About 15 years ago I began writing extensively about the rising cost of higher education, even starting a research center (the Center for College Affordability and Productivity) focused on that topic. I am now convinced that rising costs are NOT the dominant problem facing our universities. There are at least seven deadly sins –not precisely the original Christian deadly sins of pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth—but pretty close.
Let’s start with greed. The first deadly sin is that colleges are outrageously expensive. It takes a larger proportion of the income of the typical citizen of New Jersey to pay the listed tuition fee of Princeton University today than it did in 1840. Whereby the cost of virtually everything else has risen less than our incomes, thereby making them more affordable, college is the unique exception.
The federal government has contributed mightily to the problem: tuition growth has accelerated rapidly since the late 1970s –when federal student loan and grant programs were vastly expanded to the bulk of the college population. In 1987 Education Secretary Bill Bennett claimed federal aid programs enabled colleges to raise fees dramatically, and recent research at both the New York Federal Reserve and the National Bureau of Economic Research confirms it. Higher tuition fees have funded a vast unproductive university bureaucracy (the sin of gluttony) that detracts from teaching and research.
Not only are costs rising, benefits are falling. The second deadly sin is that there is far too little “good” learning going on in America’s universities. By good learning, I mean learning that entails the transmission of the knowledge and wisdom of previous generations to the current one and enables us to add to this past cultural and intellectual capital. Today’s college students, typically spending less than 30 hours weekly for 32 weeks a year on academics, are remarkably ignorant about our own past, giving them the impression that they are the Superior Generation, possessing an extraordinary fount of knowledge and moral virtues.
Thus historical and wrathful ignoramuses at Yale insisted that John C. Calhoun’s name be taken off a college, despite the fact he served as Vice-President of the United States under two presidents, was in Congress (elected by the people or the state legislature) for over two decades, and held major cabinet appointments under two other presidents. Like many others of his generation, he strongly defended slavery, becoming a strong believer of state rights. Times change, and the notion of today’s faux Superior Generation that “only our values are morally sound” denigrates those responsible for America’s exceptionalism.
This sin in not limited to historical illiteracy. For example, I suspect one-third of my students use the word “compliment” when they mean “complement.” A federal Adult Literacy Surveyed some years ago showed declining literacy among college students, an undoubtedly continuing trend. I doubt most college students could name one of John Milton’s works and are clueless on what Aristotle or Rousseau contributed to our culture. Contrary to the contemporary zeitgeist, an appreciation of the contributions of some “dead white men” strengthens the greatest civilization ever created.
There are not only sins of omission (failure to teach the Western canon) but also of commission –the third deadly sin is that political correctness has led to the suppression of many ideas and freedom of expression, robbing students of the vitality associated with questioning conventional wisdom. We increasingly preach ideology –universities often appear to be secular theocracies, with campus bullies – 21st-century Torquemadas–suppressing free expression. Scientists, for example, are increasingly afraid to suggest that global warming is possibly not quite the threat the establishment believes –the Spanish Inquisition redux.
Why aren’t university presidents asserting their authority to put an end to this foolishness, especially the suppression of First Amendment rights and free expression? To be fair, some do, but far too many let the campus crazies intimidate them. The fourth deadly sin is one of feckless non-leadership –sloth if you will –that enables the barbarians to storm the gates and dramatically diminish the vitality and good coming from the campus experience.
Yet the presidents are not alone in consenting to the gradual deterioration of the campus learning environment. A fifth sin emanates from a faculty that too often fiddles with its often non-consequential research while letting Rome (or Berkeley, Missouri, Claremont McKenna, Middlebury or Yale) burn. After all, the faculty do the teaching and usually control the curriculum. It is the faculty that removed required courses in history, language and other foundational subjects while implementing all sorts of politically correct courses devoid of intellectual content to appease vocal minorities.
Also, the governing boards of universities are typically made up largely of excessively prideful folks who combine their lust for recognition with a slothful inattention to what really is happening on campus—a sixth sin, one of neglect. To be sure, the information they receive comes typically from the president, who often fails to inform trustees of wasteful spending and campus scandals. When trustees occasionally try to fulfill their oversight role by seeking delicate information, they are sometimes ostracized and even sued —witness the sad spectacle of Wallace Hall, a regent at the University of Texas, a man who exposed an admissions scandal– and consequently faced impeachment and vindictive legal proceedings.
Or how about governance in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, where Duke University trustees protected the university president as his administration savagely and unjustly punished the lacrosse team, or where North Carolina’s trustees were either sinfully unaware of a major athletic scandal or hid it from the public they allegedly served. Trustees, indeed, too often serve as administration cheerleaders rather than overseers.
That brings me to the seventh deadly sin: a lack of transparency, combined with obfuscation, and deception. Universities go to great lengths to hide important information about themselves –the amount students learn or earn (after college), salaries of key employees, or morally questionable activity (remember Jerry Sandusky?) They bury the bad news, exaggerate and promote the good news. They suppress competition and innovation through their accreditation agencies that they claim promote integrity and high quality. I would be very hesitant to buy a used car from a senior university official in today’s America.
To be fair, not all universities are highly sinful, and there are many good people in America’s colleges. But the seven deadly sins mentioned above are prevalent enough to erode public confidence in our universities (as recent New America polling confirms), ultimately leading to reduced support and declining enrollments.