All posts by James Piereson

James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and president of the board of directors of Minding the Campus.

Can We Save Public Universities?

There was a time not so long ago when elite public institutions, such as the University of California (Berkeley), the University of Michigan, and the University of Wisconsin, more than held their own against competition from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and other elite private institutions.

Berkeley’s reputation for academic excellence in the 1950s and 60s was unsurpassed; indeed, in the mid-1960s many experts considered Berkeley to be the finest university in the world.  Flagship universities in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Virginia earned high rankings.

Related: How Our Universities Are Failing Us

Few private institutions could match the range of outstanding research programs offered at flagship state institutions, particularly in expensive fields like the sciences and engineering. Admission to these institutions was widely pursued by out-of-state students willing to pay premium tuition.   With enrollments in excess of 25,000 and in some cases 40,000 students, these institutions dwarfed the privates in scale but delivered a great deal of educational “bang for the buck.”  Degrees from Berkeley, Michigan, and Wisconsin were judged as equivalent to those from the top private institutions.

Today the situation is greatly changed. There is not a single public institution listed among the top 19 schools in the 2016 rankings by U.S. News & World Report. Berkeley ranked 20th, while Virginia and UCLA came in tied at 24 with Michigan at 29 and the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) at 30. What happened over the last four or five decades to reverse the momentum in higher education from public to private institutions?

Christopher Newfield outlines what he thinks is the answer in his very interesting, carefully researched, but ultimately misguided book, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them. Newfield, a professor of literature and American Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, argues that we have engaged in a multi-decade campaign to “privatize” public universities by withdrawing public funding and replacing it with higher tuition funded by student debt.

He does not mean that public universities have been privatized in a literal sense but that they are increasingly expected to run like businesses delivering services to customers.  From this point of view, universities mostly deliver private benefits and thus they should be paid for with private funds – primarily student tuition – and less and less by legislative appropriations.

Related: The 12 Reasons College Costs Keep Rising

A central casualty in this process has been the belief that universities deliver public benefits to society sufficient to justify large public investments. Newfield argues that public universities deliver all kinds of public benefits in addition to private benefits, such as technological innovations and scientific advances, medical breakthroughs, better overall health of the population, social literacy and tolerance, mobility, and rising living standards.

Such public benefits used to be taken for granted as recently as the 1960s and 1970s when politicians and the public at large generally agreed that the social returns from higher education justified substantial investments in public universities.  Over the last several decades, he argues, that public vision gave way to what he calls a privatized vision of higher education.

Newfield tracks the collapse of this public vision by the steady decline over recent decades in legislative appropriations to support public universities.  The figures he reports suggests that while this process may have begun in the 1980s it has accelerated in the past decade or so in just about every state in the union. Between 2008 and 2015, state appropriations for higher education declined by an average of close to 20 percent across the country, and by more than 25 percent in at least 15 states.

There were only three states – Alaska, North Dakota, and Wyoming – where appropriations actually increased.  Obviously, this had much to do with the financial crisis and the slow recovery from it, but Newfield suggests that in reducing appropriations state legislatures took advantage in these years of the process of privatization that began decades earlier.

Public universities have responded by raising student tuition to cover costs, though Newfield points out that there exists no one-to-one relationship between declining appropriations and rising tuition. Indeed, in recent decades public universities have raised tuition much faster than legislatures have cut appropriations, and public institutions have raised tuition in tandem with private colleges and universities.  Between 1980 and 2012, college tuition and fees increased more than ten-fold in nominal terms and 4 or 5 times in inflation-adjusted terms.

College tuition and fees increased during this period at almost twice the rate of medical care, three times the pace of housing costs, and almost five times the rate of the Consumer Price Index – in other words, at rates that could not be sustained absent the availability of credit to finance the rising costs.  Thus student-loan debt has exploded in recent decades, growing from roughly $200 billion in the year 2000 to $800 billion in 2010 – and still growing thereafter.

Student loan debt now exceeds credit-card debt in the United States.  Over this period, family disposable income has grown by roughly 60 percent while the volume of outstanding student loans has grown nearly 10 times more rapidly – or by more than 500 percent.  These are staggering figures by any measure. Given the stagnation in family incomes in recent years, one wonders if those loans can ever be repaid.

What’s the answer? Newfield, in keeping with his thesis, thinks that we must first restore the idea that higher education is a public good deserving of substantial public investment. These more generous appropriations may require higher taxes, as Newfield acknowledges, but he points out that the costs for most taxpayers will be minimal and in any case easily affordable given in view of the savings most families will enjoy from the reduced expenses of college tuition and fees.

To give Newfield his due, he has written a serious book that backs up his thesis with an impressive array of fact and argument.  His book contains a great deal of current information on trends in student debt, tuition increases, and legislative appropriations for public education.  Whether or not readers agree with the overall thesis, they can at least agree that Newfield has made a good case for it, and for this reason has delivered a valuable book.

Many Americans for various reasons seem to long for the glory days of the 1950s and 1960s when, they believe, life was easier than today, families were more stable, good jobs more plentiful, and America was making steady progress year by year.   Some on the right look back to that era with nostalgia for the conservative social values that prevailed, while others on the left would like to recover the good manufacturing jobs and strong labor unions that were then influential in the economic life of the nation.

It seems that Newfield is of a similar mind about that era, except that he would like to restore the public confidence and financial support that public universities enjoyed during that period.   As with those other longings, Newfield’s is unrealistic and no longer attainable.   We have moved on, and we are not going back.

In the first place, that period (from roughly 1950 to 1966) was a unique era in American life.  The United States enjoyed rapid economic growth of between 4 and 6 percent per year, or something close to two or three times the rates of growth we have experienced over the past two decades.  Economic growth and progressive taxes swelled the coffers of state and federal governments. The “baby boom” created large families with parents and grandparents willing to invest in children and their education.

Related: How Reform Conservatives Can Help Higher Ed

With few competitors in the public sector and a growing population of students seeking admission, public universities had a claim on public resources that they had never before enjoyed.   Universities were, moreover, widely respected by the public for the quality of the education they provided and the seriousness with which university presidents, professors, and administrators seemed to go about their business.  These conditions have long since gone the way of the electric typewriter and the family station wagon.

In the heyday of public universities, state governments spent the bulk of their funds on just a few functions – primarily transportation, public safety and corrections, and higher education.   During this period, public universities had few competitors for state funds and, indeed, with their alumni well represented in the legislatures and the “baby boom” generation headed off to college, they were well positioned to lay claim to a rising share of state budgets.  Across the nation, somewhere close to 20 percent of state budgets flowed into the public universities at a time when public employee pensions, health care, and K-12 education were still minor items in state budgets.

That is no longer the case. Public universities now face an unfriendly political environment due to the expansion of state governmental functions since the 1960s.  States now have many functions and constituent groups that command more money and attention. According to a report by t682he National Association of State Budget Officers, Medicaid accounted for 26 percent and K-12 education another 20 percent of total state expenditures in 2014, proportions that have been expanding steadily for years.

