Tag Archives: alumni

The Perils of Student Choice

The release of SAT scores last week gives strong ammunition to proponents of a core curriculum. As reported in the Wall Street Journal , reading scores hit their lowest figure in four decades. Writing scores hit their lowest number since a writing component was added to the exam six years ago; in fact, writing scores have dropped every year except one, when they were flat.

The College Board, which administers the exam, attributes the decline to two factors. One, more second-language students are taking the exam; and two, not enough test-takers follow a core curriculum. James Montoya, vice president of College Board, is quoted to that effect in the story, and he states the case even more strongly in the College Board’s own report. In his opening remarks, Montoya asserts that “students who complete a rigorous core curriculum do better in high school; they do better on the SAT; and they are more prepared for college. This holds true across all socioeconomic and ethnic lines.”

What a contrast to the education establishment, which regards a core curriculum as narrow and authoritarian! Parents are inundated with this argument during campus tours, where backward-walking guides assure them that students have ample license in their coursework. The proliferation of choice complements trendy ideas of student empowerment and student-centered learning that caught on in the 1960s and drifted quickly up to higher education.

However, those who favor a core curriculum now have certified announcements by the College Board against a high-elective approach. They may also take heart from a survey released this week by American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Administered by Roper, the first question asked respondents if colleges and universities should force students to take classes in “core subjects” (writing, math, science, U.S. history, economics, foreign language). Fully 70 percent answered “Yes.” More than half (54 percent) of them agreed that they were “Very” or “Somewhat” surprised that many institutions do not have those requirements. Most respondents (57 percent) also said they believe schools do a “fair” or “poor” job preparing students for the job market, while 46 percent believed that institutions do not give student’s “their money’s worth.”

The combination of dissatisfaction with the overall product plus the endorsement of core curricula marks a timely opening for reformers.

The California College System under Scrutiny

A recent report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), entitled “Best Laid Plans: The Unfulfilled Promise of Public Higher Education,” explores a fair number of problems the California college system faces. However, I don’t think it covers them all.

The report states openly and rightly the problems that California’s public colleges face are not primarily a function of declining revenues. As it notes, “the real danger is a fundamental failure by today’s trustees and system leaders to apply the same creativity and thoughtfulness that informed the Master Plan to a new world of reduced resources and a shrinking tax base.”

This point is crucial. The behemoth California college system has been fed an enormous amount of money, but there is obviously a limit to how much more the citizens can provide. In just the last five years, tuition at the UC system has gone up nearly 75% and at the CSU system by nearly 85%. And California’s taxpayers already pay steep sales, property and income taxes–among the highest in the nation. It is hard to imagine that much more can be squeezed from either the students or the taxpayers.

The report documents in detail some of the dramatic problems the system faces, including:

  • Low graduation rates at the CSU system: only 17.2% of new full-time freshmen graduate within 4 years, and only 52.4% within 6 years.
  • The leaders of the California public college system have a severe Edifice Complex, looking constantly to increase the amount of buildings and other infrastructure, much of it unnecessary.
  • The leaders are also reluctant to close or consolidate low-enrollment programs, and too easily eager to add new ones.
  • There is considerable administrative bloat, with the compensation of the top administrators increasingly over-generous, even while the taxpayers and students are impoverished.

I would note some other major problems:

The California community colleges have a grotesquely high drop-out rate: only 20% of CCC students either got an AA degree or transfer to a regular college.

  • The CCC system also spends way too much on recreational courses (courses that are meant to provide recreational outlets to adults). While these courses are supposed to pay their own way, they utilize the system’s physical resources.
  • The whole CSU system has suffered endemic “mission creep” regarding remedial education. Under the wise original 1960 master plan, CSU would take only college-ready students, while those needing remedial education (in math and English) were supposed to go to the huge and inexpensive CCC system. Along the way, the CSU system developed a costly remediation system. Now, half of all incoming CSU take remedial math or English or both.
  • Professors and administrators of the CSU system have over the years pushed for more and more focus on research, with tenure-track professors expected to publish, leaving much of the teaching to adjuncts. It is unclear, to say the least, that this has really benefitted the citizens of the state.

The report calls upon the UC Regents and the CSU Trustees to reassert control and enact necessary reforms, including establishing clear measures of productivity; re-prioritizing the academic mission of the college, restoring core curricula; rewarding good teaching; cutting back on administrative bloat; and restoring academic freedom and true intellectual diversity.

