Phi Beta Cons

Egalitarian Worrying at the New York Times

In yesterday’s New York Times, education writer Karen Arenson had this piece entitled “Endowments Widen a Higher Education Gap.”
This pours gasoline on the endowment-spending fire. How can good liberals resist the egalitarian urge to prevent any sort of “gap” from widening?
Arenson quotes Sandy Baum of Skidmore College: “You don’t have to go very far down the food chain before you get to institutions that feel real constraints about how they spend their money. Princeton can do what they want to, but not many schools can.”
Excuse my non-egalitarian nature, but so what? Why is it a problem that the great majority of colleges and universities “feel real constraints” on their spending? Does it mean that students are short-changed educationally? No. Harvard can ladle millions into a “diversity” crusade (that is, Larry Summers’ failed attempt to mollify his faculty enemies) and Princeton can build dorms that make students feel as though they’re staying in a posh hotel, but why should anyone care how they squander their funds?
Ah, but isn’t it the case that these plutocratic colleges will be able to bid the best professors away from schools with smaller budgets? Sure, but again, so what? If Harvard lures a “star” professor (which means that he writes important books and brings in big grants) from a state university, what’s the problem? The state university can compete for someone to fill the vacancy and will be deluged with applications from capable people.
Obviously, just mandating higher endowment spending by the rich schools won’t solve this “problem.” Since there is no prospect of taking away money from the likes of Harvard, Yale and Princeton (fortunately for them, there is no financial counterpart to eminent domain), the “solution” is for other schools to build up their endowments. Governor Spitzer has proposed creating an endowment for the SUNY system, for example.
Doesn’t it seem obvious that a financial arms race where everyone tries to keep up with the Joneses won’t do anything to improve the quality of education, but merely means that it will soak up more and more of our resources?

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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