A Scramble for Public Dollars

Thus, nearly half of all state expenditures are now allocated to two programs that did not command any state resources in the 1950s and 1960s. Several years ago voters in California approved a mandate requiring 40 percent of all state funds to be allocated to K-12 education. The well-connected advocates and interest groups that support these programs are unlikely to permit those shares to decline. Meanwhile, public employee pensions now command about 5 percent of state spending but, due to years of underfunding and deferred payments to the funds, some experts expect that share to grow to grow to perhaps 10 or 12 percent in the decades ahead.

By contrast, higher education now lays claim to just 10 percent of state expenditures, or roughly half the share allocated to this sector in the 1950s and1960s. In the scramble for public dollars, public universities must now contend with public-employee unions, court orders and referenda directing ever more public funds to K-12 education, and the lure of federal matching funds for Medicaid, welfare, and other federally subsidized programs.

Given political realities, they are unlikely to win many of these battles.  Indeed, it is not clear that they should. After all, the professors and administrators who complain about reduced public expenditures were generally among those calling for more state funding of the kinds of public programs that have drained resources from higher education.

In addition, public universities today must share public appropriations with an expanding complex of regional campuses and community colleges that barely existed in the 1950s and 1960s. The California legislature created an elaborate and expensive three-tiered system of research universities, regional universities, and community colleges in the early 1960s just as the University of California was reaching a pinnacle of influence and prestige.  Other states expanded in parallel ways. Michigan now supports 45 distinct institutions of higher learning, all in financial competition with the state’s two flagship public institutions. Wisconsin supports 26 such institutions, in addition to its flagship campus in Madison.

These second and third-tier institutions have representatives lobbying the legislatures and demanding their share of state higher-education dollars. In addition, more and more teachers at the lower-tier four-year universities and community colleges are leveraging their power by joining unions that bargain and lobby in their behalf.  Professors at elite institutions have so far resisted the pressures to unionize.

As Newfield acknowledges, public universities have not been on a starvation diet, mainly because they have been able to pass along rising costs to students and parents.  Most public universities have dramatically increased the number of courses in their catalogs and the number of centers, institutes, and programs that must be paid for.  The number of administrators employed on public campuses has exploded nearly as rapidly as student debt.

Between 1975 and 2011, the number of faculty at colleges and universities across the nation grew by just 23 percent, while the number of full-time administrators grew by 369 percent – or, put differently, colleges and universities hired 16 new administrators during this period for every new professor hired.   To the extent this is a problem – and there can be little doubt that it is a problem – it represents a self-inflicted wound. No one forced trustees and presidents to participate in a misallocation of resources on this scale.

Finally, is it really true that public universities confer a public benefit of the kind justifying expanded public support? That question deserves some real examination and debate. There can be little doubt that public universities, along with most private institutions as well, have evolved into hothouses for left-wing identity politics. Numerous studies have demonstrated that liberal and leftist professors outnumber conservatives by a ratio of between 10 and 20 to 1, and Democrats outnumber Republicans by a similar ratio.

That might be an acceptable situation in an environment where practitioners are guided by professional standards, but that is no longer the case on the American campus.  Large numbers of professors, administrators, and student advocates have been politicized to an unhealthy degree. If there is a “great mistake” in higher education, then it more accurately relates to the hyper-politicization of the contemporary campus.

When colleges and universities are mentioned in the press today, the story is likely  about a speaker who has been harassed or disinvited from campus, or students demonstrating for “safe spaces” on campus to insulate themselves from discordant opinions, or for more courses and programs on women, minority groups, the environment, and other causes associated with the political left. Judging by the statements of many faculty, administrators, and student representatives, they would like to criminalize or at least delegitimize the opinions of conservative and religious Americans, and in the process make certain that those views are never expressed on the campus.

Related: How Soft Censorship Works at College

This kind of thing has been going on now on leading campuses for three or four decades. Should anyone be surprised, then, when taxpayers and legislators ask why they should subsidize these politically one-sided institutions?  Universities – public and private – are increasingly viewed as partisan institutions, strongly attached to the Democratic Party and, therefore, no longer seen as enterprises that serve the public good. That may be unfortunate, as one might agree, but it is nevertheless the case.

Instead of restoring public subsidies to universities, as Newfield says we must, it makes more sense to move further in the direction of privatization by “voucherizing” the higher-education industry–providing vouchers at public expense for students to spend at the institutions of their choice. This would promote greater competition among campuses such that (hopefully) useless and redundant programs and employees would be eliminated out of the need to cut costs and respond to consumer demand.

The university sector is failing the society that supports it – of this, there can no longer be any doubt.  “Voucherizing” higher education would represent a radical step into the unknown, but we are fast reaching a point where radical steps are called for.

A Close Look at Clinton’s Student Debt Plan

Nearly everyone recognizes that student debt has risen to a level that will be difficult to sustain in the future given the nation’s slow growing economy and the sagging incomes of too many college-educated Americans. Nearly 40 million Americans are carrying some form of student debt; more than 7 million are in default on their loans and many more have missed scheduled payments. Roughly 70 percent of all college students today are leaving school with debts owed to either the federal government or to private lenders, with the average debt per student now well in excess of $30,000. The total amount of outstanding student debt is estimated to be $1.2 trillion, with about two-thirds of this sum underwritten by the federal government.

It is not difficult to figure out the reasons for exploding student debt. On the one hand, high-school graduates and their parents understand that a college education is essential for entry into the narrowing world of high paying professional jobs. College and university enrollments increased by more than a third between 2000 and 2014, from 15 million to more than 21 million students. At the same time, college tuition and fees have been growing at more than three times the rate of inflation for three decades now and at more than twice the growth in the median family income over the same period. In 2015, the average tuition (plus fees) for in state students at public universities is in the neighborhood of $10,000 per year and over $40,000 per year for students attending private universities. A fair amount of careful research suggests that these soaring costs are partly attributable to the increasing availability of loans encouraged by federal policy.

Hillary Clinton’s new $350 billion (over ten years) proposal takes aim at this vast constituency of voters currently paying off student loans or worried about the costs of taking them on. She says that her proposal will enable most students to meet college expenses without taking on loans, a claim that is surely exaggerated in view of the scale and scope of her plan.  At best it is a proposal to mitigate the problem somewhat by permitting borrowers to reduce interest rates on current loans and to use the carrot of federal funds to force states to invest more public funds in higher education.

There are three major parts to her plan:

First, (borrowing an idea from Sen. Elizabeth Warren) she wants to allow borrowers locked into loans at high rates of interest to refinance those loans at current federal rates for student loans, much as people are allowed to refinance their home mortgages when interest rates fall.  Federally subsidized student loans are given at fixed rates (set by Congress), generally for a period of up to 25 years.  The current interest rate (as of 2014) on federal loans is about 3.9 percent, down from 6.8 percent charged a decade ago. That reduction would save a typical borrower carrying a loan of $20,000 or $30,000 between $500 and $1,000 per year.

It is hard to find fault with her proposal, at least in the abstract. Many Democrats and even some Republicans are sympathetic to it as a means of providing some relief for overburdened borrowers. Still, there is less here than meets the eye. Private lenders have long offered variable rate loans that move up and down with interest rates. In addition, borrowers have long been able to refinance their student loans through private lenders, which is already a common practice.