I can’t help feeling that the report is an exercise in naiveté. The administrators and faculty are agents in an institution that suffers from the principal/agent problem. Because the real principals — taxpayers, students and parents — have little knowledge of and even less power over the workings of the colleges for which they pay, the agents (faculty and administrators) can run them for self-serving purposes. Until this problem is rectified by radical reform, I see little hope for change any time soon.


Gary Jason is a philosophy instructor and a senior editor of Liberty, and is the author of Dangerous Thoughts.

Higher Education’s ‘Obesity’ Problem

ACTA crowd.jpg

Open a marketing brochure for any college or university
in the United States and you’ll find an info-graphic touting the variety and
number of degree programs that the institution offers.  The more options, the rationale goes, the
more likely a student will find a desired specialty.  The distinction between programs can be
subtle, for instance “Music, General” versus “Musical Theatre,” or
Agricultural Engineering” versus “Agronomy and Crop

But the dreary fact is: higher education is in the midst
of a major financial crisis. 
Institutions’ bond ratings are falling and resources are in short
supply.   Boards of trustees must  figure out how to do more and better with
less. While administrative costs have to be examined, they are only part of the
problem.  According to former president
of the University of Northern Colorado and co-founder of the Lumina Foundation
Robert C. Dickeson, “[t]he failure of governing boards to focus on academic
programs is arguably the single greatest cause of overspending.”

This month the American Council of Trustees and Alumni
(ACTA) is sending Dr. Dickeson’s guide,
Setting Academic Priorities: A Guide to
What Boards of Trustees Can Do
to ACTA’s network of more than 13,000
trustees around the country. It provides governing boards with a framework for
establishing academic program review policies that direct resources to
mission-critical areas of their institutions without neglecting students’ needs.
 Of course, achieving this goal must
entail consolidating some academic programs into larger, more cost-effective
units or eliminating them.  

Continue reading Higher Education’s ‘Obesity’ Problem

What Will They Learn? Not That Much

The redoubtable Anne Neal, President of ACTA, has released a survey entitled “What Will They Learn?” – a sobering analysis of general education in the nation’s colleges and universities. The report covers major public and private institutions in all 50 states.

Each of the higher education institutions was assigned a letter grade from “A” to “F” based on the requirement seven core subjects: composition, U.S. government or history, economics, literature, math, science, and foreign languages. 

The results are troubling. Only 5 percent of those in the survey require economics. Slightly less than 20 percent require intermediate level foreign language. Moreover, cost is not correlated to quality. The higher the tuition, the more likely it is that students are left without guidance on general education subjects.

Continue reading What Will They Learn? Not That Much

ACTA Examines General Education Requirements

ACTA has published its 2011-2 edition of What Will They Learn?, a study that examines, in basic terms, what 1007 colleges and universities around the country require from their students. The entire study is worth reading–and features an easy-to-use website–but I consider two aspects of ACTA’s findings particularly significant.

First, military academies fare quite well in ACTA’s study. Army and Air Force both require courses in composition, literature, U.S. government or history, math, science, and economics; Navy requires all of these subjects except for economics. Somewhat surprisingly, given their mission, none of the three require foreign language study, but otherwise all three provide a quality liberal arts fare.

Continue reading ACTA Examines General Education Requirements

Dartmouth Foils Its Donors


It’s a constant skirmish between donors seeking to fund specific scholarly projects at universities and the universities’ administrators, who would typically like to see as much of that money as possible go to “unrestricted” uses–that is, whatever the administrators, not the donors, deem  the best use of the funds. And nowadays, with universities’ endowment values falling during the current recession, “best use of the money” can often mean covering deficits in the universities’ general operating budgets, deficits sometimes occasioned by wasteful spending on grandiose campus construction projects or–even worse in the eyes of some donors–ideological projects such as “diversity” and “sustainability” offices only marginally connected to the delivery of higher education.

