The Crisis in Higher Education

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Call me Wayland. It’s a phony name — the kind of name you use if you want to tell the truth about your profession, without distressing your colleagues.

I teach in a very good university, which has treated me very well. I love my job. I like and respect most of my colleagues. Lately, however, I’ve begun to feel like one of those old ladies in an Edwardian novel — the women who sit on the upper floors of their decaying mansions and lecture kinfolk about the doom that is coming upon them.

I can think of more contemporary images, too. Picture the manager of a Holiday Inn in some rust-belt city, surveying his long, empty hallways and deserted swimming pool, and wondering whatever happened to the good old days.

But let’s talk about facts, not images. All across the country, colleges are going broke. Some of the best ones are broke already. It’s the rare university that hasn’t instituted a hiring freeze, reduced the salaries of its tenured professors, and fired a lot of its untenured staff. The University of California at Berkeley, the flagship of the California system, no longer provides telephones in faculty offices. All employees of the UC system have taken at least an 8% pay cut (ostensibly temporary). Many elite private colleges made the mistake of investing their endowments in the foolish way in which many individual Americans were investing their savings during the Bush years. When the housing market crashed in 2008 they suffered as others suffered: they lost 35 to 40% of their money.

As for the state universities, few have maintained anything like the percentage of direct government support they enjoyed even 20 years ago. The University of Michigan and the University of California get only 6 to 8% of their money from their states, and the percentage is going down all the time. Colorado gets even less, and tries to make up for it by attract- ing enormous numbers of skin-loving out-of-state students, to whom it can charge high rates of tuition. Most research universities are in terror of losing their lifeblood — senior scientists who get large grants for their research. These people’s salaries are stagnating, or being reduced. The major reason they don’t leave their current institutions is that there aren’t better colleges to go to — the others are faring just as badly.

I have some ideas about what started and ended the boom in higher education. The general idea is that the state colleges, and to a lesser degree the private colleges, have been bitten by the mother that fed them. Their growth was nurtured by the expanding welfare state, which provided both direct support to state institutions and indirect support to private as well as public ones, principally by means of research grants and

In the millions of families in which both parents work, the average salary of the lower-paid spouse roughly equals the family’s taxes.

 

 

student grants and loans. But as the welfare state expanded, more parties came to the trough, each demanding more tax money; and universities started getting less of it. Meanwhile, the federal government continued its course of encouraging bad investments, investments in which many colleges and universities participated, and of extracting increasing amounts of tax money from private individuals — the kind of money that might otherwise have gone to finance Junior’s college education.

In most states, the major competitor for welfare-state money is the primary and secondary schools. Welfarist slogans about the needs of children (“It’s for the kids!”) naturally emphasize tiny tots, not 28-year-old grad students in physics. In some states, such as California, the prison guards’ union has also emerged as a prime competitor, boosting its members’ salaries at the expense of other “discretionary” spending. California now spends $8.2 billion of state money on prisons, and $5.6 billion on the University of California and the state university systems. Another $4.6 billion goes to the community colleges (a dubious investment in “higher education”). Two years ago, before the economic crash, the first two figures were $9.9 billion and $7.3 billion. Despite the best efforts of the governor and legislature, attempts to raise taxes sufficiently to cover the “needs” of all feeders on the state have proven unsuccessful.

But higher taxes are not the solution to the higher education problem. In the country generally, the taxes necessary to support the welfare state have left parents less able to finance their kids’ post-secondary education. In the tens of millions of families in which both parents work, the average salary of the lower-paid spouse roughly equals the average amount of a family’s taxes. That’s a lot of money, and it doesn’t leave much to splurge on college.

There’s another angle. The costs of colleges and universities have grown fairly steadily since the 1960s, but the extra money has gone largely to the expansion of “programs,” many of them imposed by political means — from gyms to student centers to healthcare to the affirmative action bureaucracy to whatever else seems necessary to fulfill the university’s new mandate as a modern liberal welfare state — and not to faculty salaries. I’m not bitter; I get paid enough. But let’s talk about salaries for a moment.

