Two factors have so far shielded the American university from the sort of criticism that it so freely levels against almost every other institution in American life. (1) For decades a college education has been considered the key to an ascendant middle-class existence. (2) Until recently a college degree was not tantamount to lifelong debt. In other words, American society put up with a lot of arcane things from academia, given that it offered something — a BA or BS degree — that almost everyone agreed was a ticket to personal security and an educated populace.
Not now. Colleges have gone rogue and become virtual outlaw institutions. Graduates owe an aggregate of $1 trillion in student debt, borrowed at interest rates far above home-mortgage rates — all on the principle that universities could charge as much as they liked, given that students could borrow as much as they needed in federally guaranteed loans.
Few graduates have the ability to pay back the principal; they are simply paying the compounded interest. More importantly, a college degree is not any more a sure pathway to a good job, nor does it guarantee that its holder is better educated than those without it. If the best sinecure in America is a tenured full professorship, the worst fate may be that of a recent graduate in anthropology with a $100,000 loan. That the two are co-dependent is a national scandal.
In short, the university has abjectly defaulted on its side of the social contract by no longer providing an affordable and valuable degree. Accordingly, society can no longer grant it an exemption from scrutiny.
Here are ten areas that need radical reform.
1. Tenure. Few if any other professions — not law, medicine, finance, engineering, etc. — offer guaranteed lifetime employment after a six-year apprenticeship. Tenure was predicated on a simple premise: The protection of faculty free speech and instruction was worth the possible downside of complacency and an absence of serious ongoing faculty audit. Whatever may once have been the case, in our time tenure does not ensure free expression, but instead a banal orthodoxy, in which 90 percent of the faculty in the humanities share the same progressive outlook. Tenure also created a caste system far more rigid than anything found in private enterprise, while a huge permanent faculty class ensured inflexibility in scheduling and budgeting. The associate or full professor enjoyed a lifelong right of selection of his classes without too much worry over whether they were either needed or taught well. Worse, the nontenured faculty member, in the fashion of the Middle Ages, was admitted to the guild only if his tenured peers believed that he was agreeable in politics and attitude. He was usually judged by teaching and publication criteria that did not necessarily apply to his board of overseers, many of whom had achieved tenure 20 years earlier under entirely different criteria.
2. Faculty exploitation. The abuse of lecturers, part-timers, and graduate students is institutionalized. In a word, the university is the most exploitative institution operating at present in the United States, protected by the notion that it is progressive and that its protocols cannot possibly be understood by the ordinary public. Temporary and adjunct faculty members often have degrees as good as those of their tenured betters. Often their teaching records and publications are comparable, if not superior. They may teach the same classes as permanent faculty do, and yet often receive about half the compensation. Were Wal-Mart or a coal mine to operate under such protocols, it would earn Labor Department sanctions. At some public universities, nearly half of the curriculum is taught by part-time faculty — in effect a subsidy that allows the tenured caste to teach smaller and less-in-demand classes, where less time is needed for preparation and grading. Worse still, universities knowingly turn out too many PhDs in the humanities, which ensures a glut of job applicants, which, again, ensures a continued supply of cheap temps to sustain tenured privilege.
3. Curriculum. Tenure and abuse of part-timers are partly a result of a faculty governance that determines the curriculum, especially the general-education core, on the basis of politics and ease of teaching. Somewhere around 1980, a new generation of faculty created a whole new curriculum with the suffix “studies.” The result was advocacy, not disinterested empiricism. Nationwide, thousands of traditional classes in history, philosophy, literature, and the social sciences gave way to ethnic studies, women’s studies, leisure studies, gender studies, peace studies, environmental studies, etc. Students did not receive the same degree of writing and reasoning preparation as in the old classes, much less the factual foundations of a liberal education. It was also nearly impossible to do well in these courses for a student who disagreed with the political assumptions of the advocate faculty. “Studies” contributed in no small part to the unfortunate emergence of the arrogant and ignorant graduate, who left the campus zealous for social change but sadly without the skills to even articulate his goals.