In Savannah, Georgia, an ambitious experiment in higher education is under way. Ralston College aims to offer a back-to-basics liberal arts experience , stripped of the amenities and assumptions of the modern university. Though just now getting off the ground–it has yet to accept student applications–its stated mission is clear. Students will experience rigorous coursework year-round and focus on “reading books, thinking about them, and talking about them,” according to the college’s brochure.
Perhaps more noteworthy is what Ralston College intends not to have: armies of administrators micromanaging student life, cloistered academic departments unwelcoming to interdisciplinary studies, and coddled students whose sentiments and comforts, as supposed “customers,” are paramount.
It is too early to tell how this experiment will play out. But its mere existence is rather remarkable. In a country with some 4,400 degree-granting institutions of higher education, a market niche is apparently opening for the classic pursuit of the liberal arts.
How have our colleges and universities strayed so far from their educational mission? In practical terms, what campus characteristics tell us that something is amiss? If what has befallen American higher education can be considered a disease, what are the symptoms?
As I have written previously on this site, a new campus paradigm started to emerge in the mid-1980s. The terms of debate on certain hot-button issues—race, gender, and sexual identity, to name a few—began to be prescribed from on-high. At the same time college disciplinary tribunals began to shed notions of fair procedure as well as rational fact-finding mechanisms. The modern, newly intolerant university was taking shape. Where free speech once carried the day, expression deemed unacceptable by administrators now carried swift punishment.
Professor Alan Charles Kors and I dubbed this radically altered campus “The Shadow University” in our 1998 book of that title. After its publication, we began to receive urgent and often frantic requests for advice and help from beleaguered students, and occasionally from accused faculty members. We launched the non-partisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Its stated mission was, and still is, “to defend and sustain individual rights at America's colleges and universities.”
Yet despite FIRE’s remarkable record for obtaining redress in the vast majority of its cases, some people continue to deny the accuracy and fairness of the campus critique in The Shadow University and the findings of FIRE. So let me lay out what underlies my criticism and summarize the characteristics that mark, sadly, the majority of our colleges and universities.
The Offices of Student Life
When American higher education began to open up to groups previously denied access on the basis of gender, race, or religion, campus administrators responded with a decidedly paternalistic—one could even say panicked—approach. Fearing hostility among such newly heterogeneous student bodies, administrators moved to intervene. These young adults could not be trusted, it was assumed, to engage in either academic disputation or interpersonal relations without direction from a new type of student-life administrator. Hence, the “diversity” industry was born, presenting the academic world with a new breed of bureaucrat whose mission, whether necessary or not, was to keep the peace and protect the students from one another. Over time, this mission began to include giving firm guidance to students as to how to navigate the new campus environment without—advertently or inadvertently—giving “offense” to members of what were labeled “historically disadvantaged groups.”
Some universities, such as Harvard, were early to build up such student life bureaucracies, while others, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, more focused on the rational thought process deemed fundamental to the study of science and engineering (in contrast to the often fuzzier liberal arts), came later to this transformation. But few, if any, of today’s campuses have avoided the burgeoning student-life bureaucracy.
Civil liberties and civil rights, bedfellows on campus for years, were suddenly considered to be in conflict, at least in the eyes of administrators. As the trend continued of punishing students for controversial expression—and phrases like “verbal assault” seeped into the collegiate lexicon—civil liberties appeared to take a backseat. It did not occur to administrators that this form of social engineering on campus—dictating what students may and may not say—rarely, if ever, is found beyond the ivy walls. Nor did they appear to appreciate the negative impact of punishing expression that would otherwise be allowed in the world at-large. (This is to say nothing of the patronizing attitude that sees certain groups as too vulnerable to experience expression that may be upsetting but nonetheless protected in a free constitutional democracy.)
Data gathered over the past two decades illustrate the point. A report published last year by the nonprofit Goldwater Institute found that, from 1993 to 2007, the number of administrators for every 100 college students increased by 39 percent, while the number of professors and researchers saw just an 18 percent rise over the same time span. The year 2006 marked the first time that administrators officially outnumbered faculty as full-time employees on campus. Since then, their ranks have steadily grown, while the professoriate has withered. In the context of our current economic climate, administrative expenditures are nothing short of obscene. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 71,758 new non-teaching positions were added at American colleges and universities between 2006 and 2009. Taking a modest estimate of the average administrative salary ($50,000 per year), we’re left with the following picture: Over the course of the worst economic recession in some 80 years, American higher education has spent roughly $3.6 billion dollars on additional non-educational employees. Even as faculties, course offerings, and campus educational facilities were being cut back, campus life bureaucracies have managed to expand.