Measured in real dollars, faculty salaries in most of the better state and private colleges haven’t risen much during the past 50 years. There have been peaks and valleys — deep gorges, in fact, during the Carter inflation of the late 1970s and the little depression of the first Bush administration — but when you compare 1960 with today, what you see is mainly a modest growth in salaries at third-rate institutions and an unconscionably large growth at a handful of first-rate-plus institutions, with everyone else sort of marking time. When you allow for inflation, there’s not that much difference between Stanford’s average professorial salary of 56K in 1987 and Stanford’s average of 135K in 2007. And during those two decades, Stanford was ranked first, second, or third among the nation’s universities. You could also take a sample from the B range, the University of Minnesota: 43K in ’87; 97K in ’07. Not much change. The growth of spending on colleges from 1960– 2008 vastly increased their size and complexity, but it didn’t get most faculty out of the market for subcompact cars.

Something that did change was the size of the faculty’s long-distance rewards. I refer to defined-benefit pensions, which are the education profession’s way of ensuring that people like me, who might be making more cash if we were lawyers or doctors or workers in private research firms, will agree to work for the University of Winnemac (Mohalis campus), which doesn’t pay as well but has a wonderful pension system. And university pensions can be wonderful indeed. At my university, you can retire after 40 years or so with an annual pension equal to 100% of your highest three years of salary. One hundred percent.

You might say — and if you said it, you’d be right — that many of us actually couldn’t get jobs that pay as much as those in the English Department at good ol’ UWM. The people whom universities are especially anxious to retain are their most productive scientists, engineers, and medical doctors — the profit centers of the faculty. Nevertheless, as universities grew, they adopted the bureaucratic characteristics of the state, together with its leveling instinct. They established reward systems that apply to all employees, including

The unfunded liabilities of the California pension system alone would stagger most of the world’s governments.

 

 

the (unionized) groundskeepers, not just to the people who are best at gathering wealth or prestige (which is a form of wealth) for the institution. And as universities expanded, more people were hired, and eventually more people started to retire and take their pensions.

The problem, of course, is that no one knows how we can pay for this — not in these times, when the value of our pension fund investments has gone south, like the value of almost everyone else’s investments, and the baby-boom generation is eager to retire. The unfunded liabilities of the California pension system alone would stagger most of the world’s governments.

Some of higher education’s disasters are like those that afflict normal human beings. Others are a fairly direct product of the government’s assumption that education is its primary business, and that the business ought to grow. Right now there is a bust in higher education, but recently there was a boom. Like many booms, this one started when a government-sponsored enterprise expanded too far, leading people to invest much more than the enterprise was worth, or than they could afford. In this case, there was a heavy investment in time as well as money, and many investors, both individual and institutional, have reason to regret that they made it.

Recent presidents, starting with Bill Clinton, have proclaimed that college is for “everyone.” In the 1950s, most state governments were already reaching toward that principle, building new ranks and tiers of colleges — community colleges, state colleges, state universities — and equipping mass quantities of students with scholarships, fellowships, loans, and grants, so that anyone who was willing to devote time to higher education would certainly emerge with a degree.

No other country has ever thought in those terms. Nor should it have. Even in my own, elite university, every faculty member confesses, without much prompting, that at least 20% of the students should not be in a college of any kind. No matter what their test scores show, these students are just in college because their friends are in college and it’s expected that they will be in college too. They aren’t interested in their classes, and they obscurely know that the classes won’t prepare them for the kinds of jobs they’ll probably get. There’s no good reason why a person who will work in marketing or real estate or even the local stock brokerage should spend four years pretending to slave away at calculus, anthropology, or film studies. The only “reason” is the government’s willingness to spawn a giant archipelago of colleges, fund the loans and grants that stock them with warm bodies, and insist that people in a myriad of occupations, from cops to dental assistants, complete some kind of higher ed.