Mrs. Clinton’s plan would allow borrowers carrying federal loans to do so through the federal system rather than through private lenders. This may be a step in the right direction, but it is a very short step when one considers the options already available.  Further, her proposal carries an estimated cost of between $60 and $100 billion per year to the federal government, depending upon where interest rates happen to be and how many borrowers take advantage of the plan. This is one of the sticking points: Congress is reluctant to appropriate such funds in a time of deficits, rising entitlement costs, and generally tight budgets.

Second, she proposes to establish an income-based repayment system so that borrowers will never have to pay more than 10 percent of their income on student loans (the standard in the past was 15 percent) with the possibility of loan forgiveness after twenty years of faithful payments.

This is also a reasonable but modest proposal, and one that has been endorsed by other national leaders, including her fellow presidential candidate Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. One problem with it is that the Obama Administration, following the advice of a task force led by Vice President Biden, has already implemented most of it under a law that took effect in 2014. Under that law, borrowers choosing an income-based repayment plan will pay no more than 10 percent of their income toward student loans and those who faithfully repay their loans for twenty years are eligible to have the remainder of their debt forgiven (those who work in public service for ten years can have the remainder of their loans forgiven after ten years). Mrs. Clinton’s proposal “tweaks” current policy at the margins by consolidating existing income based repaying programs into a single plan, but it does not significantly add to it.

There is another problem with income-repayment schemes that is now beginning to emerge. The Financial Times reported last week that Moody’s Investors Service is reviewing the credit worthiness of some student-loan-backed bonds in response to falling repayment rates on loans.  Moody’s review was triggered by wider use of income-based repayment plans which allow borrowers to repay loans more slowly, creating the possibility that bonds may reach maturity before the underlying loans have been repaid.  This could lead to defaults, even if the debt is backed by a government guarantee.  Such concerns have led to a doubling of the yield on Triple-A rated bonds in recent months and to the possibility that Moody’s might downgrade its ratings on those bonds. As the FT reports in its article, “sharp downgrades could spur an exit from the sector by investors banned from buying low rated debt.” This would drive prices down and interest rates higher on those bonds, which in turn could lead to higher interest rates for new borrowers, and perhaps even to an exit from the sector by private lenders.

Third, Mrs. Clinton proposes to spend $175 billion over ten years to encourage (bribe) state governments to invest more resources in higher education so that tuition charges can be reduced at four-year institutions and eliminated entirely for two-year community colleges.  Under her plan, the Department of Education would make funds available to match state budget allocations for higher education and to reward states that keep a lid on tuition increases.  She would also expand work-study programs to permit more students to work off college expenses during their student years. The combined federal and state funds, perhaps as much as $35 billion per year across the country, she claims, would allow states to maintain tuition at affordable levels for students so that loans would be unnecessary. This is, as already noted, an exaggerated claim. An additional point worth emphasizing:  she is not making tuition “free,” but rather substituting taxpayer funds for student-paid tuition.

Total tuition charges at public institutions across the country in 2012-13 amounted to something like $300 billion, plus expenses for fees, books, room, and board. A mix of federal, state, and private scholarships subsidizes a significant portion of this sum. The federal government, for example, spends about $30 billion per year on Pell grants to support tuition and other expenses for more than 9 million students from lower-income families. Mrs. Clinton’s contribution of $17.5 billion in federal funds per annum would make a dent in this package but it is hard to see how it will ever allow reductions in tuition and fees to levels that would allow students to dispense with loans.

Appropriations for higher education in states across the country have fallen off by an average of 16 percent since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008.   Mrs. Clinton, along with the liberal think tanks associated with the Democratic Party, claims that this is a major cause of tuition increases at public universities and thus a major source of the student debt crisis.   This is another exaggerated claim:  student debt was accumulating for years and decades prior to the financial crisis due to rising college costs and the wide availability of federally subsidized loans.   The financial crisis made many problems worse across the country, including the student debt problem, because it provoked a budget crisis for state governments that extended to all publicly funded programs.

Mrs. Clinton and her advisors might ask themselves why so many states found it necessary to cut appropriations for higher education in the years following the financial crisis.  The major reason was that governors and legislators had other priorities, among them paying for public employee pensions, meeting federal mandates to pay for Medicaid, welfare, and K-12 education, and finding revenues to meet law enforcement and transportation budgets.  Medicaid for years has been the fastest growing item in state budgets, followed by spending on K-12 education. Together these two items now claim close to half of all state expenditures across the country.   In ramping up spending on these two items, governors and legislators have necessarily taken into account the carrots (matching funds) and sticks (mandates and court orders) of federal policy.   In view of federal policies and the hard-nosed politics in play in the states, it is not hard to understand why higher education has been squeezed out in the keen competition for state funds.

Mrs. Clinton would now hold out federal dollars to induce states to appropriate more funds for higher education, just as the federal government already does with Medicaid, welfare, K-12 education, and transportation projects. Her proposal would compel governors and legislators either to raise taxes to cover those added expenditures or to cut budgets in other areas — or, alternatively, to dispense with the federal funds altogether.  The federal government has contributed to the budget crises in the states through its mandates and matching programs, and Mrs. Clinton now proposes to address that problem by adding still another mandate and matching program.  This will only make a difficult problem worse, especially when the next recession intensifies the scramble among interest groups for scarce public funds.

Mrs. Clinton’s plan is undoubtedly one of the more inefficient ways through which we might address the student-debt problem.  The major problem in higher education today is one of cost and expense, and only secondarily who pays for it (students or governments).  American colleges and universities are highly inefficient enterprises that maintain scores of useless, duplicative, out-of-date, and politically correct programs for no other reason than that there are interest groups on campus that would protest if any of them were eliminated.  Too many universities maintain masters and doctoral programs in fields for which graduates have no hope of finding jobs.

This is also true of many undergraduate programs currently in place.  Most of those programs should be eliminated in the service both of long-run efficiency and educational integrity.  Ideally, this kind of streamlining should take place state-by-state and campus-by-campus as governors, legislators, and academic leaders grapple with priorities and limited resources.  It is a nagging problem that academic leaders, particularly in public institutions, should begin to address.  Yet Mrs. Clinton’s plan would encourage them to put off the day of reckoning in the hope that all programs can be maintained with still another infusion of federal funds.

Mrs. Clinton proposes to pay for this program by (no surprise here) eliminating tax breaks and loopholes for the wealthy. Her main target is the charitable deduction, which (like President Obama) she proposes to cap at 28 percent for taxpayers in the highest- income brackets (individuals earning more than $200,000 per year and couples more than $250,000). President Obama, who has included this proposal in his annual budget proposals for the past five years, estimates that such a measure would bring in an additional $320 billion to the U.S. Treasury over eight years (another dubious claim). Ironically, in proposing such a measure, Mrs. Clinton is likely to provoke opposition from academic leaders who rely upon generous contributions from wealthy donors to fund scholarships, new buildings, and important research programs.

Mrs. Clinton’s approach is a typical kind of Democratic plan that relies upon subsidies, higher taxes and more spending, and cost-shifting among participants in the higher-education industry.  It will do little or nothing to encourage restructuring or cost-cutting among institutions of higher learning.  It stands in contrast to the approach taken by Sen. Rubio, who proposes to overturn the accreditation system to allow more participants into the industry, thereby encouraging competition among providers and eventually lower costs to consumers. This is the kind of debate we should have over the future of higher education – between those who wish to prop up the current system and those who propose to introduce competition into the industry as a means to restructure and reorganize it. If it does any good, then Mrs. Clinton’s proposal may provoke such a debate.