Hence the recent and increasingly widespread phenomenon of the “levy”–a rake-off by administrators of a percentage of the income from endowed programs and endowed professor’s chairs, ostensibly to cover overhead and other “associated program costs,” as universities call them, but in fact a bit of naked budget-balancing. Such was the case in late May, when top administrators of Dartmouth College announced that it planned to increase, as of the fiscal year that began July 1, the percentage of its levy from 14.29 percent to 19.1 percent. Dartmouth administrators announced that the nearly 33 percent levy hike would raise $2 million that would have previously gone to endowment recipients but now would help close Dartmouth’s $100 million budget deficit.

Continue reading Dartmouth Foils Its Donors

Why University Presidents Are Clueless About the Real World


New Pew Research Center data show that a large majority of Americans think U.S. colleges and universities offer only fair or poor value for the financial cost -but college presidents strikingly disagree, with a majority of them thinking college offers at least a good value (though college presidents are overwhelmingly pessimistic about the quality of American higher education compared to the world ten years from now). Similarly, a majority of Americans question whether college is truly affordable any more, a view that most college presidents do not share. More generally, people in the academy have views widely divergent from the mainstream of the American population.

Turning to college presidents, I think a lot of this attitudinal divide relates to the non-market environment in which colleges operate. How do you become a successful college president? You raise lots of money, which you then use to bribe the various constituents in the university community to keep them happy. The faculty you bribe with low teaching loads, good fringe benefits, and perhaps a nearby parking place. Your fellow top administrators whose support is vital you bribe with not only good salaries, but also lots of assistants who do much of the heavy lifting associated with the job. You bribe the students by giving them nice recreational and dorm facilities, and reach an implicit bargain with them to not demand much academically (hence grade inflation) and to largely ignore their hedonistic bouts of alcoholic and sexual excesses. You bribe the alumni with decent football and basketball teams and a nice campus facility where they can hang out. You bribe the trustees with whatever idiosyncratic whim they want. In short, you spend money to keep a narrow group of people associated with the Ivory Tower happy.

Contrast that with business leaders. They are motivated by profits, maximizing the gap between revenue and costs. To increase revenues, they must please vast numbers of persons with new or improved products. They also enhance profits by reducing costs, raising productivity so they can do more with less. They reward subordinates who further these goals with bonuses, stock options, etc.

Continue reading Why University Presidents Are Clueless About the Real World

A Campaign Against the Koch Foundation


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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The Big 12 – Beyond the Game

“What’s Happening Off the Field”, a new report on the Big 12 from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni suggests that all is not well beyond the playing fields. First, in a sure gauge of misplaced priorities, it’s no surprise that athletic expenditures appear to have grown at a higher rate than other expenditures at at least half of the schools. Perhaps worse, though, is a look at the other purposes to which universities are directing their spending. As the report indicates, in the five years ending in 2008 “nine of the Big 12’s institutions increased spending on administration, and they did so by an average of 59 percent.” [italics mine] Has this increase in administrative expenditure accomplished any evident improvement in the report’s other metrics, of four and six year graduation rates and freshmen retention? No, not reliably. In fact, it’s impossible to make out any reliable variation in performance in these categories between those 9 schools that increased administrative spending and the three valorous schools—Iowa State, Texas A&M, and Missouri—that slashed it. Of course, there are more complex factors at work beyond the measure of the survey, but even in an omniscient look, I doubt you’d find improvement in any category even remotely correlated with the growth of administrative spending. To hear even of 3 frugal universities is inspiring though, and let’s hope more take heed of their example.

ACTA & Its Critics

ACTA’s new, expanded survey of college general education requirements has earned justified praise. Here’s Pulitzer Prize winner Kathleen Parker, from her column this Sunday: “The study and Web site do fill a gap so that parents and students can make better choices. As a consequence, colleges and universities may be forced to examine their own responsibility in molding an educated, well-informed citizenry.”
ACTA’s guide is so significant because it provides an easy-to-use, easy-to-compare, and easily accessible portal of the general education requirements at 700 institutions. This information should be the starting point for parents as they consider where to send their sons or daughters—and it also should be a prime piece of data for alumni and trustees as they evaluate the state of their institutions. Sure, this information was previously available. But too often colleges and universities go out of their way to bury curricular material in ways to frustrate those eager for sunlight on college campuses.
A good sign of the importance of ACTA’s work comes in the fury that the study has aroused from defenders of the academic status quo. In particular, the AAC&U, the organization that has distinguished itself for its relentless assault on quality—in the name of “diversity”—in higher education, belittled ACTA’s efforts.