This staying power is due, at least in part, to the fast-growing networks of professional organizations for campus administrators, characterized by pseudo-academic studies and faux “research” claiming to shed light on the exigencies of student life. They function, on the whole, as institutional underpinnings for the now-widespread imperative to produce such a “safe” campus environment that all risk—and, consequently, much of life and learning—are wrung out of student life. One such group, the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association (NaBITA), sees it as its mission to make campuses “safer through caring prevention and intervention.” A recently-published NaBITA report, “Preventing the Preventable,” which outlined steps to “empower” a “culture” of reporting suspicious student behavior, seemed to acknowledge its Orwellian overtones. It’s worth quoting at length:
If the sense is that the [Behavioral Intervention Team] is intended as a Big Brother, tracking people and incidents so that we can kick students out, we will inhibit the culture of reporting, stigmatize mental health, and characterize the team's function as punitive. Our message from the outset needs to counter any tendency toward that perception, and the best way to do that is with a simple, consistent message about the team. Our purpose is to be caring and preventive. Buy-in is easy on that concept. Stakeholders will take stakes in those outcomes. It's non-threatening, positive, and possible. Your marketing task is to convince the members of your community of the benevolence of your purpose.
Rather than taking a step back to consider whether a push for “intervention” actually inhibits student life, the group instead implores its members to persuade others of “the benevolence of your purpose.”
Of course, the professional industry that has sprung up around this administrative class is only part of the story. A contributing factor to this bureaucratic growth has been the modern university’s arms race in fund-raising. The Chronicle of Higher Education offered a telling snapshot as to how the ever-present and constantly growing demand for donations has, at one university, spawned an entire office of non-teaching employees. Profiling the “epitome of the new college dean” at Columbia University, the Chronicle explained how these campus figures, formerly academic leaders within the faculty, are being relied upon more than ever as outwardly-focused fund-raisers. Columbia is compensating for the dean’s campus absence by hiring a massive support staff devoted both to taking over his now-neglected academic leadership functions and supporting his newly-acquired fundraising role. As the Chronicle reports, what began as a single full-time vice dean position in 2009 has spawned:
positions that include a vice dean for research; a vice dean for academic affairs, focusing on graduate education; an adviser for undergraduate education; a senior associate dean for industry, government, and global education; an associate dean for advancement; and a director of strategic communications. The positions included new full-time positions, new half-time positions that were given to faculty members, and redefined jobs from existing positions. The dean paid for them by reallocating money in the school's budget.
This is not to lay exclusive or even excessive blame on one particular institution. Rather, it is to say that the across-the-board impulse to ramp up fund-raising efforts and capital campaigns comes with a price. It’s hard to avoid the reality that bottom-line-focused universities, as they fill offices with non-teaching staff and redirect academic deans into administrative fund-raisers, drift from their time-tested mission to impart knowledge.
The Corporatization of the Academy: Customers and Their Spaces
The imperative to generate increasingly high levels of revenue at colleges and universities has long drawn criticism, and many observers of higher education have pointed out that these qualities are more appropriately found in the business sector. But this is certainly not the only manifestation of a trend I call the “corporatization” of higher education.
Colleges and universities are obsessed with pleasing their “customers” (i.e., students and, often, parents as well). Unless one understands this trend, it is hard to fathom why so much time and money have gone into building elaborate dormitories and exquisite social facilities; why less homework is all the rage; why seasonal “breaks” have become longer while classroom time has gotten drastically shorter; or why an outsized emphasis has been placed on keeping students entertained. Two recent incidents at Harvard illuminate the point. (In discussing these phenomena in American higher education, I often cite Harvard as an example. I do so not necessarily because Harvard is worse than other institutions, but rather because Harvard’s lessons have been widely replicated by other institutions that, left to their own devices, might have resisted these trends.)
During the recent (and interrupted) presidency of Lawrence Summers, I noted what appeared to be an unseemly emphasis on the construction of social facilities, including the implementation of a plan to put café chairs and tables on the lawn in Harvard Yard. This occurred at the same time that athletic facilities were being upgraded, cafés were being constructed in dormitories and other university buildings, and the campus was generally taking on the look-and-feel of a hotel-and-conference complex. I asked President Summers why the university was devoting so many resources to such creature comforts, and his reply was as honest as it was disturbing: In order to compete with other universities; Harvard, too, must please its customers.