How Our Universities Are Failing Us

The Closing of the American Mind dealt with the way academic relativism has failed our democracy, but it did not spark the kind of fruitful conversation that Allan Bloom hoped for; much less did it inspire a systematic effort to rectify the errors of modern academia. Today’s college students say they believe in democracy but cannot explain why, and neither can they explain what they are actually getting with their college education. In the past half century, higher education has gone through a democratizing revolution, with the result that more and more students are being sold an increasingly expensive product that neither their professors nor the deans and presidents of their colleges can even begin to define.

College for All

A college education is now deemed one of those prizes that, if good for a few, must therefore be good for all, even if no one in a position of academic authority can specify what such an education is or should be. College enrollments have grown steadily year by year, more than doubling since 1970 and rising by nearly one-third since the year 2000. This year, more than twenty million students will enroll in the four thousand or so degree-granting colleges and universities now operating in the United States. More than 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in a community college, a four-year residential college, or one of the new online universities, though only about half of these students earn their degrees within five years. The steady growth in enrollments is fed by the widespread belief that a college degree is a requirement for entry into the world of middle-class employment.

Higher education is a growth industry in America—one of the few that foreigners (now mostly Asians) are willing to support in large numbers. College tuition and expenses have grown by five times the rate of inflation over the past three decades, forcing parents and students far into debt to meet the escalating costs. Fed by a long bull market in stocks, college and university endowments have exploded since the mid-1980s, providing even more resources for salaries, new personnel, financial aid, and new buildings and programs.

A handful of prestigious colleges and universities, mainly private, are overwhelmed each year by applications from high school seniors seeking to have their tickets punched for entry into the upper strata of American society. But these institutions are far from representative of higher education as a whole. The vast majority of colleges and universities—90 percent of them at least—admit any applicant with a high school diploma and the means to pay. Given the availability of financial aid, any high school graduate who wishes to attend college can do so.

Many universities, and not a few colleges, have come to resemble Fortune 500 companies with their layers of highly paid executives presiding over complex empires that encompass semi-professional athletic programs, medical and business schools, and expensive research programs along with the traditional academic departments charged with providing instruction to undergraduate students. Like other industries, higher education has its own trade magazines and newspapers, influential lobbying groups in Washington, and paid advertising agents reminding the public of how important their enterprise is to the national welfare.

What Is All This For?

In contrast to business corporations, whose members generally agree on their overall purpose, colleges and universities have great difficulty defining what their enterprise is for. What is a college education? What are students supposed to learn during their four years on campus? On just about any campus at any given time, one can find faculty members in intense debate over what a college education entails and what the mission of their institution should be, and one will find little consensus on the answers. Few businesses would dare to offer an expensive product that they are incapable of defining for the inquiring consumer. Yet this is what colleges and universities have done at least since the 1960s, with surprising success.

The most trenchant criticisms of these developments in higher education have come primarily from the conservative end of the political spectrum. From the time William F. Buckley Jr. published God and Man at Yale in 1951, conservatives have been the main critics of the evolution of colleges and universities away from their traditional role as guardians of civilization and into the political-corporate institutions that they have gradually come to resemble. Over the decades, conservatives like Russell Kirk, Allan Bloom, and Roger Kimball have criticized academic institutions for dismembering core curricula, offering trendy but intellectually worthless courses, surrendering to political correctness, and providing comfortable sinecures for faculty paid for by hardworking students and their parents. Conservatives were always skeptical of the campaign to democratize higher education, arguing that it was bound to lead to lowered standards and loss of purpose. Events have confirmed their predictions, even if their diagnosis has done little to alter the path of the American university.

Some Liberals Become Critics

Liberals have been more reserved in their criticisms of higher education, no doubt because they (in contrast to the conservatives) have been in charge of the enterprise over these many decades. To the extent that they have called for reform in higher education, it has usually been to urge colleges and universities to move more rapidly down the path on which they were already traveling—that is, in the direction of more diversity, easier access, more student choice in courses and curricula, more programs for special groups, and so on. Because they have operated inside the walls of academe, liberals (and leftists) have never had much difficulty in translating their proposals into academic policy.

Yet a curious thing is now happening in the ever-expanding commentary on higher education: many of the criticisms formerly made by conservatives are now being reprised by liberals, or at least by authors who are in no way associated with conservative ideas or organizations. At least two distinguished academic leaders, Anthony Kronman, former dean of the Yale Law School (Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, Yale University Press), and Harry Lewis, former dean of students at Harvard (Excellence without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future?, Public Affairs), have published stern critiques of colleges and universities for failing to challenge students with the great moral and political questions that were once at the center of the liberal arts curriculum. More recently, several books written from a liberal point of view have taken colleges and universities to task on various counts: they are too expensive; the education they offer is subpar, especially in relation to costs; they are administratively top-heavy; their faculties are too specialized; they do not emphasize teaching; their catalogs are filled with bizarre courses; and, importantly, they are not providing the liberal arts education that students need and deserve.

Here Come the Weird Courses

These are serious charges, especially when one considers who is making them. What lies behind them? And what do the authors propose to do about them?

The most comprehensive of these indictments is set out by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus in a book titled Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do about It, Henry Holt & Company. The authors cannot be accused of being outsiders to the industry or lacking in understanding of their subject. Hacker is a distinguished political scientist, author of many academic books, formerly a professor at Cornell, and now an emeritus professor at Queens College in New York City. Dreifus writes for the Science section of the New York Times and is a faculty member at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. It is surprising, even refreshing, to encounter a wide-ranging critique of higher education by authors with such impeccable credentials. Yet one would never call this a dispassionate analysis. It is meant to arouse indignation and to bring forth remedies for the ills it diagnoses.

Hacker and Dreifus begin from the premise that higher education has lost its way and no longer fulfills its basic obligations to the rising generation of Americans. As they write, “A huge—and vital—sector of our society has become a colossus, taking on many roles, and doing none of them well.” The central purpose of higher education, and of the liberal arts in particular, is to turn students into “thoughtful and interesting human beings”; but colleges and universities have weighed themselves down with so many ancillary activities, from technical research to varsity athletics, that they have lost sight of their basic mission.

No Return to the Sixties

The authors write from the standpoint of a pre-1960s liber alism, which assumed that democratic education and the liberal arts should operate in harmony. Thus they assert that every student can learn, that a college education should be available to all, and that such an education should revolve around the liberal arts, loosely defined. They are unable to come to terms with how the campus upheavals of the 1960s succeeded in overthrowing the traditional liberal arts curriculum in the name of democracy, diversity, and inclusion. The authors think that the older synthesis can be resurrected on campus if only some institutional encrustations like disciplinary research, administrative bloat, and varsity athletics can be peeled away. Though they are undoubtedly wrong about this (since the problems go much deeper), their book contains much valuable evidence that something has gone wrong in the world of higher education.

