Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Reforming a Colossus


I’ve read with interest Candace’s posts (here and here) regarding academic reform, and I am struck by the immensity and difficulty of the task. Of all the great cultural institutions dominated by the Left (including media, the arts, unions, and much of our bureaucracy), the academy is by far the most difficult to reform because it is the most removed from the typical means of cultural, economic, and political change. The mechanisms we’ve put in place to protect academic autonomy (tenure, endowments, etc.) have done their job well, very well, leaving critics of an obviously corrupt and abusive system with few good options.

Hollywood can be shaken by a single wealthy actor with a vision of a movie about the Passion.  A radio host can reach 10% of the population in a single broadcast, a group of pajama-clad bloggers can bring down Dan Rather, and one lone network can transform the cable-news environment.  A series of elections can begin to shift even the most bloated bureaucracies.  But higher education is different.  Centuries of accumulated capital have meant that the leading educational institutions are impervious to genuine economic concerns (when I started work at Cornell in 1999, I remember joking with my wife that the apocalypse would have to occur before my paycheck would bounce).  A culture that values a college education as a required admission ticket to full economic participation guarantees an endless flow of millions of customers.  Tenure guarantees that not even incompetence has consequences.  Centuries of history (and fond memories of youth) have built an enormous reservoir of good will amongst alums.  And thus we are left with a system that is bloated, arrogant, out of control, and accountable to no one. 

Well, there is still the law.  Colleges do have to listen to federal judges, but court orders can only have so much impact.  A court can protect fundamental rights (and that protection is crucially important), but it cannot teach a class or create a curriculum.  It can’t tell a hiring committee to support an excellent teacher and scholar of the classics over yet another expert in medieval lesbian protest poetry.

But there is still room for hope.  A colossus is big, not invulnerable, and there are some cultural forces that are outside even university control.  The amount of information about the college experience is increasing exponentially, correcting one of the oddities of American consumer life (that it was easier to find useful product information about a $300 microwave than a $150,000 higher education).  Additionally, the growth of the for-profit educational sector will mean that colleges will for the first time face real competition for the hundreds of thousands of students who see college not as a path to enlightenment but as a ticket to a better economic life.  Why pay tens of thousands of dollars for things like huge multicultural centers and dozens of little-used academic departments that function more as ideological bastions than provide actual academic services?  And, finally, the law (either case law or legislation) can break the ideological monopoly.  With vigorous enforcement of basic First Amendment freedoms, the marketplace of ideas can be restored.

Oh, and it also helps with the Larry Ellisons of the world note that something is amiss.  A few more angry Ellisons, and our work gets easier.

P.S.  And finally, just to ensure that Phi Beta Cons is not viewed as entirely serious, staid and academic, I present to you a video better than anything Jonah has linked in the Corner in the last three years.  Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Human Regurgitator.


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