Smiley makes her themes universal by refusing to specify Moo U’s location, other than by excepting Illinois and possibly Iowa. It is a generic Midwestern agricultural school, with tens of thousands of students.