Continue reading ACTA & Its Critics

Sail with Condi And Gorby For $40,000 Or So

At several universities this summer, hope will float and perestroika will pay. At the end of August, Princeton, Harvard, Smith, Stanford, and Yale are taking the currying of favor with wealthier alumni seabound. For the fifth straight year, Princeton and other sponsoring universities are joining forces with a for-profit, West-coast speakers and travel bureau, this time offering a new five-star “post-perestroika” cruise along the Black Sea.
The 15-day voyage from August 30 to September 15th along the shores of Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Turkey features three Perestroika superstars — President Bush’s former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Defense Secretary William Perry and Russia’s own Mikhail Gorbachev as guest speakers. Only one of the “distinguished world leaders,” as the Princeton brochure advertizing the cruise calls them, will keep company with the alumni aboard ship for the entire cruise, mind you. The brochure notes, and a spokesman for Princeton’s alumni relations office confirms, that Ms. Rice will be aboard ship for only three days, and Mr. Gorbachev for only one. Indeed, Ms. Rice and Mr. Gorbachev will not even overlap. But when the three foreign policy celebrities are not on board, passengers will be hearing from other expert speakers – among them, James H. Billington, a former history professor at Princeton and the Librarian of Congress since 1987, Marvin Kalb, the former chief diplomatic reporter for NBC and professor emeritus at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center, and Vinton G. Cerf, vice president and chief Internet promoter for Google, widely regarded as one of the “fathers of the Internet.”
The brochure says that this floating faculty at sea, including the Perestroika superstars, will lead fellow passengers in discussions of such topics as “Russia’s relations with Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan” and “how the West can best engage Russia and the former Soviet republics in facing global challenges such as nuclear proliferation, increasingly scare energy resources, and economic decline.”
Alumni in personal economic decline, however, might hesitate signing up for the voyage. Education aboard the Silver Wind, a small luxury cruise liner owned by an Italian company that the travel company charters, is pricey. The ship’s least expensive of its 149 cabins, the “Vista Suite,” which features a 240-square foot bedroom and a picture window, goes for $23,990 per person in a two-person cabin, or $39,990 for a single passenger. Its luxury bookend, the Grand Suite, 1,019 square feet of space with a teak veranda and floor-to-ceiling doors, costs $39,990. That is not counting the airfare to Moscow, where the program originates – a round-trip $1,558 per person (economy) ticket, or $3,658 per person for business class seats.

Continue reading Sail with Condi And Gorby For $40,000 Or So

The Dartmouth Case

At the Volokh Conspiracy, Todd Zywicki outlines the latest in the Dartmouth alumni suit against Dartmouth College.

The current case, like the previous case, arises from the 1891 Agreement between the Dartmouth Trustees and the alumni of the College, acting through the Association of Alumni, that gave the alumni the right to elect half of the non-ex officio members of the Board of Trustees. At the time, the Board was comprised of 12 members, of which 2 served ex officio (the Governor of New Hampshire and the Dartmouth president). Upon striking the agreement, over the next two years, 5 of the appointed trustees resigned and were replaced with elected trustees. Over time, the size of the board expanded, and by the time I was elected a trustee in 2005 there were 8 elected Alumni Trustees, 8 appointed Charter Trustees, and the Governor and College president as ex officio members. As I have discussed in detail elsewhere, the 1891 Agreement was the culmination of decades of negotiations between the trustees and college administration on one hand and the alumni on the other.
In 2007 after a string of petition trustees were elected to the Board, a majority of trustees voted to impose a board-packing plan, which added 8 new appointed seats to the board, making 16 appointed and 8 elected trustees. I won’t rehash that here, except to point interested readers to my earlier discussions as well as the Court’s excellent opinion which held that the plaintiffs in that case stated valid claims both on contract and promissory estoppel theories. Importantly, the Court also held that the Association of Alumni had standing to sue and capacity to contract in that case, as well as to provide valid consideration, such as administering the Alumni Trustee elections. For purposes of analysis on the current summary judgment motion, I am going to take it as given that the underlying contract claim is valid.
In Spring 2008, however, the alumni leaders who brought the suit had to stand for reelection and were voted out of office. The winning slate of alumni loyal to the trustees and administration dismissed the suit. Their campaign position had been that the alumni should have “negotiated” more with the trustees before bringing suit. As the current plaintiffs note in their most recent brief, it thus came as quite a surprise when the suit was dismissed with prejudice, with the deliberate intent to try to foreclose a future lawsuit if negotiations broke down (it doesn’t actually work, as will be discussed below). After all I’ve seen over the past few years, I thought that I was beyond being shocked by the sort of behavior described in the plaintiffs’ brief, but I confess that this surprised even me. The College has not contested any of the claims in the briefs of the current plaintiffs with respect to the collusive behavior of the AoA leadership in settling the prior case. Read the first 10 pages of so of the plaintiffs’ brief if you want to get a flavor of what happened.

