The Wrong Way to Argue About Higher-Ed

Earlier this week, the great classicist Victor Davis Hanson made a few familiar complaints about American higher education: Colleges cost too much, depend too much on low-paid adjunct professors, employ too many administrators, and engage in political advocacy, rather than liberal education. However, he added some over-the-top rhetoric. Colleges, in his estimation, have “gone rogue and become virtual outlaw institutions.” This language is misguided.

Let’s begin by admitting that Hanson’s worries, though familiar, are also proper. Let’s also admit that colleges and universities, in their quest for tuition revenue, sometimes compromise themselves by, for example, admitting students who are likely to land in debt without ever obtaining a degree. But it takes more than that to justify Hanson’s radical charge that colleges and universities have “gone rogue.”

In order to arrive at his conclusion, Hanson, I am sorry to say, takes polemics to the very edge of propagandizing. So he trots out, as if representative, the “recent graduate in anthropology with a $100,000 loan.”  He uses this example to bolster the conclusion that “few graduates have the ability to pay back the principal” on their debt, so that students can expect to be enslaved to student loan usurers for life. But as Meta Brown of the New York Federal Reserve has documented, 39.9% of student loan borrowers have less than $10,000 in debt. 3.7% have $100,000 or more, and I doubt anthropology majors represent a big part of that sample. Median student loan debt in 2012 stood at $12,800 (though the mean was considerably higher). The New York Fed is hardly an apologist for higher education, and the reports its researchers publish express great concern, even alarm, about student loan debt and its potential effects on the economy. Unfortunately, Hanson discredits that legitimate concern by distorting the truth about student loan debt and attributing the complex problem to higher education outlaws.

In a similar vein, Hanson calls out tenured full professors for having the “best sinecure in America.” Not satisfied to claim that full professors make a good wage for doing very little, he adds that the “associate or full professor [enjoys] a lifelong right of selection of his classes.” I don’t know whether that is true or not at Harvard and Yale, but it certainly isn’t true at any of the several colleges and universities where I’ve worked. It is unfortunate, but not atypical, that populist critics of higher education do not seem to notice that richly endowed private colleges and public universities, with their climbing walls and lazy rivers make up a small proportion of a diverse higher education sector.

Hanson has presumably given up on reforming higher education from within, since he cannot possibly hope to help conservative or moderate allies within academia by depicting them as complicit with an outlaw enterprise. Perhaps with some justification, he has determined that “root and branch” reform is unlikely to come from those whose livelihoods are bound up with the present system. Still, even in the debate that takes place outside of academia, conservatives should not be content to attribute higher education’s woes, whose causes are complex, to cartoon villains. It’s possible, in what passes for higher education policy debate, that these conservatives will be taken seriously, but they won’t deserve to be.

Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks, author of "Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education," is professor of politics at Ursinus College.

One thought on “The Wrong Way to Argue About Higher-Ed”

  1. There are many things not to like about Hanson’s caricature of higher education in his National Review piece, including the points made by Jonathan Marks. Let me add a couple more.
    As I have said elsewhere, I have to wonder, if being a tenured full professor is “the best sinecure in America,” why did Hanson retire (at about age 50, if I am not mistaken) from his tenured full professorship at Cal State to go off to the Hoover Institution to become a “senior fellow”? (I hope that to ask this is not considered “vicious.”)
    Second, Hanson criticizes the notorious rise in tuition over many years. However, at least with regard to public universities (like the one he left), almost all of the rise can be attributed to shrinking state and local subsidies. The actual expenditure per student, adjusted by the consumer price index (not some special higher education cost index) is not much changed over the past 20 years. I suspect that if you go back 40 years, to the beginning of the “great stagflation,” it isn’t changed at all, or has even declined. (A sharp dip followed by a very long slow recovery is what happened to inflation-adjusted faculty salaries over those 40 years).
    In my opinion, the attack on higher education from the radical right is every bit as destructive — potentially far worse — as that from the new left decades ago — except fortunately, the attack from the right is not yet having much effect.
    The attacks from the right is causing many people in academia with conservative inclinations to reconsider. Given a choice between “conservatism” and remaining in academia, they are in many cases giving up their conservatism. I should know, I am one of them, and I know others.

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