For forty years I labored in the groves of Academe as professor and dean. Though I learned many lessons in this four decade period, three of them are worth noting.
NYU, the place I called academic home, transformed itself from a “commuter school” into a “world class university” with campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai and with students attending from every corner of the globe. Clearly reputations count, but questions emerges from this change: do the proliferation of “portals” influence the quality of the offerings? Is more better? And can one argue that having “academic stars” on and off campus, who rarely teach, benefit the academic enterprise?
Second, the Academy in general has gone through a metamorphosis. Despite a claim to fairness and openness which is ubiquitous across the academic landscape, most campuses have acquired an orthodoxy that is rarely challenged. It would be hard to espouse much less gain acceptance for ideas like Christian belief adherence, sexual abstinence, dominion over nature, pro-life acceptance, opposition to gay marriage, Absolute Truth, to cite several examples. Should one challenge the orthodoxy, tenure is likely to be denied and chastisement, in the form of rejection, likely to follow.
While liberal views prevailed at most campuses before the 1960’s, there was a willingness to entertain “other,” oppositional points of view – a reason why I sought a career in academic life in the first place – that standard is no longer the case. The outrage displayed over McCarthyite imposed conformity in the 1950’s has been converted into the acceptance of the herd of independent thinkers who populate the campus today.
Last, arguably the most profound change, is the evolutionary belief that everyone should go to college. It is as if George Washington Carver, who argued for practical skills, lost a debate to W.E.B Dubois, who maintained a belief in higher learning for African Americans, except that this debate occurred on the national stage for all Americans. Mass higher education has changed the face of the Academy in several respects. Not only is “diversity” the calling card for admissions’ officers, but government spending has exploded. Higher education has close to a $500 billion annual price tag attached to it and student loans are presently $690 billion (roughly $25,000 per student).
By contrast in 1970 Pell grants didn’t exist and student loans in the aggregate were at $7 billion. Now President Obama contends every American should commit to at least one year of post-secondary education. Who will pay this bill and what are the intended and unintended consequences of enjoining his proposal?
Obviously the bills will be absorbed by taxpayers in one way or another and Obama’s intention is to offer opportunity for Americans in pursuit of employment. However, the unintended consequences are far more revealing.
As Bill Bennett (Bennett’s Hypothesis) noted, increased government expenditures lead inexorably to increases in tuition, a cycle that leads to a need for more financial assistance. I contend, in what might be described as London’s Law, that easily available money for higher education in the form of Title 4 grants and Stafford loans has democratized education, creating the impression everyone can and should go to college. The net effect is that many unqualified students enroll and rigorous academic standards have suffered. Instruction gravitates to the level of visible ability, thereby lowering standards across the board. Hence, easy money yields less intelligence than would otherwise be the case.
Yes, almost every professor over 50 would agree with this proposition, but it cannot be said. Nor is it easy to claim college isn’t for everyone. It isn’t, but try telling that to grandma who wants to see a grandchild with parchment in hand. This condition alone explains in large part why a nation with a 7.5 percent unemployment rate will soon have 1.5 million well paid computer engineering jobs left unfilled. We don’t produce students with the skills for these positions; we don’t maintain rigorous standards and we spend too much for too little received in the way of performance outcomes.