Read on for a fascinating outline of the legal questions involved.

Another Success Story

A recent report by American Council of Trustees and Alumni entitled “What Will They Learn?” makes clear that the steady deterioriation of general education at the best colleges continues apace. The report studied general education requirements at 100 top schools and found that “Topics like U.S. government or history, literature, mathematics, and economics have become mere options on far too many campuses.” Indeed, my own university dropped its U.S. history requirement a year ago, replacing it with a watery “History, Society, Culture” that allows just about everything to count.
The upshot is that one can no longer rely on the ordinary curriculum to ensure a solid liberal education for all students. This is one reason why we need special undergraduate programs, centers, and institutes that emphasize broad learning in civics and history, and provide students a forum for the discussion of ideas and ideologies. I highlighted one of them awhile back, the Alexander Hamilton Institute in Clinton, NY, run by Bob Paquette and providing students a home for the reasoned and critical study of Western civilization.
Another one is the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville. It was established back in 1991 by Senator Mitch McConnell, who graduated from Louisville 27 years earlier. The goal of the center is to educate students to become engaged and informed citizens, and so it hosts luncheons, seminars, panel discussions, and lectures with undergraduates as full participants. Gary Gregg, the Director, holds the Mitch McConnell Chair in Leadership at the university, and his writings The Presidential Republic, Patriot Sage: George Washington and the American Political Tradition and Securing Democracy—Why We Have an Electoral College.
The curriculum of the Center emphasizes civics education, and it developed expressly as a response to “the national problem of declining classroom emphasis on American history and civics education, abysmal student knowledge of the American Constitution and political processes, and a growing detachment of young people from the political process.” The programs and events the Center organizes remedy the knowledge deficit by offering scholarships to young people interested in a broad education in political science and the liberal arts, along with internships that give them direct exposure to U.S. politics in action.

Continue reading Another Success Story

Another Award For Our Writer

Tomorrow KC Johnson will receive the fifth annual Phillip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. The award honors honors “individuals who advance liberal arts education, core curricula, and the teaching of Western civilization and American history.” KC has undoubtedly advanced these goals. He follows distinguished honorees Donald Kagan, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Harvey Mansfield, and Robert George. Congratulations to KC.

Wonder How The Clout Scandal Happened?

ACTA’s latest publication, “For the People: A Report Card on Public Higher Education in Illinois” has unearthed more of the usual disappointments. In a series of rankings, General Education requirements earned an F, with only three public universities (out of eight) indicating a foreign language requirement “and not a single institution received credit for Literature U.S. Government or History, or Economics.” Rankings for intellectual diversity also came out with an F. ACTA commissioned a research group to conduct a student survey, and the results were less than encouraging. 61% of students responded in the affirmative to the assertion that “some courses have readings that present only one side of a controversial issue.” In response to the proposal “some professors frequently comment on politics in my class even though it has nothing to do with the course” 38.6% of respondents agreed.
The most striking survey findings, however, came in the areas of Governance and Cost and Effectiveness. In many key areas, the boards of the University of Illinois System and the Southern Illinois University System (I didn’t know they were separate until now either) seem to be living up to all the traditional responsibilities of a rubber stamp.
Both systems garnered another set of Fs in these rankings. The ACTA report points out that there are no listings by which the public may contact trustees directly (as is possible in other states). Aside from a one-day session of meetings there are additionally no efforts to appraise the trustees of their responsibilities or provide them with outside advice. There seem to be few meaningful committees to assess significant criteria of university operation.

Continue reading Wonder How The Clout Scandal Happened?

