"A lot of money would make things better."

Finally, a high-profile review of these “crisis in higher education” books that calls them for what they are:  bull$hitte.  (H/t to my colleague and occasional blog contributorNathan Citino for the link.  He reads the New York Review of Books  so I don’t have to!)  Go read the whole thing by Peter Brooks–but here are some parts I thought particularly choice:

On the one hand, all the critics of the American university claim to be partisans of the liberal arts, to want students to study philosophy and literature, even the arts, and to learn “critical thinking” (the currently accepted mantra—not a bad one). On the other hand, the tests proposed always seem to have to do with job preparation—even as the critics in the same breath deplore “vocationalism” and point to the impoverished education that many majors in business or accounting receive. And one would like to know whether the level of higher education attainment measured by the OECD is in fact liberal education or simply technocratic training at a high level (a point raised by Martha Nussbaum in Not for Profit, the welcome outlier among the books under review).

[Claudia] Hacker and [Andrew] Dreifus, in their self-consciously iconoclastic (and sometimes cranky) book, identify a “Golden Dozen” colleges considered the most desirable: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Penn, Stanford, Duke, Amherst, Williams. They find it hard to obtain “solid information” to gauge the success of Golden Dozen graduates. So they turn to Who’s Who in America, to track one class (‘73) from Princeton—to find that national eminence has been achieved by a disappointing percentage of them. From this and some other equally shaky research, they conclude: “We found that most Dozen graduates do not create distinctive lives and careers—at least not to the extent one would expect from colleges that claim to find and nurture unusual talent.” The exercise is trivial—to judge the successful life requires far greater depth of knowledge—and its conclusions lightweight.

Terminal Preppies

Hey, social scientists:  how ’bout that methodology?  I’m sure they have some super-scientific formula for determining “national eminence.”  And who cares about the Class of 1973 from Princeton–did Hacker and Dreifus consider that the uni was still being churned by co-education for undergraduates, which had only begun in 1969?  Princeton’s largely male class of 1973 likely still was reflective more of ancestral privilege and old-boy networks rather than a more meritocratic admissions system.  Gee–no wonder so few (by their measure) are “nationally eminent!”

Brooks makes a really interesting point about the ways in which universities have lived up to American ideals much more than other institutions in American society (save perhaps one:  the military, especially after the overturning of the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy, but because the military is explicitlyauthoritarian and hierarchical it passes muster with the right.)  I’ve long thought that this is exactly why universities have been in the crosshairs of the American right for the past forty or fifty years:

American higher education is a nonsystem that is messy, reduplicative, unfair—just like American society as a whole—but it has made genuine commitments to quality and to a greater degree of social justice, to the extent that is within its control, than most other institutions of the society. It has brought new blood into old elitist institutions, and indeed has thoroughly scrambled the hereditary caste it began with. You have simply to walk the paths of any reputable American university today to see that the student population looks like the range of American ethnicities—far more than many other institutions. Universities have taken seriously calls for inclusiveness and affirmative action. The large expenditures on their admissions offices that bring sneers from Hacker and Dreifus have promoted diversity in ways unimagined fifty years ago. Given the long and continuing history of American anti-intellectualism—which today takes the form of a vicious know-nothingism—I am often surprised that America has universities of the quality it does.

Brooks also notes that all universities are not created equal, and public unis are in a much worse position than private colleges and universities:

The real issue that emerges for me from this and other critiques of American higher education concerns our once proudly public universities. Since the time I last taught at the University of Virginia, five years ago, in-state tuition has risen by over 50 percent. The reason is simple: the Commonwealth of Virginia’s contribution to its flagship university makes up only about 8 percent of its operating budget. Salaries and student aid are squeezed. Administrators who want UVA to continue as a first-rate institution see raising tuition as the only solution. Not their fault—but what has happened to the American commitment to public higher education?The University of California system, in so many ways the pride of the nation, is currently being savaged by budget cuts. Things are not likely to get better: most state budgets are in a parlous condition, and education is the easy target—especially with Hacker and Dreifus and [Mark] Taylor telling people that many of the faculty are a waste of money to begin with.

