The troubling plight of the modern university
Employment rates for college graduates are dismal. Aggregate student debt is staggering. But university administrative salaries are soaring. The campus climate of tolerance has utterly disappeared. Only the hard sciences and graduate schools have salvaged American universities’ international reputations.
For over two centuries, our superb system of American public and private higher education kept pace with radically changing times and so ensured our prosperity and reinforced democratic pluralism.
But a funny thing has happened on the way to the 21st century. Colleges that were once our most enlightened and tolerant institutions became America’s dinosaurs.
Start with ossified institutions. Tenure may have been a good idea in the last century to ensure faculty members free expression. But such a spoils system now encourages the opposite result of protecting monotonies of thought.
In a globalized world where jobs disappear in an eye blink and professionals must be attuned to the slightest changes in the global marketplace, academics insist that after six years they still deserve lifetime guarantees of employment.
In the age of the Internet and global readerships, faculty promotion is still based largely on narrow publication in little-read, peer-reviewed journals. Many are often incestuous and have no bearing on enhancing faculty teaching skills.
Post-tenure review and peer evaluations have become pro forma quid pro quos among guild members. The result is a calcified professoriate that demands it alone can still live in the protected world of the 1950s.
Part-time teachers and graduate students are not so lucky. They are often paid less than half for the same work done by full-time faculty, in illiberal fashion that would be unacceptable at Walmart or Target.
Universities are the least transparent of U.S. institutions, defending protocols more secretive than those of the Swiss banking system. Few colleges publish the profile of those students who were favored in the admission process through legacies, athletic prowess, or race and gender preferences. The result is that almost no one knows why one student gets into Yale or Stanford and another with a far more impressive academic record does not.
Universities claim they are committed to creating a student body that looks like America. In fact, they deliberately ignore the most important diversity of all — thought. About half the country is fairly conservative. Yet by any measure — faculty profiles, campus speakers, student organizations — colleges discriminate against those not deemed sufficiently progressive.
Conservative speakers are now routinely disinvited from commencement addresses. Students or faculty members who offer public skepticism about gay marriage or unfettered abortion, voice pro-Israel sentiments or express doubts about man-caused global warming can easily earn campus pariah status.
The liberal arts curricula are likewise fossils of the 1960s era of their professors’ race, class and gender activism. Such therapeutic courses short the very skills — written and oral proficiency, historical knowledge, and math and science mastery — that alone prepare graduates for a chance at a successful career trajectory.
Most disturbing is the inability of the modern university to adjust to the 21st century workplace. Students are not graduating in four years. They are piling up crippling debt. They cannot figure out the Byzantine nature of their high-interest student loan packages. And they are hardy assured of jobs commensurate with their unsustainable investment in education.
The university’s reactionary response is to keep jacking tuition higher than the rate of inflation, to count on still more open-ended federally guaranteed student loans, and to keep its budgetary figures mostly hidden.
How odd, then, that the campus is more reactionary than the objects of its frequent vituperation, from the corporation to the military. Academics resist the sort of long-needed reforms that they always seem to demand of others in American society.
We cannot expect the current self-interested establishment in charge of the university to reform it. Its failure to educate students for well-paying jobs while charging them excessive fees may alone force a reckoning.
The Internet, tech schools and correspondence courses are already eroding the monopolies of the campus. Whether the academic establishment likes it or not, a new generation of leadership will have to ensure equal pay for equal work, an end to lifetime sinecures, a new way of assessing university achievement, transparency in budgeting and admissions, political balance and tolerance, and a complete overhaul of the liberal arts curriculum.
Either higher education will give up its medieval privileges, begin to be accountable and live in the modern world, or it will be reduced to a costly relic for a tiny elite.
An aging campus generation that has nearly wrecked the university should bow out and let more open-minded and innovative minds repair the damage that the old generation has wrought.
(Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution and Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of “The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost — From Ancient Greece to Iraq.” You can reach him by e-mail at: [email protected].)
Victor Davis Hanson