Hacker and Dreifus point to a basic contradiction in the higher education industry: students enroll to receive an education, and many pay dearly for this service, but faculty members are paid and promoted on the basis of disciplinary research that is unrelated to teaching. In the authors’ view, in fact, “there is an inverse correlation between good teaching and academic research.” A heavy emphasis on research causes professors to short-change teaching responsibilities and to view colleagues at other institutions as a more important audience for their work than their own students. It also encourages faculties to load up college catalogs with narrow and arcane courses as young professors “teach their dissertations” and veteran professors teach their latest research projects. In this way, the research agenda in the various disciplines invades the undergraduate curriculum. The tenure system, originally created to protect the freedom of faculty to conduct research, now insulates professors from incentives to perform in the classroom. Given the evolution of First Amendment protections on campus, tenure is no longer needed to guarantee academic freedom for dissident professors.

PhDs But No Jobs 

Moreover, since research professors must have graduate students, major departments at large research universities must have their own Ph.D. programs whether or not their graduates have any hope of finding positions in the academy. The authors cite a telling statistic: from 2005 to 2007, American universities awarded 101,009 doctoral degrees but created just 15,820 assistant professorships. Given such a ratio, few young men and women who have spent between four and eight years earning their doctoral degrees can entertain hopes of pursuing careers in academic teaching and research. Many of these redundant Ph.D.’s wind up in fields unrelated to their studies and for which an advanced degree is probably more of a handicap than a qualification. Some are recruited back to campus as adjunct professors to teach courses for nominal sums that are a fraction of what tenured professors are paid. The authors estimate that 70 percent of all college teaching is performed by adjuncts, graduate assistants, and other non-faculty personnel.

The expansion of administration—or administrative “bloat”—is a major factor in the escalating costs of higher education. The ratio of administrators per student has doubled over the past three decades, from about 30 to more than 60 administrators per 1,000 students. At many of the prestigious colleges and universities, the ratios are far higher. At Williams College, roughly 70 percent of the employees are occupied in pursuits other than teaching. Administrative expansion at Williams has not taken place through the hiring of groundskeepers, janitors, health and safety personnel, or cafeteria workers, but by the creation of positions like Babysitting Coordinator, Spouse-Partner Employment Counselor, and Queer-Life Coordinator (really).

Superfluous Funds, Superfluous Jobs

This is a common pattern at top-ranked institutions that probably have more money than they need to operate high-quality educational programs. Their superfluous funds therefore underwrite superfluous activities. The Chronicle of Higher Education routinely runs advertisements for positions like Sustainability Director, Credential Specialist, and Vice-President for Student Success. Wouldn’t students be better served if, instead of filling positions like these, colleges and universities hired more philosophers, classicists, and physicists? From the authors’ point of view, the question answers itself.

All of these administrators not only cost money (with their generous salaries) but invent work that requires still more of their kind, thus diverting institutional attention from learning and instruction to second- and third-order activities. A portion of administrative bloat is a function of the growing complexity of academic institutions, some of it self-imposed and some of it flowing from governmental requirements related to financial aid, research contracts, and civil rights laws. In many cases the new administrators serve as advocates for special causes, demanding the hiring of more faculty and administrators in fields like feminism, environmentalism, and “queer studies.” Thus, administrative expansion also grows from the politicization of the modern campus.

Overpaid Hired Guns

The most obvious expression of the administrative takeover of higher education is the emergence of “hired gun” presidents who move from institution to institution gaining bigger salaries for themselves and their peers as they do. The president of Ohio State University—who previously held top positions at Brown University, the University of Colorado, and West Virginia University—had a pay package exceeding $2 million before he resigned in 2013 and returned to West Virginia University s president. The president of the University of Chicago has a compensation package that exceeds $3 million. It is not uncommon today for college presidents to receive salary packages exceeding $1 million, courtesy of student tuition payments and taxpayer subsidies, while the average faculty member receives a salary one-tenth of that sum. Do these presidents fill the role of academic and intellectual leader on their campuses, as college and university presidents (like Robert Maynard Hutchins and Charles William Eliot) did at one time? The answer in almost all cases is no. They are hired mainly to raise money, manage complex bureaucracies, and keep their faculties happy. The emergence of this new kind of academic administrator is one of the more obvious signs of the overall loss of intellectual purpose in higher education.

The  Golden  Dozen

Hacker and Dreifus reserve their strongest criticisms for a handful of elite institutions—the “Golden Dozen,” as they call them—that set the tone for higher education as a whole. The list is familiar: the eight Ivy League institutions, plus Duke, Stanford, Williams, and Amherst. These are the prestigious schools that attract applications from ambitious students across the country and around the world. The existence of this elite stratum of institutions seems to violate the authors’ sense of democratic fairness; in their view, these schools are overrated and do not merit their hallowed reputations. They name several institutions of lesser rank (including the University of Mississippi and Arizona State University) that they believe do a better job of educating their students.

While all this may be true, the authors offer scant evidence for their conclusions. They do not try to assess the quality of education offered at these institutions, but try instead to assess how successful their alumni have been compared with the graduates of other institutions—an exercise that cuts against the overall purpose of their book. They conclude on the basis of an examination of entries in Who’s Who that the alumni of the “Golden Dozen” do not fare any better in life than any other group of college graduates. Unfortunately, in using worldly success as a measure, the authors endorse the dubious proposition that what matters most in an academic institution is the financial and vocational status its students attain, rather than the substantive education they gain in the liberal arts.

An  Intellectual Vacuum

In view of the intellectual vacuum that has developed on cam pus, it is entirely understandable that students should more and more express vocational aspirations in their selection of courses and majors. Hacker and Dreifus are disappointed that so many students choose majors like business, engineering, and communications over fields in the liberal arts like history, philosophy, and literature. Business is by far the leading major among undergraduates today, far surpassing in student popularity any of the traditional fields in the humanities or social sciences. Traditional liberal arts departments in classics, foreign languages, literature, and philosophy are contracting and some of them disappearing altogether for want of student interest. This is a lamentable outcome, as the authors say, but at the same time one that is easy to understand. If students are required to pay vast sums for their degrees, then they want value for the money spent—and this is found in vocational preparation of some kind. It is also hard to blame students for these choices when they never hear anyone on campus making a good case for the liberal arts as “an education for life.” The long-running agitation for diversity, democracy, and inclusion on campus has at length displaced the traditional case for the liberal arts.

An End to Tenure?

The authors propose several controversial but nevertheless justifiable remedies to lower the costs of higher education and return it to its central purposes. They would end tenure and sabbaticals for professors, emphasize teaching over research in all aspects of undergraduate education, curb the exploitation of adjunct professors, spin off university medical schools and research programs, eliminate varsity athletics, spread resources around to more institutions beyond the “Golden Dozen,” reduce the costs of administration (especially presidential salaries), and take advantage of new technologies to improve classroom instruction.

These are generally good ideas, though perhaps also utopian in current circumstances. Getting rid of varsity athletics, especially football, has long been a goal of academic reformers, and they are no nearer their goal today than they were fifty or one hundred years ago. Even so, some of these reforms, such as the elimination of tenure and the scaling back of varsity athletics, may come about in the coming years due to mounting financial pressures on colleges and universities. The fact that universities exploit adjunct teachers is a clear sign that they cannot afford to spread the costs associated with the tenure system across all instructional programs. As costs escalate and available resources dwindle, all institutions will be forced to confront basic questions as to which programs they can afford to maintain. What advocacy and criticism cannot accomplish, the laws of economics may eventually bring about.