Later, under the presidency of Summers’s successor Drew Gilpin Faust, the economic crisis prodded university planners and administrators to frantically trim what were suddenly seen as unnecessary or excessive expenditures. At a March 2010 lecture at the Harvard Club of New York Faust was asked by one of the gathered alumni where she was thinking of trimming expenses. Her answer startled me as much as Summers’s reply to my query about creature comforts. Faust said she had ordered a review of all of Harvard’s many libraries, with an eye toward cutting duplication of books! Two months later, I read in The Harvard Crimson that the university was indeed closing the Quad Library. Associated with one of the undergraduate houses, this library was long a refuge for serious students wanting to study or fetch a book without having to walk to the main Widener Library. And to what use was the administration planning to put the soon-to-be-liberated area? “Social spaces for student groups,” The Harvard Crimson reported.
There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with creating space on campus for students to interact. But when this comes at the expense of a library, one must question an institution’s priorities, particularly those of the self-styled “World’s Greatest University.”
The Reign of the General Counsel
While it may be true that the class of mid-level administrators has grown considerably, no one would assert that they run the whole show. Just who does, to outside observers, often comes as a surprise: the in-house general counsel. For better or worse, the modern college or university is, in most instances, run primarily by the lawyers.
This startling and not exactly sanguine development grows in large measure out of the increasing role of federal and state legislation in the daily life of our colleges, which regulate everything from the physical accoutrements of our campuses to the often-complex rules by which faculty and students are governed. As such, when a college or university gets involved in some situation or problem that previously would have been resolved by the application of what used to be called “common sense” exercised by either a professor or an administrator, today no such decision is made without consultation with, if not outright dictation by, the general counsel or one of his or her numerous assistants.
Whereas previously colleges and universities employed outside law firms to give legal advice when needed, today few universities, public or private, are without an in-house general counsel. This development deprives the institution of legal advice from the more distanced vantage point from which outside attorneys speak. Instead, the university acts in accordance with the increasingly parochial and bureaucratic point of view of in-house counsel. These lawyers have become quintessential administrators to whom “No trouble on my watch” is the guiding principle. Institutions, previously distinguished by a culture willing and able to shatter long-standing orthodoxies, now take on an attitude that does not allow for many boundaries to be challenged, much less shattered. This ethos has seeped into the student body, where inquiring minds now think twice before daring to voice, in public, ideas and attitudes that deviate from the prevailing campus culture.
Some years ago I was startled to learn that immediately next to the office of the president of Harvard University is that of the general counsel. Not an academic dean, nor a provost, but a lawyer. And, indeed, Harvard’s Office of General Counsel went from a single lawyer in the 1970’s to a total of 14 full-time lawyers today. (This is separate from the many law firms that the university uses for specialized advice and representation, as well as most litigation.) By 1982, “vice president” was appended to the official title of Harvard’s General Counsel, a reflection of “his additional administrative responsibilities,” according to the Harvard Gazette. MIT, coming late to the administrative university, appointed its first general counsel in 2007. That office is now growing rapidly, along with the student life bureaucracy—apparently making up for lost time.
As a result of the increasingly powerful reign of the lawyers, many issues are decided not on the basis of what is conducive to teaching and learning, but rather in response to the ever-hovering question: How can the college reduce its legal liability and avoid being sued? And so when, for example, a student accuses another student of a sexual assault, the disciplinary tribunal on many campuses tends to give excessive deference to the accuser, at the expense of the accused, for fear of being charged with some form of gender discrimination or a laissez faire attitude toward harassment. The same attention to liability-reduction may be found in numerous decisions made by campus tribunals or administrators.
Even parodies in student-edited campus publications frequently become the target of disciplinary deans, lest some member of a particular group, defined by race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability status, feel insulted or “marginalized.” The frequency with which FIRE, for example, is called up by student writers and editors to try to explain to deans why parody and satire are protected forms of expression rather than “assaults” is as disturbing as it is astonishing.
The Medium Is the Message
No corporatized entity would be true to its purpose without having a public relations operation that keeps the institution “on message,” particularly when something goes wrong. Indeed, it is a very rare campus that does not have, at a fairly high administrative level, a “vice-president for public and community relations” or some such title.
Again, I use Harvard as the example, although this trend toward PR is hardly unique to that campus. Consider President Lawrence Summers and the well-known imbroglio following his suggestion that more research was needed in order to understand why academic women were less successful in mathematics and the sciences than their male counterparts.
When Summers was teetering on the brink of losing his presidency, he chose not to explain his hypothesis; instead, he relied on an obviously canned statement. In a January 2005 letter to “Members of the Harvard Community,” Summers announced that he was sorry for having raised the issue—that research might be undertaken to determine what role, if any, genetics and biology play in accounting for the gender gap in math and science—in a way that “has resulted in an unintended signal of discouragement to talented girls and women.” Never mind that Summers had never suggested such a belief, and that his talk was sympathetic to the need to tear down existing gender barriers.