A lot of money would make things better.

But this is education, Professor Brooks, the one sector of the economy that’s supposed to do more with less every year, the one thing we can’t “throw money at” and expect results!  (Isn’t it funny how no one ever talks about “throwing money” at national security for example, or the U.S. military, or Wall Street?  I guess completely male-dominated industries dependent on male-dominated private contractors deserve to be on the public teat in ways that industries that employ more than token numbers of women professionals do not.)

Only teachers and professors are supposed to live up to the secular monastic ideal of poverty, chastity, and above all, obedience.  Professors and teachers deserve neither respect, nor job security, nor a living wage with a decent retirement plan.  If they were so smart, why didn’t they go into fields where they could make some real money?  Sing it with me, friends:  Americans expect Excellence without Money!  They’re entitled to it because they’re Americans, dammit.  They don’t need to pay taxes.  They don’t need no stinkin’ taxes.

Let’s close out this rant with a little song that’s been in heavy play at Chez Historiann lately: “Welcome to the Tea Party!”

0 thoughts on “"A lot of money would make things better."

  1. In general, I agree. Still, I would point out that most elite institutions do not reflect the racial diversity of the nation or even their localities (or even close to it). Big Midwestern University, for instance, hovers around 80-90 percent white. The two major universities in Texas (a non-white majority state) have comparable figures. Most of the minority students attend satellite schools, which are frequently even more starved for funding.


  2. I think you’re right, GayProf, and I’m sure that Brooks would acknowledge the difference in the ethnic profiles of Elite U./Flagship State University and (for example) Henry Ford Community College.

    Universities have been much more effective in educating women and advancing their interests than they have been in advancing the interests of students of color, male students in particular. I wonder how much the differential between American men vs. women who have earned a bachelor’s degree is really due to the striking gap between African American women’s and Latina’s achievement vs. AA/Latino men’s achievement.


  3. What a great post (and caveat from GayProf)! The obedience ideal is the one which most sticks in my craw … I suppose because to me it is the one which has been the most destructive personally.


  4. Our “excellence” is about to get a huge boost if the 50% 2012 budget reduction for the state’s public universities that was proposed yesterday by the “governor” (sic) goes through the legislature, dominated by his party (not-sic), which it may or may not do. The talk from the bridge here at the U. is all about how we’ll see this through, how we have to begin planning right now to continue delivering the excellent services we have been in recent years (sic), even on half the funding. Almost a parodic monologue from the excellence without money playbook. These guys are shake and jive artists.


  5. I love this line:
    “Universities when true to themselves have always been places that harbor recondite subjects of little immediate utility—places where you can study hieroglyphics and Coptic as well as string theory and the habits of lemmings—places half in and half out of the world. No country needs that more than the US, where the pragmatic has always dominated.”


  6. Well, our system president has at least said that if the next round of cuts comes, we will educate fewer in-state students, because “you get what you pay for.”
    I hope that happens…


  7. I finally got a chance to read that review article. Nicely done and a great example of how to write a critical book review (not a given with the NYRB).

    There is a small and lucrative industry made up of consultants that are paid to write reports about k-12 education. They pontificate about the ‘failings of the system.’ If they did not find failings, they would have to invent some so that they could still write reports, books, and propose solutions. These K-12 educational entrepreneurs have now set their sights on Higher Ed.

    Are there problems with Higher Education? Sure. Are the problems at the Golden Dozen and Research II’s like Baa Ram U and Woebegone State? Yes, but they are not the same problems. So why do people lump them together like these books do? Well, because the more dramatic your claims and the more radical your solution, the more press you get and the higher your fees are for ‘consulting.’

    The productivity of higher education is better now than it was twenty or thirty years ago, especially in terms of money spent per credit hour, and he accomplishments of our students.