Restoring A Core

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has released a trustee guide Restoring a Core as a follow-up to What Will They Learn, their recent survey of core curricula (more about that here) Take a look at the “How Will A Core Benefit My Institution” section beginning on page 4 for some interesting examples from SUNY and Booklyn College and the following pages for practical advice on how to encourage the adoption of a core.

Wonder If There’s A Core Curriculum?

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has unveiled a new site, www.whatwilltheylearn.com, that provides a survey of core curriculum requirements at 100 American Universities. They evaluate the existence of requirements in 7 areas: Composition, Literature, Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Science. Suffice it to say that most colleges required don’t ask much of their students in any of these areas.
I took a look at a few colleges with core curricula of which I was aware. Columbia University, for one, included the notes that “No credit given for Mathematics because math courses are part of the Science course list but are not required” and that its “Core Curriculum offers students an integrated and rich curriculum.”
There’s a nicely detailed portrait also offered of the numerous schools (most on the list) that lack a core curriculum but do possess “distribution requirements” which range from the hopelessly vague to the fairly substantive. Here spring up numerous additional notes: at Johns Hopkins “No credit given for Composition because only writing-intensive topic courses in a range of disciplines are required” or at Harvard “No credit given for U.S. Government or History because the United States in the World requirement is made up of niche courses.”
The site’s certainly worth a look. Do wander over.

The Cambridge Empire Strikes Back

By Harvey Silverglate With Kyle Smeallie
Harvard University may be losing money like a hard-luck high-roller, but the Vegas tagline (what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas) certainly does not apply: what happens at Harvard reaches well beyond the Cambridge confines. For better or for worse, many schools follow in Harvard’s footsteps. What better place, then, to effect change in American higher education than a place where other schools—at least until the recent economic meltdown—have been green with Crimson envy?
Such was the premise behind my insurgent campaign for a seat on the Board of Overseers, one of Harvard’s two governing boards. Dismayed by the lack of principled oversight (a key reason, I suspect, for Harvard’s recent financial woes) and the general illiberal culture of his alma mater, I spent months trying to convince alumni to elect me to the board. In early June, however, Harvard officials informed me that my bid for a six-year term on the 30-member board came up a bit short.
In defeat, I learned the very same lesson that Harvard Law School alum Barack H. Obama (Law School class of 1991) learned when he ran as a petition candidate in the 1991 Overseers election: Input from outsiders—those unwilling to place collegiality over candor—is unwanted.

Continue reading The Cambridge Empire Strikes Back

New ACTA Report

ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, has just published a report on grade inflation. “Measuring Up: The Problem of Grade Inflation and What Trustees Can Do” can be read online at the ACTA site or purchased in hard copy for $5. Click here for more information.

How Dartmouth Thwarted Its Alumni

Given their common characteristics it’s often difficult for a person of even superior discernment to tell, from a slight distance, the difference between an accomplished university bureaucrat and a robust brick wall. Both seem witlessly to beg for the wrecking ball. The nation’s nine colonial colleges—not to mention the hundreds founded since—are thronged with administrative employees whose job it is to justify the outsized administration of the college or university that employs them. On the whole, these congeries of deans report that things are not going very well, that manifold “issues” of tremendous consequence beg resolution, and that, darn it, they just need more manpower. They recommend more deans.

And they are generously obliged on that score. The fact that, on the margin, American colleges now privilege the task of thickening the ranks of bureaucrats over that of educating their students is one reason that alumni—whose gifts are the lifeblood of the colonial institutions, at least—are in “revolt” mode, to use The Wall Street Journal’s word. At the front of the fight, facing across the wind-swept college green the marshaled deanery, are the students and alumni of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Reacting to all manner of absurdities—such as the fact that from 2001 to 2006, Dartmouth added twice as many administrators as faculty members—Dartmouth alumni have voted in, four times in a row since 2004, activist trustees who pledged to hold the College’s executives to account. At most publicly traded companies the election by the shareholders of an activist board-member cues, if not a resignation, then at least an episode of doleful reckoning on the part of the chief executive. At Dartmouth, the election of four independent trustees resulted in ever more pitched protests from the cocksure deanery; like any bureaucracy, it had become so thoroughly insulated from external inquiry that the notion of it having erred was imponderable.
After the fourth independent trustee was elected in May of 2007, the rubber-stamp set decided to attenuate the fractious independents by “packing” Dartmouth’s board. Traditionally half alumni-elected and half self-appointed, the Board under a September 2007 plan would become two-thirds self-appointed and one-third elected – in consequence castrating the elected minority.