Colleges and universities are credentialing organizations. They have been since their beginning. The first universities were founded as a means of credentialing lawyers and priests. The difference is that now they are institutions designed to credential everyone. In 1971, when I was a kid bumming around California, I visited a friend who was going to San Jose State College. It was the end of the school year and a commencement exercise was about to take place. In honor of this event, a leftist group mobilized in the plaza and passed out “diplomas” to all and sundry. The “diplomas” read: “Congratulations! You have been awarded the degree of Middle-Class Status!” The satire was right on target. A large proportion of college students devote four or more years of their lives to the sole end of obtaining such a degree. As a matter of fact, that’s what my friend in San Jose was doing.

Government began this process. It spun the myth that higher education is the supreme good, but also (curiously) a good of which everyone can partake. I am a baby boomer who attended a white-bread, poor-but-honest midwestern high school. Few of my high-school friends went to college. Few of them appear to regret not having done so. Their parents would have been very surprised had they been told that their grandchildren would absolutely, positively have to go to college, or be considered abject failures. These parents didn’t clamor for universal higher education; the government did.

It also instituted programs to subsidize the college career of any student who could get into any “accredited” institution of higher education — in other words, any student whatever. And at some point, inevitably, after the government had encouraged and assisted and insisted upon college attendance, failure to attend became a sign of laziness and low social status. I know many successful business people among the generation that succeeded mine; not one of them is successful because he or she went to college, but only one of them had the courage not to go.

By 1970, according to the Bureau of the Census, 37% of 18- and 19-year-olds were attending some kind of college. By 2008, it was 49%. Need I say more?

Americans regard today’s college and university system in the way in which they regard virtually everything they see around them — as a permanent fixture of the landscape. But it isn’t. College life as it existed before World War II was almost unimaginably different.

Back then, there were a few elite institutions, mainly on the East Coast. They were private and costly. Graduation from one of these places was a rite of passage for rich young men — a Lilliputian version of today’s credentialed society. Surveys showed that the average graduate from Columbia, circa 1930, could expect to make today’s equivalent of $350,000, right off the bat, whether he got A’s or the “gentleman’s C.” And that was during the Great Depression. Rich, credential-seeking young men were cash cows for the institution. Their contributions financed both the professors and the poor but intellectually ambitious scholarship students.

Besides the elite East Coast institutions, there was a wide range of other private schools, most of them religiously affiliated. No other country ever created so many little private colleges. These schools were cheap, and some of them provided a very good education, for women as well as men, and often for black people as well as white. One reason they were cheap is that they provided practically no “student services” — few or no dormitories, no health service, no placement service, no admissions office obsessed with affirmative action, no advice counselors . . . nothing except a chapel and, possibly, a YMCA.

In those days, there were also some very good state universities, such as the University of Michigan, the king of them all. They were supported directly by state governments, not by research grants obtained from specialized government (especially federal) agencies. Like the private colleges, they were cheap, and they needed to be cheap, because the state governments didn’t cut them much slack; but only a small percentage of young people attended them. Some of the attenders were dummies whose parents already cherished a devout belief in middle-class credentialing; others were cornfed intellectuals who profited enormously from the classes they begged, borrowed, and stole to be able to attend. These institutions made little or no attempt to embrace a larger population.

All that changed in a big way with the GI Bill and the other government funding schemes that followed World War II. The Bill helped many young people attend college who could not otherwise have easily afforded it. It also helped fund the colleges they attended, keeping marginal institutions afloat and allowing serious expansion by better, or more popular, ones. But this was the beginning of the idea, which would later grow to absurd proportions, that college was a necessary part of a normal generation, of a normal human life. It was a revolutionary idea, for any place in the world.

Soon, another revolution happened. In the mid-1950s the federal government began large-scale funding of scientific research, most of it based, quite naturally, in the universities. This income provided a second incitement for universities to expand. In 1955, according to statistics published by Yale’s Office of Institutional Research, that university received 13% of its income from grants and contracts — a total of $18 million. Federal dollars accounted for 36% of the total. In 1999, the figures had grown to 28% of income, for a total of $316 million, 77% of it federal. The big change happened between 1955 and 1960, when the “grants” contribution shot up to 25% and the federal proportion went to 72%. My own university gets most of its income from research grants, and the great majority of that comes from federal agencies.

President Eisenhower, in his farewell address (1961), the address usually noted only for its warning about the “military-industrial complex,” warned also against a government-university complex. Observing that “a steadily increasing share” of research was now being “conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government,” Eisenhower suggested that “the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.”