The central weakness of this otherwise useful critique is that the authors never tell us what kind of education is most likely to form “thoughtful and interesting human beings.” What is an education in the liberal arts? What should students learn during their undergraduate years? Should every college have a core curriculum in the liberal arts, as most did a generation or two ago? The authors make a case for the liberal arts but fail to tell us what they entail or how they might be revived from their near-comatose condition on campus.

Collapse of Liberal Arts

The liberal arts are dying on college campuses today from the combined effects of specialization, the diversity agenda, and an emphasis on vocational goals. (Actually, they have essentially expired already, except at a handful of holdout institutions where undergraduate education is taken seriously.) The century-long campaign to apply the scientific model to the humanities has at length yielded the consequences that Hacker and Dreifus document so well. The various academic travesties that they cite are symptoms of this deeper problem. Many of these—such as the proliferation of pointless courses—take place in humanities departments and not in the sciences, where there still exists a ladder of learning and where research is linked to an ongoing search for knowledge.

The fundamental problems of higher education, especially as they relate to its overall loss of purpose, can be traced back to the collapse of the liberal arts. As a consequence, a large gulf has opened up between the sciences, where undergraduate teaching programs are generally very good (as long as resources are available), and the humanities, where teaching and research have lost their purpose and with it their value. Conservatives have known this for a long time. Now, some liberal critics are beginning to feel their way toward the same conclusion.

In elementary and secondary education, costs have risen exponentially over recent decades while student learning as measured by achievement tests has steadily declined. Likewise, college costs have risen several-fold since the 1970s (as Hacker and Dreifus amply document), even as academic rigor has declined, according to recent research by Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa from the University of Virginia.

What Do They Learn? Not Much

Arum and Roksa, both sociologists, made their case in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, University of Chicago Press. Though burdened by some of the turgid language and ponderous methodology that are endemic to the social sciences, this book is a serious effort to find out if colleges and universities are delivering on their promise to educate all students. The authors have assembled empirical data showing that college students today are studying and writing less and learning far less than their peers of a generation ago, while our competitors abroad are passing us in measures of academic achievement and rates of college graduation. America’s competitiveness in the global economy is thus at risk.

Academically Adrift is one product of a movement to measure student learning that was set in motion in 2006 by a report from the Spellings Commission (named for Margaret Spellings, then the U.S. Secretary of Education). The report called for greater “transparency and accountability” in colleges and universities that receive federal aid, and for “better data about real performance” to allow students, parents, and policymakers to compare institutions on the basis of measurable outcomes. According to the commission, such measures are needed in order to determine if “the national investment in higher education is paying off.” The report was a signal that “outcomes testing,” long used in elementary and secondary education, was about to be introduced into higher education as well.

Critical Thinking 

Arum and Roksa took up the challenge. To measure student learning, they drew upon results from the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a standardized test given to more than three thousand students at different institutions upon entry into college and then again at the end of their second and fourth years of undergraduate work. The CLA asks students to examine a complex problem, such as an argument in a political campaign about how best to reduce crime, and then to write up their assessments of different approaches along with their own recommendations. The test purports to measure critical thinking and complex reasoning as well as writing ability.

On the basis of the CLA, the authors report that large numbers of students show little improvement in these skills during their college years. According to this study, 45 percent of the students showed little evidence of improvement after two years of college, and 36 percent showed little improvement after four years. The performance gap between blacks and whites, already significant upon entry into college, widened further during the undergraduate years.

A Lack of Rigor

“An astounding proportion of students are progressing through higher education today without measurable gains in general skills,” Arum and Roksa conclude. Even so, nine in ten students say upon graduation that they are satisfied with their college experience.

The authors locate the sources of these disappointing outcomes both in the culture of student life and in the lack of rigor in college curricula. Students spend the bulk of their time socializing with peers rather than studying, reading, or discussing academic subjects. According to the study, students spend on average only about thirteen hours per week studying, far less time than in the 1960s. The reason that students can get away with it today is that they encounter few courses that require much writing or significant amounts of reading. It is little wonder, then, that the culture of student life does not assign great value to learning and achievement.

Administrators with No Mandate

Arum and Roksa agree with other authors about the basic problems of higher education. Colleges are bloated with administrators who have impressive-sounding titles, but none carries a mandate to improve student learning. Adjunct and part-time faculty teach too many courses. Professors do not spend enough time in the classroom or meeting individually with students. College trustees and presidents are preoccupied with fund-raising, budgets, national rankings, and reputations. Students are viewed as “consumers,” and thus are given too much choice in the selection of courses. Colleges devote too many resources to luxurious dormitories, student centers, and expensive athletic facilities, in a misguided effort to entertain students and keep them happy.

One conclusion they do not reach is that too many students are attending college who are not motivated or who lack the skills to do college-level work. The Council for Aid to Higher Education reports that “forty percent of students entering college do not read, write or perform math at a college-ready level,” a figure that closely approximates the proportion of students reported by Arum and Roksa that do not learn very much during their undergraduate years. Is it possible that 40 percent of the students we send to college are not prepared for the experience and are unable to benefit from it? Are faculty and administrators “dumbing down” their curricula to make it possible for these students to pass the requirements? Reasonable observers have answered both questions in the affirmative, even if such answers seem to violate a national commitment to guarantee a college education to every student who wants one.

Academically Adrift has been widely criticized in academic circles because (it is said) the Collegiate Learning Assessment does not really measure learning, but rather aptitude or something else unrelated to classroom instruction. While this is possibly so (although the makers of the test dispute it), results from the CLA are undoubtedly closely correlated with those of the SAT and ACT examinations that administrators use for admissions and which they claim are measures of learning rather than innate aptitude. If the CLA does not do the job, then critics have an obligation to come up with a better test.

Turn Humanities into Science?

t is probably the case, however, that no conceivable test can accurately measure what students should really learn during their college years. After all, the purpose of higher education is not to train students in the basic skills of reasoning and writing, but to take students who already have these skills and supplement them with something more important—namely, knowledge and understanding. The campaign to turn colleges into glorified high schools has been as misguided as the effort to turn the humanities into a science. It is not possible to educate students in something called “critical thinking” in the absence of a foundation of knowledge; and students who have taken the trouble to fortify themselves with knowledge will naturally develop the capacities both to criticize and to affirm, and to understand the difference between the two.

An education in the liberal arts, rightly understood, is one means by which educators in the past sought to engage students in the search for knowledge and understanding. Whatever the weaknesses of that approach, academic leaders have yet to find an effective substitute for it. Appropriately, Arum and Roksa call upon academic leaders to strengthen the general education requirements (that is, the core curricula) at their institutions in order to ensure that all students receive an education in the fundamentals of the liberal arts and the sciences.