Despite (or perhaps as a result of) this PR-minded backtracking, it was not long before Summers was gone. Gone, too, was his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to turn a disaster into a triumphal teachable moment. I wrote a column for the Boston Phoenix in which I suggested for Summers an alternate script:
I spoke about the frustrating scarcity of women in academic math, engineering, and science programs, and posited, among other possibilities, that the under-representation might in some measure be the result of innate differences between men and women. I suggested as well other possible obstacles to women’s success in academic science, including the lack of adequate child-care facilities and the dearth of accommodations to interruptions in the tenure track. I conceded as well that gender discrimination doubtless played some role. To my dismay, only my comment on innate gender differences drew audience and faculty attention; indeed, a woman scientist from neighboring MIT complained to a newspaper reporter that she had to leave the room lest she faint or throw up listening to me. The problem of women’s under-representation in science will not be solved by burying our heads in the quicksand of ideologically dictated gender-discrimination theory. With all due regard for the overly sensitive digestive tracts of my critics, I stand by what I said.
But instead of taking advantage of a great opportunity for himself and the university, Summers relied on an utterly pedestrian apologetic statement ground out by the university’s PR machine. Summers was driven from the presidency; the PR machine, of course, remains.
It was almost predictable that the precedent set by the Summers affair would soon result in restriction of the range of opinions that students would be allowed to express without risking significant damage to their careers. At the Harvard Law School, a third-year student, in a November 2009 e-mail to a friend, expressed her interest in seeing further research on a similarly controversial question: whether race and intelligence might be genetically linked. The 3L stressed that she “would just like some scientific data to disprove the genetic position” because she deemed the available data insufficient for certainty.
When the student’s e-mail surfaced in late April on a self-described online “legal tabloid,” Harvard Law Dean Martha Minow sent a school-wide response, in which she not only misinterpreted the student’s intent, but condemned the mere asking of the 3L’s questions. This skeptical student’s “false view,” Minow wrote self-assuredly in her accusatory e-mail, “suggested that black people are genetically inferior to white people.”
Read closely, the student’s e-mail made no such suggestion. Minow’s response, however, is a textbook example of soft censorship—no direct penalty, but a declaration that certain ideas (or even questions) are off-limits. There are certain verities—closely resembling politically-correct pieties—from which one simply does not venture without incurring grave risk. Minow was “heartened” by the 3L’s acknowledging “the offense and hurt that the comment engendered.” How would Minow have responded had the student stood by her inquiry? Soft, or hard punishment?
The student, perhaps understandably, was unwilling to risk finding out—hence, the apology for daring to ask a question and suggest further research. Worst of all is that, from the start, this student had a premonition of the illiberal reaction that would ultimately follow. In the closing line of her e-mail at issue, the student implores her (presumably former) friend to whom she sent the private message: “Please don’t pull a Larry Summers on me.” From the Summers affair grew an environment marked by intellectual inhibition on certain controversial subjects.
In yet other ways Harvard—and the vast majority of colleges and universities—resort to typically corporate strategies for seeking to portray their institutions. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, during her tenure as dean of Harvard Law School, had her own corporate moment. For many decades, the Harvard Law Record, a student-edited newspaper published biweekly, was mailed free to all alumni members of the Harvard Law School Association. It provided an unvarnished window to campus goings-on. Anyone wanting to know what really was happening at the school could rely on the Record.
The Record survived financially over the decades because it had a deal with the Harvard Law School Association, the main organization for the school’s alumni. Membership dues for the HLSA went, in part, to pay for an automatic subscription to the Record. But in 2006, the HLSA announced that members’ dues would go toward a free subscription not to the student-edited Record, but instead to a new glossy full-color semi-annual publication titled Harvard Law School Bulletin. One of many Harvard publications edited and published by the school’s administration, the Bulletin is aimed mainly at increasing alumni interest in—and donations to—the school.
I complained to Dean Kagan, pointing out that I, and surely many others, relied for several decades on the Record to get the unvarnished version of campus news. Her reply, while respectful of my view, was simply to the effect that the administration was entitled to get its view out to the alumni.
I had a somewhat related experience with my undergraduate institution, Princeton. I read in an issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, a historically independent publication that in recent years has been running more and more effusive articles on the university with, it seems, less and less genuine critique. I wrote a letter to the editor in March 2005, weighing in on a situation where the associate dean of undergraduate students, Hilary Herbold, had stated that a student publication’s parody of the Holocaust could be punished as “harassment.”