He was less than enthusiastic about all this: “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever-present and is gravely to be regarded. . . . [I]n holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

Whether that happened or not depends on the kind of public policy you’re thinking about. The global-warming craze suggests that Eisenhower was right, in part. But most public policy has nothing to do with science of any kind. No one should claim that the government is now run by some scientific-technological elite, headquartered in the universities. One can say, however, that the money given for research, first to the elite universities, then to many second- and third-

In my own, elite university, every faculty member confesses that at least 20% of the stu- dents should not be in a college of any kind.

 

 

class institutions clawing their way toward the spigot, became the means for hundreds of colleges and universities to do, basically, anything they wanted to do (or felt compelled to do by their internal elites).

Here’s how it works. When a scientist gets a million-dollar grant to study AIDS, for instance, the government provides his university with an additional $500,000 to $600,000 for “recovery of indirect costs.” The million goes to the individual scientist’s lab; the rest goes to support the framework of the university itself. This makes some sense; after all, the research isn’t being carried on in the basement of a little brown bungalow, owned by the scientist’s aunt. But starting in the 1960s, the framework of the university was mandated — again, largely by government — to include a vast array of welfare “services.” The affirmative action mandates alone produced an enormous addition to the bureaucracy. At all the “best” universities, research money helped fund the consequences, whether it went directly to welfare causes or was used as a replacement for other funds that went that way.

In 1960, the University of Michigan and the University of California — to cite two prominent examples — were supported mainly by state money. California bragged that it was “tuition free.” It still does, but only because its permanent faculty (“tutors,” I suppose) are paid by the state. Today, state money amounts to a small percentage of both universities’ total budget. The rest is paid largely by student fees and “indirect cost recovery” from government grants, with grant money predominating.

Leftists bewail the supposed fact that such institutions have been “privatized.” It’s an absurd claim. Not only is their budget dependent on government — mainly the federal government — but the various tiers of government keep imposing more and more regulations on the universities, requiring them to conduct still more “social” and “environmental” adventures, without providing direct sources of money to finance them.

I wish I could say that universities were disgusted by these mandates. Top administrators almost always are, but the fulfillment of each mandate enriches the “university community” with more people whose jobs resulted from the political process and who lobby (usually with great self-righteousness) for the extension of politically inspired programs. Thus man- dates feed on themselves, and universities become the agents of an ever-larger nanny state. Along with prisons, they are the most intense representations of that peculiar form of social life.

The political problem is that once you lose your integrity as an educational institution devoted to the disinterested pursuit of truth, you become just one more lobby group, trying to keep the money coming in. I remember, many years ago,

Leftists bewail the supposed fact that such universities have been “privatized.” It’s an absurd claim.

 

 

sitting in the gallery of the Nebraska Legislature, when the president of the state university arrived to confer with the legislators about his institution’s budget. When he entered through the big doors at the back of the chamber, the legislators rose to greet him. There ensued a civilized discussion about the educational needs of the university and the ability of the state to meet them.

Today, the president of my state university is the head of a vast organization of lobbyists whose duty is to tramp the crooked hallways of the capitol, wheedling and cajoling whomever they meet, and doing their best to mollify any solon who wants to get in the newspaper by objecting to such “outrages” in the university as the appearance of “the n-word” on bathroom stalls. The president does much the same in Washington, only there he seldom gets to see a legislator, only adolescent members of acronymic agencies.

If somebody would put the claims of our university fairly to the voters, I’m pretty sure we could get the advantage over our main rivals for state money — the K–12 teachers’ union and the prison guards’ union. But normal voters don’t count; what counts is interest groups, which have the power to kill any proposal that might threaten some of their funding or perquisites.

Sixty years ago, David Riesman produced a work of sociological theory called “The Lonely Crowd.” One of his insights was the importance that “veto groups” have acquired in our society. Their influence is vastly greater today than it was in Riesman’s time. Given the fact that huge majorities of Americans are opposed to affirmative action, and vote against it whenever they get the chance, you would think that some state university, somewhere, would actually start cutting back on this expensive folly. But if you are an officer of a state university, and you even hint that you might consider doing such a thing, you will absolutely, positively, be out of a job. Don’t bet with me about that. The veto groups in the legislature, the board of trustees, and the faculty will see that you are removed before you have a chance to explain.