While curricular debates have been going on for some time, the recent financial collapse has exposed and exacerbated structural weaknesses in our system of higher education. Mark C. Taylor argues that a situation of dwindling resources has led to a crisis on campus that will force academic leaders to reorganize their institutions if they are to survive. In a controversial op-ed article he published in the New York Times in 2009, Taylor called for the abolition of the tenure system and the elimination of permanent academic departments that he regards as the obsolete equivalents of assembly lines and small family farms. The title of that article, “End the University as We Know It,” provides a sense of the ambitious— and inflated—aims of his proposals.

Professor Taylor, now chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia University and previously a longtime professor in the humanities at Williams College, decided to enlarge the essay into a book because of the popular response it provoked. “My analysis of the current state of higher education and proposals for change set off a firestorm of discussion and controversy,” he explains. Well, perhaps—but he would have served the debate better by letting matters stand with the short statement of his position.

Bold but Unworkable Ideas

His book, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, Alfred A. Knopf,unfortunately reads like an extended opinion piece, long on assertions and proposals but short on analysis and supporting information. Few of Taylor’s proposals are new or bold. Like Hacker and Dreifus and many before them, he wants to end tenure, but in his case mainly to open up opportunities for young scholars who have worked for years to earn Ph.D.’s only to find no jobs when they are finished (which was not exactly a secret when they began). Like other critics, he thinks that colleges and universities encourage disciplinary research at the expense of teaching. He urges a national collaboration between elite and non-elite institutions to train and reward good teachers, certainly a worthwhile proposal. He thinks that computers and video games should be used widely to improve the quality of teaching and break down barriers between disciplines, and goes so far as to suggest that colleges and universities should be restructured to reflect the open and adaptable characteristics of computer networks.

He is especially keen to promote more cross-disciplinary activities that bring scholars from different fields—like art and physics or religion and international affairs—together to address new problems. There are many professors who resist such collaborations, preferring to focus on the subject matter in their disciplines. At the same time, and as Taylor notes, this kind of cross-disciplinary work has been going on for a long time on major campuses where new combinations of fields are continually evolving into new disciplines like regional science, biochemistry, the history of science, social psychology, and neuroscience. But these fields evolve out of existing disciplines and do not emerge de novo, as Taylor imagines that they can.

Eliminating Departments 

Crisis on Campus does have some ideas that are new and bold, but they are not necessarily constructive or practical. Taylor advances a bizarre proposal to eliminate permanent departments and reconstitute fields on the run to study particular subjects, such as water, time, money, law, and networks. After a few years, these fields would be dissolved, and professors and students would be dispersed to study new ones as they are formed. Graduate students could earn advanced degrees in any of these temporary fields, perhaps by producing films, video games, or websites in place of the traditional written dissertation.

In making such proposals, Taylor has let his imagination run far afield from the institutional realities of academic life. A college or university could never organize its affairs according to such a plan without turning its professors into dilettantes and its students into experts on the passing fashions of the hour. He expresses little appreciation for the way that scientists conduct their enterprise or how they establish new knowledge by painstaking, time-consuming research. It is good that some professors are given to flights of imagination, but also good that some have their feet planted firmly on the ground.

Nor is Taylor particularly sympathetic to the liberal arts as a discipline through which the lessons and achievements of the past are transmitted from generation to generation. He is an enthusiast for the new: new technologies, new ways of learning, new and untested patterns of academic organization. It is unusual to encounter a humanist and philosopher so completely enchanted with the possibilities of computers and online networks—undoubtedly a sign that he knows little about them. Taylor’s proposals would indeed “end the university as we know it.” Would that be a good thing? The university is in real need of reform and perhaps even an upheaval, but not of the kind that Taylor envisions.

Taylor is undoubtedly correct on one point: the financial crash and the long recession have put new pressures on colleges and universities to cut costs and eliminate superfluous programs and personnel. The “higher education bubble,” as he calls it, is bound to burst sooner or later, like the other “bubbles” we have seen. The contemporary university is to a great extent the product of a postwar American affluence that is gradually waning. Rising tuition, escalating salaries, administrative overload, and doubling and redoubling endowments are all reflections in one way or another of a steadily growing economy and a historic bull market in stocks (and the nation’s ability to borrow unlimited sums). As resources become harder to find, as families can no longer afford tuition prices, and as federal resources are withdrawn, college and university leaders will be hard pressed to maintain the gains of the past few decades. Many of the current excesses of higher education that grew out of affluence will be scaled back in an age of austerity.

* * *

A few preferred reforms in higher education based on the information contained in these three books would include these high on the list: (1) Shelve the utopian idea that every young person attend college, and along with it the dubious claim that the nation’s prosperity depends on universal college attendance. (2) Terminate nearly all Ph.D. programs in the humanities and most of them in the social sciences. (3) Replace them with postgraduate programs in the liberal arts that allow students to earn graduate degrees based upon teaching rather than research and permit them to master broad fields that cross existing disciplinary boundaries. (4) Reverse the expansion of administrative layers, especially offices and programs created to satisfy campus pressure groups. (5) Bring back general education requirements and core curricula to ensure that every undergraduate student is exposed to the important ideas in the humanities and sciences that have shaped our civilization.

No one should expect that any of these changes is likely to occur easily or soon. Despite the liberal outlook of most professors, higher education is one of the most conservative of enterprises and one of the most resistant to reform. In recent decades it has been marked more by dissolution and disintegration than by constructive reform. Most of the traditional organizational patterns inherited from the last century—specialized departments organized into colleges, tenure, graduate programs, and externally funded research—remain intact today. Colleges and universities of the future are likely to look much as they do today, except that they will operate with fewer resources and much narrower margins for excess.


This is an excerpt from James Piereson’s new book, Shattered Consensus, published by Encounter Books.

The Times Tries a New College Ranking

The New York Times is late to the game of college rankings, but the paper of record has entered with a splash. Before we get to their system, it’s useful to think about the rankings in the abstract. Maybe it seems obvious but the way an institution or a magazine ranks colleges is an expression of what the editors think is most valuable. U.S. News encourages students to consider some combination of prestigious research and classroom experience as their guide. The Center for College Affordability and Productivity asks students to consider starting salary after graduation. The Washington Monthly wants to measure schools by how many of their students go into service-oriented professions after graduation. The American Council For Trustees and Alumni looks at how many substantive courses across disciplines a student is required to take.

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Looking at Inequality in Faculty Pay

Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Company once had a policy that the CEO could not make more than five times the amount earned by the lowest entry-level employee, capping the CEO’s salary at $81,000 in the early 1980s. By 1995, though, that policy had been eliminated. It turns out that it was difficult to attract a qualified person to head what had become a $150 million company at that kind of salary.  But even this lesson from most idealistic hippies of the Green Mountain state does not seem to have deterred many liberals from promoting wage ratios as the key to solving economic inequality.

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The Great Books Make a Comeback

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By James Piereson and
Naomi Schaefer Riley

When Thomas and Lorraine Pangle, married professors of government at the University of Texas at Austin, launched a great books program for freshman this year, they expected a demand, but they weren’t prepared for just how strong it would be. With 80 slots available, the scholars program of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas received 440 applications–not only from the College of the Liberal Arts but also from the College of Natural Sciences, the engineering school, and the business school.