    Thirty Years ago, history majors at Woebegone State had to take some 40 odd credit hours of history classes to graduate. In those classes they predominately attended lecture, took notes and read the textbook. They took blue book exams where they regurgitated the lecture and textbook back onto the page. Maybe they wrote a paper in an upper division class.

    Today history students take around 40 credits, but in those classes, even lower division classes, they write at least 10 pages a semester, plus take frequent quizzes and the odd class presentation. Every major has to take a methods and historiography class. Every major takes an upper division class where they have to practice giving oral presentations. They take two upper division classes where they write twenty page research papers with peer review, instructor feedback and revisions. These are mandated by the university and the department. Plus our students have to write a senior thesis where they demonstrate and ability to write a paper using primary sources.

    The teaching in my department at my university is qualitatively better than it was thirty years ago. It is more rigorous. It is a better education. If citizens of Lake Woebegone do not want to pay higher taxes to sustain the cost of this education, fine. We’ll try to do the same with less. But somethings will have to go by the wayside. Just don’t blame it on some nebulous “professoriat” or bloated administration, or other imaginary failings. Just be honest about what you are willing top pay for.

    (Don’t get me started on research… I agree with Historiann, we live in a golden age of humanities research. It might not feel like it, but we do. I am afraid dusk is soon upon us.) Sorry about the rant Historiann.


  8. Great post, great article, great comments. My colleague David Bell rubbished Taylor some time ago in The New Repub lic, I’ll send a link when I’m back home.

    If Hacker and Dreifus had picked another year at Princeton they might have found it harder to dismiss, say, Sonia Sotomayor or Eric Lander. I think Historiann is exactly right about the year they hit upon.

    More inmportant, it’s great to see a senior and celebrated scholar call out these buffoons. Matt_L is exactly right about their “critique” of the universities.


  9. Agreed with Tony Grafton and Z. On the other hand, I’m not going to give “bloated administration” (@ Matt_L) a strategic pass just to take cultural pressure off of some “nebulous professoriate” as the handy bagman for the crisis. The first is not a trope, it’s a reality. When a president responds to news of a proposed 50% budget cut for the system by saying we’re just going to keep on keeping on, and rolling out a list of consultant-approved buzzwords and bullet points as the path out of the crisis (leveraging this, partnering that, finding more money–even near St. Patrick’s Day the “pot of gold” strategy seems looney), you’ve got a bloated administration doing its wordy, windy thing.


  10. One of my department chairs is angry with some new faculty because of money. They:

    a) Say they do not want to take out personal loans to fund research, but would rather teach extra night classes for this purpose (this is for research expenses that normal universities pick up, and that external sources won’t fund for that reason – so we have to fund these costs personally). She wants them to take out loans on the theory that then they’ll write more. But when and how could these loans be paid, I want to know? We don’t get raises, and research costs are incurred every year.

    b) Appear to be on job market, in leisurely way – that is to say, they appear to be looking, appear to think this is a nice place to stay for about five years, get some experience and publications. What is wrong with that, I want to know?

    What do you think?


  11. Indyanna, I agree, Administration should not get a free pass, but what you are describing is not bloat, but ineffective management. Sure, some institutions have too many administrators and flunkies, but the review made a great point, a lot of those administrators were necessary to implement affirmative action and other programs that made the universities more democratic.

    There is administrative bloat, but its not always evident and its certainly not the low hanging fruit that everyone makes it out to be. Woebegone State is part of the MnSCU system. One of the perennial complaints is that “Central Administration” up in St. Paul gets too much of the state allotment and does not appear to actually do anything. (In assessment jargon, its not clear how Central Administration is positively affecting student learning outcomes). There have been widespread calls to have the office shut down, defunded, or simply cut back to a much smaller staff. But the real problem is nobody knows what the hell they actually do. They might actually coordinate the policies of all the different State Universities and Community Colleges, or they might spend the budget on cool office chairs and going to coffee. Nobody knows. I’d be all for getting rid of the office if its the later. I’d be fine with Central Administration continuing if its the former. But there is no measure of administrative effectiveness or outcomes. Thats why I am willing to give the administration a temporary strategic pass.