Universities have been burdened, and have burdened themselves, with almost all the responsibilities of a modern state: health, welfare, reallocation of resources, and what passes for moral education and policing. But the real state is having its own problems. It can’t pay for everything it’s supposed to do, any more than the university can. The largest part of the budget of state and local government is devoted to K–12 education. In California, which has frequently been my example, it’s 30% of the state budget, a couple points ahead of the percentage devoted to outright welfare (“health and human services”). Despite plentiful evidence of failure, the public schools have usually maintained or increased their funding. When the economy is good and tax returns are growing, everyone can get a larger slice of the pie; but when tax money is shrinking, denizens of the welfare state have to fight one another for it.

In 2008, the bottom fell out. State budgets throughout the nation were discovered to be finite. They might even contract! And so they did. By mid-2009, what with the government- budget problem and the bad-investment problem, there was hardly a university in the country that “was hiring” for tenure-track jobs. Instead, universities were freezing new hires; they were firing non-tenured employees; and they were cutting everyone’s paycheck. Arizona, a third-rate system, remains in desperate financial trouble, but so does the venerable University of California, which has so far proven unable to figure out a way to pay its bills during the next academic year.

Simultaneously, the nature of faculty compensation has obtruded itself in an ugly way. Vast, unfunded pension liabilities have become visible, together with the legal obligation to fund them. Young people need to be hired to pay the old folks’ pensions, but what with hiring freezes and salary shrinkages, the most valuable young people are likely to be looking for jobs with private firms. The startup investment in productive scientists has also achieved monumental proportions. A young professor of chemistry won’t come to a university unless it provides him or her with a million- or two-million-dollar laboratory. It’s a good investment, if he or she can get enough grants to return a lot of indirect cost recovery to the university. And such people usually can. But to keep them,

In California, 30% of the state budget is devoted to K–12 education; outright welfare gets almost as much.

 

 

universities need to go further in hock than they already are to the salary and pension systems. This is the constant topic of conversation in the inner circles of universities today.

An additional matter of concern is the enormous salaries and perks that we give to the highest level of university administrators. This you can’t blame on the government. In many private colleges, including bad ones, the base salary of the first and second ranks of administrators is over a million dollars, and the perks (house, driver, expense account) come on top of that. State universities such as my own are said to be at a competitive disadvantage, because we are forbidden by law to provide such large salaries and perks. We pay only about 700K to the top person, only 400–500K to people in the second rank, and only 250–350K to people in the third. (The first two ranks also get houses and personal staff.)

How did rewards get that high? Most of it happened in the 1980s and ’90s, when top administrators, who were beating the bushes for wealthy donors, became embarrassed at associating with rich people without being rich themselves. They compared notes and established a cartel. The rule is, you can’t be considered for a top administrative post without having already held a high administrative post. This narrows the market considerably. When people object, the angry response is, “This is a competitive marketplace, and we have to hire the best.”

Rather self-serving, don’t you think? I have to admit, however, that as universities have expanded into mini-states, with all the problems of, say, Latvia or Kyrgyzstan, fewer and fewer people are found to possess the specialized knowledge and temperament to deal with the bureaucratic and political problems. You may know a lot about chemistry or history, but that doesn’t mean you can bully a federal bureaucrat who wants to lower your ICR percentage from 57 to 55, or convince a different flavor of bureaucrats that having a student body that is only 5.8% African-American shouldn’t be fatal to its accreditation. College administration has become a calling and a profession, with its most esteemed members traveling rapidly from institution to institution, often with little loyalty to anything but their paychecks and prestige.

Of course, these people lead miserable lives. They must be willing to respond “productively” to the ignorance and bullying of legislators, donors, and internal veto groups. They must devote their entire lives to meetings in which the cold truth is usually impossible to state. For this, they demand a great deal of money; and I, for one, can’t blame them much. I also concede that it makes almost no difference to the budget of the University of Winnemac if its president and her three closest associates are paid 4 million bucks in salary and perks. That’s a drop in the bucket.