The UT experience is not unique. Christopher Nelson, president of St. John’s College (a great books school in Annapolis, Md.), says that his school’s applications have been stronger in the past four years than at any time since he took charge more than two decades ago. The Great Hearts Academy charter school network in Arizona now has nineteen schools and is planning more. The Classical Latin School Association, just created last year, is working with twenty schools directly and hundreds more are using parts of its curriculum. A Latin textbook for elementary grades used at many of these schools has sold 150,000 copies.

In a tight economy with so many students (and their parents) increasingly focused on career preparation, growing interest in studying Plato, Aquinas, and Locke comes as a surprise. But the vocational impulses in public schooling and the rise in homeschooling may be driving people back to the great books, says Ken Calvert, the headmaster of Hillsdale Academy, a classical elementary and high school in Michigan whose curriculum has been adopted by schools around the country. At public schools, “the emphasis these days is on the illiberal.” Education is narrowing students’ intellectual vision.  Curricula like the Common Core “see human beings as drones,” and students “never tackle the big questions about life and the nature of the universe.”

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The End of Big Time College Athletics?

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For decades critics have lamented that big time college sports have a corrupting influence on college and university campuses. Big time sports push aside the educational goals of the university, recruit athletes to campus who have little interest or aptitude for learning, turn football and basketball coaches into national celebrities, and in general create a circus atmosphere on campus that is not conducive to study and learning. Though the critics make a good case, they have had little success in taming the athletic beast on campus.  The reasons are not hard to find:  many universities rake in millions of dollars every year from television contracts, ticket sales, and the sale of athletic merchandise.  In addition, success on the football field or basketball court attracts favorable publicity and ever more donations from alumni and benefactors.

After laboring for so many years without success, the critics may finally have hit the jackpot in a decision handed down the other day by a regional division of the National Labor Relations Board.  In a stunning decision, the NLRB ruled that football players at Northwestern University are in fact employees of the institution (like janitors or cafeteria workers) and are thus entitled to form a union to bargain over pay, health benefits, and working conditions.  In reaching this decision, NLRB took into account the many hours of work players must devote to practice compared to how much time they spend in study, the degree to which they are supervised by coaches, and the millions of dollars per year garnered by the institution from its football program.   The decision strikes at the heart of big time college sports based upon the claim that athletes are student amateurs who cannot be paid for their participation on college and university teams.

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What Happened to the Great State Universities?

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According
to a new report released by the American Association of University Professors, the
gap between the salaries of faculty at private and public universities is
widening.  The “Annual Report on the
Status of the Profession” found that at the public institutions, full
professors averaged $118,054 and assistant professors $69,777, while at the
privates full professors’ average salary was $157,282 and assistant professors’
$86,189.

Even
while the rest of the economy struggles, the last decade has been a flush time
for private institutions, with endowments surging an average of 19.2 percent in
2011 and 11.9 percent in 2010, according to the National Association of College
and University Business Officers. Meanwhile things have gone steeply downhill
for public colleges and universities as legislatures across the country have
cut back on appropriations for higher education and, at the same time, have
imposed ceilings on tuition increases. 
The financial squeeze has taken a toll on the quality of instruction
offered at some of our best public institutions.  Unfortunately, the situation is likely to get
worse in the years ahead, given the condition of state and federal budgets.  

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A Campaign Against the Koch Foundation

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There is an old saying in politics that “They don’t scream unless you hurt them.”  When your adversaries scream, it is a good sign that your measures have been effective. Judged by this standard, the Koch Brothers (David and Charles) have been very effective in recent years in advancing their causes of limited government and classical liberalism, much to the discomfort of liberal foes promoting business regulation, higher taxes, and ObamaCare.

The Koch brothers have been on the receiving end of non-stop attacks from liberal journalists and academics ever since Jane Mayer published a hit piece on them last year in The New Yorker purporting to show that their contributions were behind the rise of the “Tea Party” movement.  This wildly exaggerated claim was meant to cast the Koch brothers as great villains, but villains possessed of a satanic combination of power and tactical brilliance.  In a predictable course, Mayer’s fairy tale was circulated by the columnists and editorial writers of the New York Times and from there through a network of second-level columnists and political magazines until at length it came to the attention of the credulous foot soldiers of the liberal-left who have kept the pot boiling in recent months with ever more inventive and exaggerated versions of the original lie.     
 
The latest controversy surrounding the Kochs arises from an article published last week in the St. Petersburg Times titled, “Billionaire’s Role in Hiring Decisions at Florida State University Raises Questions.”  The author insinuates that the Koch Foundation was trying to “buy off” the Economics Department at Florida State University through a $1.5 million grant (paid over six years) to hire new faculty and to support graduate fellowships under a program in “political economy and free enterprise.”  Under the grant, a three-person faculty committee was set up to review candidates for the positions, including one member designated by the Foundation.  The paper suggested that by designating a member of the review committee the Foundation was undermining academic freedom by interfering in the faculty’s right to appoint colleagues on the basis of professional competence.   

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A Small Stimulus for Colleges

In the area of higher education especially, but in most other areas too, the Stimulus bill looks more like an emergency measure designed to maintain current programs than a strategic package aimed to stimulate growth. Among others, college and university presidents are likely to be among those sorely disappointed.
Last November, shortly after the election, a group of college presidents took out a full page advertisement in the New York Times to make the case that the proposed stimulus package to be considered by the new administration should include some $50 billion for the construction of new buildings on college campuses across the country. The academic leaders argued that such expenditures were an investment in the future of the country and would, in addition, create new jobs in the short run. They estimated that this allocation would represent but 5 per cent or thereabouts of the total stimulus package, which by their reckoning would add up to something like $1 trillion. Like governors, mayors, and representatives of other interest groups, they were eager to get in line for a piece of this once-in- a-lifetime jackpot of federal largesse.

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The Betrayal Of The Academy

[This is an excerpt from a paper delivered by James Piereson at a Manhattan Institute conference on October 3, 2007, marking the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. He is Executive Director of the Center for the American University and President of the William E. Simon Foundation. The New Criterion will publish the full text of papers from the conference, some of them in slightly different forms. The proceedings of the meeting will soon be available on C-SPAN. Speakers included Robert George, Roger Kimball, Peter Berkowitz, James Miller, Heather Mac Donald and Mark Steyn.]

[Allan] Bloom claimed that the West faces an intellectual crisis because no one any longer can make a principled defense of its institutions or way of life. This is most evident in the university, which has reformed itself according to the ideas of openness, tolerance, relativism, and diversity – all of which claim that no political principles, institutions, or way of life can be affirmed as being superior to any others. This is the near-universal view among students and faculty at our leading institutions of higher learning. The tragedy here, according to Bloom, is that relativism has extinguished the real motive behind all education, which is “the search for the good life.” If all ideas and ideals are equal, there is little point in searching for the best ones.

This open-mindedness, as Bloom said, is thought to be a moral virtue that counters a dangerous vice called “absolutism,” which involves the affirmation of any set of principles or morals as objectively true. The operative assumption here is that if someone or some group affirms something to be true they will be led to oppress those who disagree. Tolerance and openness are thus the virtues required for democracy and freedom. Hitler, as it is believed, was an absolutist; his crimes followed from his absolute conviction that he was right and Germans a superior people. Democracy thus seems to rely on the belief that no one has access to the truth.

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