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.
4. Admissions. University lawyers and sociologists are quick to issue papers deploring the hiring policies of private enterprise and government; yet, oddly, no one really knows the criteria by which students are selected for admission. No university publishes the percentage of students who are admitted not on merit but on the basis of athletics, legacies, cash benefactions, race, and gender. “Diversity” became the successor to affirmative action, once the latter’s rules and guidelines became impossible to define, much less to defend. Worse still, even within these rubrics there is no transparency: What size of gift leverages a B+ student into Harvard? Does someone from the Punjab qualify for diversity consideration in the same way a third-generation, one-quarter Latino might? Only the university could have allowed an Elizabeth Warren to invent an entirely fictitious minority pedigree and parlay it without audit all the way to Harvard. If there were not a Ward Churchill, he would have to be invented. That no one will ever know exactly on what criteria the president of the United States was admitted to Columbia College or Harvard Law School is a testament to the secrecy and mystery of the university guild that has such intrusive interest in the less-than-transparent workings of other institutions.
5. Administration. Much of the recent explosion in annual costs is due to administrative bloat — special assistants to this and deputy associates of that. Left unspoken is that many of these trumped-up six-figure positions are to promote “diversity” and “technology” that have little to do with mastery of reasoning, prose, and scientific knowledge. Most administrative jobs require less formal expertise than does a faculty position, and it is generally recognized that full professors who take on administrative positions are sometimes welcomed out of the classroom given their poor teaching and research records. But why should those who dreamed up exploitative part-time teaching positions be exempt from their own logic? Private enterprise could supply all sorts of part-time administrative clerks to the university at a fraction of the present in-house costs. If a PhD in French can be hired as a lecturer for $800 a month, surely the Associate Provost for Diversity Affairs can be part-timed and outsourced for $600?
6. The credential. The schools of education have grown enormously on the strength of their monopoly over credentialing, the requisite two-year supplemental training in “education” that supposedly teaches graduates how to teach in the public schools. But credentialing programs have grown less academic and far more partisan in focusing on how to look at the world through race, class, and gender lenses. The solution would be to give every postgraduate the choice of either obtaining the teaching credential or receiving an MA degree in an academic subject. Most recent graduates would rather have two years of extended historical or mathematical study than the therapeutics of the credentialing degree — and their future students would be far better off as well. If the schools of education did not have a monopoly over credentialing, they would quickly dissolve, given that their product has made the public schools far less credible.
7. National competency testing. Lawyers and doctors have to pass state or national exams to practice their craft. So do veterinarians, electricians, and general contractors. Society’s assumption apparently is that one’s professional training alone is not sufficient proof of competency. Prospective faculty members should also be required to take a general test in their field to ensure competency. Sadly, a PhD in history is no proof these days that the recipient can distinguish the Battle of Shiloh from the Battle of Waterloo, the Enlightenment from the Renaissance, or a Doric from an Ionic column. In addition, to receive the bachelor’s degree, graduating seniors should be required to take a national competency test in general education — something open as well to non-college students who wish to win the BA or BS degree by examination. This idea of national audit remains an anathema to universities, because there is no proof that the graduates of our most prestigious schools would do any better than those of state colleges — or than autodidacts or the homeschooled.
8. Budget. Since university costs have gone up over 7 percent annually on average for the last two decades, it is past time for transparency, especially given the infusion of state and federal subsidies. How strange that universities will publish statistical data on almost every facet of American life — from racial matters to the environment — but not provide the public with a detailed breakdown of their own expenditures to allow students and their parents to understand why their tuition is priced as it is. Students should have the choice of deciding whether they wish to attend a college that budgets for rock-climbing walls, an Assistant Dean of Internet Technology, or visits by a Michael Moore or John Edwards, at thousands of dollars per campus rant.
9. Publication. Expensive university presses arose to ensure that quality research would be disseminated without regard to its market value. The costs of a university-press book were absorbed to ensure that first-rate research did not have to depend on Book-of-the-Month Club sales potential to see the light of day. Not now. The Internet allows such information to be cheaply accessible. Faculty publications could easily be downloaded without an expensive hard-copy version. Moreover, digitalizing would allow transparency about the degree to which such publications were read by peers in the field. The old notion that a peer-reviewed article in a particular journal or a university-press monograph is the key to tenure has become antiquated in the age of the World Wide Web and the ubiquitous electronic audit of just about everything we do. Faculty are terrified of a future where one’s life’s work can be instantly accessed, and where its usefulness can be assessed by the number of scholars who consult it, footnote it, or buy it.
10. Legal exemption. Entering a campus should not mean sacrificing constitutional protections. Yet the rights of the accused are often subordinate to campus speech codes and protocols dealing with supposed sexual and racial insensitivities. The same exemption is often extended to campus violence, especially disruptions of inconvenient speech. Universities should not be allowed to construct their own bill of rights that supersedes that of the federal government, any more than private enterprises can concoct their own laws and regulations that trump those outside their plant or office. State and federal funding to colleges should be predicated on full compliance with current state and federal laws.
In sum, we have allowed the university to become a rogue institution, whose protocols are often at odds with normal practice off campus and secretive to a degree unknown elsewhere.
The common theme of all university reform should be transparency. Faculties are superb self-appointed auditors of others; it is time we should extend the same audit to them as well.