The real problem is that it looks terrible to the voters. In California, a few years ago, a daily newspaper published a list

of everyone in the ten-campus university who was paid more than 100K. It was a very long list. The fact that the great majority of these people were medical doctors who were earning their own salaries, by healing voters of their illnesses, didn’t affect the public perception. And administrators don’t have even that excuse.

The presence of administrators as people who are, in a sense, paid for their credentials as administrators has helped to re-open the larger issue of the university as an organiza-

In many private colleges, including bad ones, the base salary of the first and second ranks of administrators is over a million dollars.

 

 

tion of credentialed people — which, in turn, has re-opened the interesting issue of the way in which the science model of credentialing has been applied to faculty members in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.

Government research support has introduced massive intellectual distortions even in the hard sciences. Once scientists learn that the government is most likely to fund research on “star wars,” or AIDS, or global warming, they rush to convert their own research programs into something that looks like “star wars,” AIDS, or global warming. Sometimes their proposals are dishonest; they lie about the essential nature and significance of their work. At other times, they represent these things honestly, but their research, and often their education, has already been distorted by the government’s priorities.

Be that as it may. What has happened in the non- hard-science areas of the university is a parody of scientific credentialing. To be hired and promoted, scientists need to do research; it needs to be plentiful; and it needs to be favorably evaluated by their “peers” (i.e., other credentialed persons). This is fine, when the credentials are rational and objective. But if the peers are ignorant or politically motivated, if the research achieves publication simply because it conforms to a regnant ideology, then the credentials are worthless to anyone outside the charmed circle of pseudo-research. During the past two decades it has become increasingly obvious to educated non-academics that much research in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, the disciplines responsible for defining the nature of a liberal education, is either useless or destructive to the university’s ideals of reason and objectivity.

I have spent many years in a non-hard-science branch of the university; I am intimately acquainted with universities’ hiring and promotion systems; and I can testify that there is no “research” in the arts, humanities, or social sciences that could not achieve publication, favorable peer review, and academic reward, provided it conformed to current political fashions in the university — fashions dictated by various strains of leftist ideology that systematically exclude common sense.

Excellent work continues to be published, but it has a much harder time when it expresses views held by 95% of the thinking population outside the university: for instance, the view that collectivism, not capitalism, was the scourge of Western history; that economic individualism is the great engine of progress; or that the value of a work of art is determined by its aesthetic qualities, not by the political ideology it is thought to represent. To put this in political terms: if you start your career at a university by saying that you are a conservative or a libertarian, God help you.

Need I bring up statistics? Fine, I will. Every survey of elite and even midstream American colleges shows that practically no members of their arts, humanities, and social science departments (with the occasional exception of their economics departments) are anything other than self-described liberals, left-liberals, socialists, or “progressives.” Republicans and libertarians are about as plentiful as whooping cranes. Now, how does this happen, in a country in which leftists are a distinct minority of the populace?

I asked that question of a friend of the family who teaches at a college that is even more elitist than mine. He is a natural scientist, and during our conversation I mentioned the fact that his university apparently refuses to employ anyone who claims to be a Republican or libertarian, even in the science departments. His response? “It must mean those people just aren’t as good.”

My friend is — believe me — totally ignorant about politics. In that field, he merely trusts the other members of his credentialed community, much as Baptist pastors trust other Baptist pastors: they may occasionally be wrong, but they’ll never be as wrong as pastors who aren’t Baptists, and that settles the issue. He’s lost in the house of mirrors that a credentialed community almost automatically erects around itself.

He assumes (correctly) that science is a matter of the disinterested pursuit of truth; he would be scandalized if anyone told him that his own research should be conducted on any other assumption. Yet he is completely uninterested in the fact that many of his colleagues in the humanities and social sciences, who largely determine the university’s operating ideology, spend their lives asserting that there’s no such thing as objectivity or disinterested assessment of reality, that all judgments are “political” — and get rewarded for their political involvements. Those are the fruits of their research, reflecting the judgments of their peer reviewers.