Continue reading How Dartmouth Thwarted Its Alumni

Why I Am Running For Harvard’s Board Of Overseers

By Robert L. Freedman A.B. ’62

I am running as a petition candidate for Harvard’s Board of Overseers to help Harvard College improve itself.

I have been interested in higher education – and in particular in what is taught and how it is taught – since graduating from the College in 1962. I have the time, the interest and the energy to try to make a difference.

There is ferment in the world of higher education. When a former Harvard College Dean publishes a book about Harvard subtitled How a Great University Forgot Education, and when a former Harvard President publishes a book about colleges subtitled A Candid Look At How Much Students Learn And Why They Should Be Learning More, you know it’s time to get involved.

College is when people are most open to learning. Afterwards their intellectual horizons narrow. It is a major loss if part of those key four years is wasted in a class with a poor teacher or in a subject of only ephemeral importance.

Harvard has two governing boards. The Harvard Corporation (officially the President and Fellows of Harvard College) is a Massachusetts non-profit corporation with seven members. Vacancies are filled by the remaining members. So it is a self-perpetuating board – as are most non-profit boards.

The second governing board is the Overseers (officially the Board of Overseers of Harvard College). Despite their official name, their writ covers the entire University. They have been elected by all the alums since 1921. In April of each year Harvard mails ballots to all one-third of a million Harvard degree holders (except faculty members). Five alums are elected every year for 6 year terms, for a total of 30 Overseers.

The alumni association annually solicits names of possible candidates from the alums, and then nominates eight candidates for the five positions. The eight candidates generally are diverse in terms of occupation, geographical location, gender, ethnicity and race.
These elections are usually non-events. Typically ninety percent of the alums do not bother to vote, perhaps because they believe who is elected makes no difference.

But every once in a while something different happens, because any alum can become a petition candidate upon obtaining the signatures of about 250 alums on official Harvard ballots (that is what I did). Nineteen years ago, when divestiture of South African securities from the endowment was a hot issue, Barack Obama ran as a petition candidate. He lost. The handful of petition candidates over the years believed, like Obama, that certain important issues were not being properly addressed by the powers-that-be. In my case those issues are educational: teaching methods, the curriculum, the quality of student life and the high costs of college.

Harvard is aware of these issues and has made some important progress. But the Overseers have not been in the forefront of pushing for changes. I am running as a petition candidate because, as former Harvard President Derek Bok – in a most careful and thoughtful critique of colleges – recently wrote, reform is too difficult to accomplish solely from within. A push from outside is needed. And a push from a friend is much better than waiting until a crisis develops and an unfriendly heavy hand intrudes.

A more active Board of Overseers should make it its business to understand students’ views. As our college experience recedes into the past, most of us lose touch with exactly how we felt and what we thought then. A good sign is that recently, apparently for the first time in living memory, a group of Overseers actually met with a group of students. That modest and long overdue first step could be the beginning of a process to acquaint the Overseers with the college’s “customers”.

There is lots to be done. Change is in the air. As a recent President said, If not now, when? If not us, who? Together we can make a difference. Let’s do so.
Robert L. Freedman is a senior partner of the international law firm, Dechert LLP. He is a 1962 graduate of Harvard College. His campaign site can be found here.

No Quarter For Nichol

Although the mainstream media would have you believe he was a martyr to religious fundamentalists and moral Pecksniffs, Gene Nichol lost his job as president of the College of William and Mary in Virginia for only one reason: he was a lousy administrator who seemed not to be able to get it into his head that one of the main jobs of a college president is to raise money from alumni and others and thus to cultivate good public relations for the institution he represents. Nichol seemed to think that he had been hired by the college’s governing Board of Visitors in 2005 to thumb his nose at sundry traditionalists, and his in-your-face actions cost William and Mary at least one $12 million donation along with a great deal of good will among Virginia citizens toward the venerable and highly rated liberal-arts school.