  12. Z:

    There is nothing wrong with hanging around for a while, gaining some experience, and moving to greener pastures. That’s been the normal career path in the corporate world for more than a generation- if you want to make a vertical move, you have to change organizations. My dad has worked for ten companies in twenty years, going from retail clerk to VP. The company has no loyalty to you, and you have none to the company, for more than the next ten minutes or so.

    Once upon a time, or maybe just in our heads, academe meant you more often than not stayed in one place, because there was somewhere to go- from assistant to associate to full, then maybe a quasi-admin position, with increasing pay and prestige. But that notion is dead. Why bother to stay at Little State College if you know all you have to look forward to is 30 years of pay cuts and obnoxious students? Because you “owe it to the institution”? F*** that noise. Get yours and get movin.


  13. Z: Here are my two cents on both of these. The chair who is angry over these issues is unrealistic and kind of a douche.

    1) If the university/department requires faculty to engage in research, particularly research that requires funding, it should do everything in its power to provide opportunities for funding, not limited to but including a) support to gain outside funding; b) fund-matching for those who get outside fellowships; c) individual research budgets for faculty, even if they are small; d) opportunities for applying for internal funding, like summer research grants. No faculty should ever be EXPECTED to take out loans to cover part of their job. We all know funding is tight and most of us don’t have the resources we need. We all eat some of our research costs. But it is ridiculous to be angry at faculty for *wanting to work harder to make more money to be able to perform their jobs better*. My belief – although I doubt any university would agree with this – is that if research cannot be funded on any level, it ought not be expected.

    2) There is nothing unethical or even unusual about being on the job market. We can be on the job market whenever we want. Many people view the place where they currently teach as a stepping stone. The university has no legal obligation to grant their faculty salary raises or tenure or promotion of any kind; faculty likewise have no obligation to stay at a university.


  14. Z: What Perpetua and rustonite said.

    Plus, taking loans out to do your research is baloney. I took some out to help pay for grad school and some research trips. It was a dumb thing to do as a grad student, but I knew whatever I ended up doing after grad school, it would pay more than I earned as a TA or RA, so a student loan was not completely insane. To take out a personal loan as a professor to pay for things the university used to help cover is economically irrational.


  15. This is kinda tangential to Historiann’s post, but I have to dive in to say that every time I hear dispatches from the front lines of universities and research these days, I’m left gasping.

    Expected to take out personal loans for research?

    Say what?

    I came away from my stint on the front lines convinced that the two most exploited classes of workers are farmworkers/domestics and non-tenured faculty/staff at research universities.

    After hearing this, the academics beat out the farmworkers. Nobody tells them to pawn their phones so they can buy boxes for the produce they pick.


  16. Perpetua got it right, though, that even if it’s not that baldly phrased, typically we do “eat some of our research costs.” Cash is better to eat, I have to say.


  17. What everyone else said about Z’s chair. Something useful responsible chairs might do is point out to the Dean and Provost that faculty in hir department can’t make ends meet without either teaching extra courses or doing research on their own dime, and so make vigorous and persistent arguments about the urgent need for better salaries and funds to support research.

    It’s stories like this that make me feel like pulling my tinfoil hat down below my eyes and ears.


  18. Well, this is why I should change my blog title to Alice In Wonderland. I have been thinking about that for 20 years or so. Notice how Alice, listening to amazing things entities such as the Caterpillar and the Mad Hatter say, responds aside: “O.” There’s nothing more to say but “O.”


  19. I know. Take out a loan to finance research, even get a group of your colleagues together to do this collectively. But execute some murky secondary documents pledging the building in which your department is housed as collateral to secure this loan, and do it through one of those obscure re-fi enterprises. Then invite your dean to a luncheon in the department, to be paid for by the faculty out of their suddenly-deeper personal pockets, to celebrate the new research initiative. Name the initiative after the dean, if you really want to have some snarky fun.


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