Clearly, the definition of “research” is malleable. After a lifetime of university teaching, Sidney Hook concluded that “by the most generous estimate, dedicated scholars in the humanities and social sciences capable of significant original research constitute 20% of our faculties.” This conclusion appears in Hook’s autobiography, which is appropriately entitled “Out of Step.” I would put the percentage a little higher. Nevertheless, I have noted that a certain kind of “research” is fairly easy to do. You simply acquire the handful of assumptions that are most popular in your generation of scholars; then you apply them until your generation has exhausted all conceivable applications. After that you retire, and another academic fashion takes over and dictates its own terms.

The bad thing is that in this way, careers are made simply by agreeing with one’s peers. The good thing is that very few people actually read the products of this “research.” An academic book needs to sell fewer than 400 copies to break even. If the press can sell 390 books to libraries and 10 books to the author’s relatives, the deed is done. Academic journals are also cheap. They don’t pay their authors or even, in many cases, their editors; and the advances of modern capitalism keep making the technology of publication cheaper and cheaper. Journals have therefore proliferated, most of them maintaining “high standards of peer review” — that is, insist- ing that candidates for publication measure up to the ruling academic notions. The result is an ever-deepening torrent of words that anyone could produce and no one — even, apparently, the editors — ever bothers to read.

The farce could not continue if academic hiring and promotion were based on teaching instead of “research.” But it isn’t clear that “good teaching” is a useful criterion. Evaluating

Much research in the arts, humanities, and social sciences is either useless or destructive to the ideals of reason and objectivity.

 

 

teaching is harder than evaluating manuscripts. What do you mean by “good”? If you mean, “effectively communicating the ruling ideology,” then the same people who get tenure now in the humanities and social science departments will continue to get tenure. But if you mean “encouraging critical thought” . . . well, that’s what everybody claims to be doing.

It’s the same kind of people, however you slice it. And if academic publication is easy, so long as you conform to the current isms, whatever they are, then teaching those isms is still easier. Any academic conformist can, without much intellectual effort, produce a book that will satisfy an academic press, simply by writing one page a day for one year. Then what shall we say about people who can’t even do that?

Many people on the Right suggest abolishing tenure, thinking that by so doing they can eliminate all “tenured radicals” and abolish all demands to “publish (nonsense) or perish.” But as almost any libertarian or conservative professor will tell you, that would simply mean abolishing him or her. The tenured radicals would vote to do that, then vote to renew their own appointments, year by year.

I’m sorry to say this: there is no quick fix for the problems of the American university. But if you can’t fix a problem, you can try to shrink it.

I am not the kind of libertarian who believes it would be better not to have universities than to have state-supported universities. To me, that’s like believing it would be better not to have roads than to have state-supported roads. I want my own university to survive, state-supported or not, because I think it’s exemplary at doing about half the things it does, and that’s very good for any institution. But I also believe that universities would be better if they were freer, smaller, and more focused on what universities are meant for — which is communicating fact and seeking truth, not providing daycare for twenty-somethings and pensions for sixty-somethings who believe that Thorstein Veblen had the last word on economics.

The mega-university is already contracting, under the pressure of its present financial crisis. So-called “ancillary” or social-welfare functions are under pressure to justify themselves or become self-supporting (as in the case of dormitories, cafeterias, and student health services). Many good state universities are cutting back on admissions, suddenly realizing that few voters really want colleges to accommodate marginal students, if the voters have to pay for them. And because student numbers pay for faculty numbers, this means an increasing reluctance to accommodate intellectually marginal faculty and courses, also.

The crucial players are university administrators — regents, presidents, chancellors, and deans. These people make the immediate decisions about who is marginal and who is not. But the public has an important role to play. Believe it or not, top administrators are very sensitive to courteous, informed, and intelligent public opinion, especially that of alumni and other potential donors, and of people who are well established in the community. A few letters of praise or blame, personally addressed to the crucial folk, can be very effective. I’m not talking about fulsome praise or vitriolic denunciation; I’m talking about intelligent responses to clearly identified issues.