As a result, PAW assigned one of its writers to interview me at my home-office in Cambridge about my work, generally, on behalf of liberty in the academy. Sure enough, in PAW’s May 11 issue, my critique of censorship through academic institutions around the country was recounted and summarized. Omitted, however, was one particular aspect of the interview—a recounting of my criticism of Princeton, its speech code, and Dean Herbold’s attack on parody that had provoked my letter in the first place.
Speech Codes: Not Gone, but Somehow Forgotten
The prevalence of speech codes on campuses of higher education was one of the two primary features that spurred the writing of The Shadow University. (The other was the kangaroo court disciplinary tribunals, dealt with below.) The great irony, as I like to put it, is that one is free to say things in Harvard Square (the public area just outside the Harvard campus gates) that would constitute “harassment” within Harvard Yard. These speech restrictions were distressingly widespread when FIRE was created, and even today: some 67 percent of the 390 colleges and universities analyzed for FIRE’s annual Spotlight report (PDF) on speech codes maintain policies that seriously infringe upon students’ free speech rights.
It is hard to believe that in the 21st century, a student can be found guilty of sexual harassment for "reinforcement of sexist stereotypes through subtle, often unintentional means" and "stereotypic generalizations" (California State University – Chico); can be punished for any conduct that causes "embarrassment," is "demeaning" or "stigmatizing," as well as any "incivility or disrespect of persons" (Marshall University); or can be brought up on disciplinary charges for “teasing,” and even “inappropriate jokes” when they are based on a legally protected status such as race, gender, or religion (New York University).The astonishing vagueness of many of these codes is no mistake. It is precisely in this imprecision that administrators are granted near-uncontestable authority to exercise control over student lives.
Kangaroo Courts that Would Shock Kafka
One would think that disciplinary procedures on college campuses would be at least as fair as they are in our society’s courts of law, given higher education’s supposed devotion to humane values, rational inquiry processes, and liberal education. Such, alas, is not the case. Most university disciplinary tribunals are not structured in a way that enables, much less requires, the rational examination of evidence.
As with many aspects of the modern university, this disciplinary system structure is paved with an intent that, on its face, appears benign. Students should not be subjected, so the prevailing wisdom goes, to procedural safeguards commonly found in courtrooms—the right to cross-examine witnesses or the right to counsel, for example—as such adversarial formalities would inflict undue hardship and trauma on the accused and the accuser. Yet this severely underestimates both the maturity of college-aged adults, as well as the severity of the punishment inflicted (who would argue that expulsion from college does not have life-altering effects?). Furthermore, it trivializes the historic procedural and substantive rights that centuries of civic experience have taught offer the best chance of reliably sifting truth from falsity. The absence of important rights at such proceedings results when disciplinary boards de-emphasize formal procedures, and instead see their mission as “educational” rather than truth-seeking. Such rationalizations for short cuts create a situation ripe for error and injustice.
Take a recent example from the University of North Dakota. A student was found guilty in February 2010 of violating four sections of UND’s code of student life, including “violation of criminal or civil laws,” and barred from entering campus for three years. The charges stemmed from an alleged sexual assault.
Three months after the student’s expulsion, however, his accuser was arrested by state police for filing a false report with law enforcement. Yet the university steadfastly refused to reconsider the student’s case. “The disciplinary process at UND is not to determine if a student violated the law; it is to determine whether student’s behavior was in violation of the university regulations and standards,” according to a document prepared for lawyers defending students at UND.
Facts, it has been said, are stubborn things. Such is not the case in the tribunals of higher education, where the supposed aim of an “educational experience” for students accused of wrongdoing trumps whether or not they actually did anything wrong.
The intellectual disease known as “political correctness,” along with certain aspects of the administrative state and the consumerist culture that are so much a part of modern life, flourish on our college and university campuses today, often pushing to the side the humane values that we have long come to associate with higher academia. This is troublesome primarily because university and liberal arts culture is, ideally, supposed to be virtually the polar opposite of such real world afflictions. The university is supposed to create an atmosphere where students and teachers, together, can escape stifling constrictions that bias imposes upon thought, and ponder ancient verities, and then imagine how those verities might be incorporated, in new ways, into the life of a nation.
Today’s colleges and universities are failing in their duty to provide cauldrons for ideas that break the bonds of, rather than reinforce, the tyrannies of our age. What is perhaps most disturbing is how little the administrators, and even the trustees, of these institutions recognize the extent to which they betray a sacred mission—to help our young people develop the art of critical thinking to prepare them to take their rightful place in the world.