Yes, William and Mary, located adjacent to the famous colonial-days tourist site in Williamsburg, Va., is a state-run institution, as Nichol never ceased reminding the many critics of his unilateral decision last November to remove a 70-year-old cross from the altar of the college’s historic Wren Chapel, which dates almost to the college’s founding in 1693. Like many quality state schools, William and Mary is highly dependent on private donations to cover its costs, especially since the state of Virginia has been steadily reducing its contribution to the college’s budget, cutting $3 million in 2007. Alumni and generous Virginia citizens are important stakeholders at William and Mary.

The cross, donated to the chapel by a William and Mary alumnus in 1931 and symbolizing William and Mary’s Anglican heritage, had been the subject of no known complaints by students. The Wren Chapel has been regularly used for non-Christian religious services as well as secular functions for several decades, and when non-Christians used the space, they simply removed the cross temporarily. Nichol decided, in the fall of 2006, without consulting anyone, that the cross violated the First Amendment’s ban on establishment of religion so he had it removed. After a huge uproar among students, alumni, and members of the Board of Visitors, Nichol allowed the return of the cross, although in a glass display case.

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Alumni Preferences: Affirmative Action’s Dear Friend.

The New York Times offers a good look at alumni preferences today, particularly in its account of legal challenges to the practice. There’s only been one court case to directly consider the practice, and that, made by a federal judge in 1976 in Durham, found the practice rationally supported, as it generated universities money, and no legal offense, as (in the words of the Times)”neither race nor fundamental rights were directly implicated.” This adjudication seems to have been very reasonable. The article admirably points out another legal avenue that may prove helpful at battering down the walls of privilege – the ending of racial preferences, as Clarence Thomas suggested in 2003:

“Were this court to have the courage to forbid the use of racial discrimination in admissions,” Justice Thomas wrote, “legacy preferences (and similar practices) might quickly become less popular – a possibility not lost, I am certain, on the elites (both individual and institutional) supporting the law school in this case.”

The twin reign of affirmative action and legacy preferences perfectly define the woozy balancing act of the modern university. Michael Olivas, a law professor at the University of Houston, points out in the article that “being eligible for legacy preferences is a near-perfect proxy for being white.” Absolutely – rather like being eligible for affirmative action is a near-perfect proxy for being a non-Asian minority. Universities line their pocketbooks with sweetheart deals for alumni children while assuaging their guilt with racial preferences. They can maximize both profit and moral righteousness at the same time. Great for them. What suffers? Well, blowsy rhetoric about admitting the best and the brightest. They’re let in after more deserving applicants.

Donors – Remember Princeton

The case of the Robertson Foundation versus Princeton University has not, after nearly five years of litigation, yet come to trial. But it’s already shaping up to be the most expensive donor intent case in history. Reports of spending by the Robertson family differ, but news reports indicate the family may have spent as much as $20 million trying to sever their foundation from Princeton University control.

As for Princeton, an article that appeared in the Daily Princetonian in October stated that the university had, so far, committed $22 million to defending itself. Princeton is so deeply committed that in June the university won a suit against its insurer, a subsidiary of the giant firm American International Group. The insurer, according to an article in the Newark Star-Ledger, balked at paying more than $5 million under Princeton’s policy. The courts ordered AIG to give Princeton another $10 million. (AIG, however, plans to appeal.)

The stakes are high because the Robertson Foundation constitutes around eight percent of Princeton’s endowment with a value of $850-900 million. But the case also involves the issue of what rights the donor has over whether his gift would be used or misused.

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College Sports Bonanza

Senator Grassley, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, has turned his attention to the tax status of collegiate athletic programs – wondering “what gives the IRS comfort that they have met the requirements of being a charity.”

The Chronicle furnishes Grassely abundant cause to wonder, reporting that athletics donations now amount to more than a quater of funds received by some universities:

The fresh concerns came in response to a Chronicle article, published online last week, suggesting that contributions to sports programs are eating up an ever-larger share of donations to colleges, and that some athletics programs entice donors with perquisites like free seats on teams’ charter flights.
“When I hear stories about top donors to college athletic programs getting a free seat on the team plane,” Mr. Grassley said in a written statement, “I wonder what the public gets out of that. We need to make sure that taxpayer subsidies for college athletics-program donations benefit the public at large.”

Grassley’s very right to wonder about this. The second Chronicle article is sure cause for alarm, detailing sophisticated athletics fundraising operations operating independently of University development departments. Its unclear what if any benefit these increasingly self-contained operations are providing schools, and good cause to examine their tax status accordingly.

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