Phi Beta Cons

Where to from Here, Mr. Miller?

When Charles Miller, chairman of the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education, recently delivered the panel’s report to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, he took the rare step of including a scathing “personal” letter about the system for financing higher education, which he rightly describes as “dysfunctional.”
As The Chronicle of Higher Education reports, Mr. Miller decries “the lack of transparency regarding pricing, which severely limits the price signals found in a market-based system” and the absence of “incentives necessary to affect institutional behavior so as to reward innovation and improvement in productivity.” The system is geared only to raising revenues – “a top line structure with no real bottom line.” He also calls for an “intense examination and skeptical analysis” of university research expenditures, which he sees as “a major ‘cost driver’ in higher education” (News Blog, “Charles Miller Assails Private and Research Universities in ‘Personal’ Letter,” September 9).  But of course. The system has cried out for decades for financial discipline and quality control, although precious little is ever done to fix it, and surely not from “the inside” – that is, intra-institutionally by governing boards, administrators and faculties.
Yale professor Donald Kagan recently said as much as much with reference to “taming the imperial faculty,” in “As Goes Harvard…” in the September issue of Commentary: 

no president…almost none is willing to try; and no one else from inside the world of the universities or infected by its self-serving culture is likely to stand up and say “enough,” or to be followed by anyone if he does. Salvation, if it is to come at all, will have to come from without.

 Due to this void of leadership, the following “conventional” internal reforms go largely untried: 

  • performance-based strategic planning
  • hiring reform-minded campus CEOs
  • instituting greater transparency regarding campus affairs
  • expanding faculty teaching loads where feasible
  • reducing swollen administrative staffs
  • combining under-utilized academic programs and eliminating those of dubious value
  • having boards formally acknowledge (in the words of Steve Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars) the importance of competing viewpoints “in adversarial fields” and increasing “the institutional sites in which [they] can flourish”
  • tightening time-to-degree requirements
  • reducing non-instructional expenditures on campuses
  • making maximal use of existing campus facilities and services (for instance, by offering year-round classes and sharing facilities with neighboring public and private institutions)
  • reviewing and improving all curricula
  • assessing for “value-added” student learning
  • fostering intellectual diversity and tolerance on campuses, for example, by adopting the statement by ACE and other higher education organizations on this matter
  • reforming hiring and tenure procedures to ensure that quality of teaching and research (as opposed to political conformity and cronyism) is the standard for faculty employment
  • putting an end to the current failed accreditation system
  • and stopping out-of-control grade inflation by requiring college transcripts to include a student’s grades along with the percentage of classmates awarded the same grade in a particular class.

 I wager Mr. Miller would approve, or at least have an open mind to, many if not all of these reforms, which could set higher education on a sounder path. But the Commission report, although valuable in some respects, is reform-light and merely advisory and, as such, does not translate into institutionalizing needed change. I urge Mr. Miller and Secretary Spellings – post the limited reverberations of the Commission report – to lend vocal support to at least granting a hearing for deep structural university reform, and perhaps even to the creation of external (federal and state) incentives for achieving such change. Possible approaches include: 

  • the instituting of “charter colleges” that hire their own managers, set their own curricula and perhaps even set their own faculty contracts
  • privatizing public higher education via vouchers, scholarships or tax-credits, on the assumption that greater student choice might facilitate the demand for improved institutions
  • encouraging the rise of for-profit institutions dedicated to offering high-quality, student-focused, outcomes-oriented liberal arts education
  • and even (as Mark Oppenheimer advocates, and contingent on eliminating accreditation and the provision of evidence of strong student achievement) having students band together (medieval-style) to hire the many brilliant and under-employed Ph.D.s to offer college-level courses in one’s living room.

May your letter be a prelude to future leadership to come, Mr. Miller. And may your response to the Commission’s report point the way toward “salvation from without,” Secretary Spellings. 

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