The Varieties of Reform

Candace DeRussy, in Raise The Towers: A Call to Good Governance, a new paper from the Texas Public Policy Foundation offers a terse round-up of problems afflicting university governance, and offers a summary of several modes of reform. Her initial diagnosis is a sharp distillation of the problem:

Paradoxically, it is the elusive dual nature of university governance itself that sustains the imperviousness of campuses to necessary reforms. This arrangement is “collegially” referred to as “shared governance,” but it is more accurately defined as a duopolistic form of management resting on near complete control of academic planning by faculties and on the tending of finances by boards and presidents. The duopoly arose in conjunction with the birth of the huge research university between the two world wars. An expanding, ever more specialized faculty was deemed most capable of making educational decisions about curriculum, faculty hiring, and academic assessment.

Fatefully for the academy, the final responsibility for campuses’ educational mission was thereby handed over from presidents and boards to specialized (guild-like) faculty not equipped to oversee the institutions’ overall and long-term well-being. Barring blatant scandal, such as the now infamous Ward Churchill fiasco, presidents and trustees have effectively bowed out of academic matters.

This permissive situation has led to the creation of layers of vested-interest groups on campuses and bred costly inefficiencies, such as redundant, over-specialized, and sometimes even foolish academic programs. These problems could easily be glossed over in an era of free-flowing funds for all “constituencies,” but not in the present.

So that’s the two-headed mule-hydra. What to do about it? DeRussy offers a brisk tour of current reform proposals in a variety of areas.

Costs and financial aid:

Reformist “guru” Richard Vedder, author of Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much, is one of the most prominent advocates of this model for higher education. In
an American Enterprise article, Vedder describes the advantages of vouchers:
They would result in greater competition and consumer power and likely alleviate “the egregious problems of the current system, including institutional neglect of … undergraduate students.”
They could “vary inversely with family income, giving more to the poor than the rich … and … [be] tied directly to student academic performance – those who do well would get more than those who do poorly.”

Part-time education:

Herb London, Hudson Institute president and former head of a successful adult education program at New York University, advocates making greater use of part-time higher education, which is cost-efficient and does not keep students out of the labor force. In a Forbes article, “Higher Ed At Lower Cost,” Peter Brimelow cites London’s view that the traditional “four-year, age-18-to-22 model is absurd” and that it inadequately serves the needs both of students and potential employers.


Current accreditation practices do not ensure institutional transparency. Mitchell Langbert recommends a two-fold consumer- and results-oriented solution, which would harness incentives and give the public information it needs to evaluate the success of campuses, that is, “a privately funded Campus Consumers Union modeled after the Consumers’ Union that produces the magazine Consumer Reports” combined with the basing of “accreditation for federal government purposes (e.g., granting of financial aid) on student performance [as measured by value-added testing…

And Grade Inflation

Harvard University Professor Harvey Mansfield took the unprecedented step of giving two grades to his students: the inflated “official” grade and the “true” grade earned by the students.And Cato Institute scholar Arnold Kling urges “external” exams (made up externally rather than by the professor teaching a class) and the grading of exams by other than the classroom professor. Kling astutely concludes that these measures “would eliminate most of the incentives for grade inflation” (pressure from students for high marks, etc.).

This is merely a sampling of the ideas offered. As a collection of many different strains of reform criticism, not all of the ideas seem equally good – required testing for college students as measures of their achievements, for one, but most items contained within are well worth considering, and several positively imperative. Look to the full report for these worthy thoughts

Anthony Paletta

Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer.

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