Several organizations, such as FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), the California Association of Scholars, and the National Association of Scholars, which runs an informative listserve, devote themselves to identify- ing important issues, from college indoctrination sessions and repression of free speech to examples of scandalously bad, or illustriously good, courses and programs. A look through faculty websites, course listings, and university magazines (which almost always promote foolish political agendas) will also produce a lot of interesting facts. A handful of communications about matters of this kind can make a big impact on the situation on the ground.

People who convey good ideas and contrast them with bad ones provide a real service to administrators, who are chronically in the dark about public attitudes (and ordinarily know it, too: they’re smarter than they appear). They’re not going to write back and say that they will immediately defund Marxist Studies and institute a Program in Free Enterprise, but when it’s time for the next round of allocations, they’ll remember what you say — especially if you can get a buddy to send a letter backing you up. Administrators are almost 100% modern liberals, but they seldom make decisions on the basis of ideology; for better or worse, they make them in response to the need for money and prestige. They know that focused public opinion has a lot to do with their fund-raising potential. So go ahead and send a copy of your message to the local state legislator and any donors you know.

Another way in which non-academics can help is by relentlessly combating the welfarist and credentialist ideal of universal higher education. It is nothing short of scandalous that conservatives and libertarians protest against everything connected with the government except the absurd idea that college is for everyone. That myth must be punctured. When you hear any public figure say that “higher education is for all,” it’s your job to call, write, email, or form a committee to object. You’re sure to be invited to speak your piece on talk radio, because until now, practically no one has been willing to object to this nonsense.

One sign of the shrinkage of higher education as we’ve known it is the growth of alternative institutions. Some of these, I’m sorry to say, must be labeled as one more product of the credentialed society. I refer to the pseudo-universities that have sprouted everywhere, catering to people looking for the easiest possible way to get a degree. Take out the phone book and count the number of cash-and-carry Oxfords exist- ing in your area. I think you’ll be surprised.

A happier trend is the success of certain private schools, such as St. John’s College, that specialize in a traditional liberal-arts curriculum, and the survival of other private schools, such as Hillsdale College, that maintain their independence by refusing government support. Schools in the latter category have passed the first hurdle of competitiveness — finding enough private donors to make up for their lack of state funding. The next hurdle is prestige. In plain terms, these colleges need to pay more in salaries if they want to attract the best libertarian and conservative scholars, thereby attracting the best students. They also need to assure true individualists that they’re not as conformist, in their own way, as the state universities.

A liberal education in a free college — that’s something with a value still broadly recognized in our society. There’s a market for that, so I expect to see more colleges making the break from government. After all, the rise in tuition at state universities has made many private institutions economically competitive with them — provided the educational mission of the privates is sufficiently clear and compelling.

One of the most interesting trends is the migration from the Big U of many “conservative” fields of scholarly endeavor such as biography, traditional literary criticism, military history, diplomatic history, and the history of technology. Influential works in these fields are now more likely to be written outside the university than inside it. As a faculty member in a great university, I mourn the departure of these fields; as an intellectual, I’m glad they’re flourishing.

And I’m delighted by the growth of para-universities — private institutes and thinktanks, such as the Cato and Mises Institutes, that provide useful competition for universities as we have known them. Both online and in person, the para- universities provide the kind of continuing education that no actual university seems able to match. It’s a specialized education, centered on political, economic, and historical problems; but it’s freely chosen by its consumers, who aren’t involved just because their parents demand that they obtain a credential. No credential is offered. And the research of the para- universities is “peer-reviewed” much more extensively than research in conventional universities — it’s assessed not by two or three specialists but by every interested person, specialist or not, who can access the internet. A lot of scholarly junk is published on the internet, but there’s a lot of junk in academic journals, too; and there’s no question that a larger number of discerning readers will be found in an audience of millions than in an audience of three or four hundred.

These are just some of the things that are changing the shape of education in our time. There is no chance that the university of 2030 will be a near-copy of the university of 2010. The money is running out of that university, and many of the ideas ran out already. But better days can come for education; and when they do, it will be partly because of the current crisis in the higher-education segment of the welfare state.

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