The Need for Adult Supervision of Universities

Arguably, American universities in many ways resemble somewhat unruly and disrespectful adolescents—they want to be comfortably sustained by their adult parents/financiers, but their increasingly deplorable behavior needs firmer adult supervision. Hence “outsiders” are becoming assertive, be it major donors to elite private schools or politicians at schools importantly dependent on government subsidies, especially our state universities.

I sense the increasingly outrageous behavior of universities and their leadership since the Hamas massacre of Israelis began a new war in the Middle East may be an inflection point in defining university relations with the broader public. That public has been increasingly disenchanted with colleges and universities, although they have largely, if begrudgingly, tolerated their immaturity. However, collegiate behavior, by students, faculty and administrators in the wake of the developments in Israel has led more to say, “enough is enough.”

For the past year or so, bold moves by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and some other political leaders in Southern or border states like Texas and Tennessee show that unquestioning public largesse to state universities is ending. The rebellion is spreading into other areas not particularly known for dissension from prevailing conventions. In particular, Ohio stands out, culminating on October 23 in a meeting of members of the boards of trustees of all Ohio public universities in the state’s capitol organized by a retired medical device entrepreneur turned politician, Senator Jerry Cirino. This campaign for reform received important assistance from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and the Buckeye Institute, an Ohio centered free market think tank.

The overall message to the trustees: Take Charge, don’t let your administration and faculty rule the roost without strong adult supervision. Don’t be spineless rubber stamps, serving as trustees for the nice seats at football games, delightful cocktail parties and other fringe benefits of the job. Instead, trustees should serve a meaningful public service role gathering information and data from all possible sources about their school’s activities, then using it to raise hard questions and demand accountability.

For five hours, the trustees heard from outside experts about national campus maladies such as a depressing lack of intellectual diversity. For example, there was an outstanding hour-long panel of members of the governing boards of five of the universities, chaired by a veteran Ohio State University trustee (and former senior college administrator) Jeff Kaplan. Another panel honed in on the lack of campus intellectual diversity, with speakers from outstanding midwestern schools such as Notre Dame and the University of Chicago. State Senate president Matt Huffman echoed Cirino’s message, politely but clearly suggesting that “we are looking at what you are doing more closely,” and I sensed that the soon to be new Ohio Chancellor of Higher Education Mike Duffey (himself a former legislator) will become more aggressive in an adult supervisory role than his predecessors.

The trustee summit followed several months of legislative activism including the establishment of new research centers at five state schools, all of which aim to reduce the left-wing domination of scholarly activity at the schools and building on similar initiatives such as the Alexander Hamilton Center established at the University of Florida and the Institute of American Civics at the University of Tennessee (whose new director, Joshua Dunn, spoke at the Ohio conference). A broad Ohio reform bill promoted by Senator Cirino, Senate Bill 83, is nearing final legislative approval (having already been approved in the Senate). Among other things, it mandates the study of American history, government, or both in state universities, it requires student exposure to critically important documents from American history, bans mandatory diversity training promoting a progressive political agenda for new employees, and encourages post-tenure review, among other things. Also, Senator Cirino informs me that the appointment (by the Governor) of new university trustees will receive meaningful scrutiny by the state Senate committee charged with that responsibility.

Higher education leaders dismiss state-led legislative or gubernatorial efforts such as seen in Florida, Texas, Ohio and other states at their peril. Federal financial support of the universities will increasingly receive similar scrutiny. Nationally, universities have become beholden to leaders in the Democratic party for financial support and that party’s domination of the federal government. That support is far from assured in the future.

More importantly, the nation is facing a huge fiscal disaster if it does not very soon adopt a responsible curtailing of budget deficits—especially at a time when the aging of the population is putting huge strains on our pension and health care systems. Then there is the demographic cliff arising from falling birth rates. All of this suggests that the probability that higher ed will continue to receive its current share of both federal and state government budgets in the next generation is exceedingly doubtful. Soaring interest payments on the outsized national debt is already poised to crowd out funding for such things as higher education—and again, at a time when national defense needs must grow materially in coming years. The nation increasingly will find it painfully expensive to fund the antics of the woke political left through the universities.

Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Ohio University, Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, and author of the forthcoming book Let Colleges Fail: Creative Destruction in Higher Education.


Image: Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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  • Richard Vedder

    Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, and a board member of the National Association of Scholars.

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One thought on “The Need for Adult Supervision of Universities”

  1. I think there is a reckoning coming to higher education. The costs have grown unaffordable and the knowledge transfer less and less. In the end you end up with people who cannot afford to pay their student loans because they are not qualified for todays job market

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