By Richard Vedder
I seldom talk about the university at which I teach, Ohio University, but I attended an event today there that reminded me of many of the problems of higher education. Today is Groundhog Day for most Americans, but at Ohio U., it is Founders Day, the 203rd anniversary of the institution's creation as the first university in the Midwest. We had a little academic convocation, at which the President of the University, Roderick McDavis, discussed "Vision Ohio", the institution's long range plan for the future.
What were the four components to the plan? First, advancing "national prominence." Second, "promoting diversity." Third, "enhancing financial support," and fourth, "grow partnerships." Nowhere in its "vision" is there anything like trying to "improve the quality and quantity of the knowledge we disseminate to students" or "increase the extent to which we advance the frontiers of knowledge." Learning, per se, is not mentioned. Advancing prominence means getting higher rankings in magazine surveys and more publicity for students getting nice awards. Promoting diversity means getting a different ethnic and racial mix of students and promoting international programs. Advancing financial support means getting more gifts and federal grants. And growing partnerships means making deals with private companies about investing monies or doing research contracts, or with other universities to collaborate in some fashion.
The true goals of universities ought to be simple: to improve the quality and quantity of the teaching and research efforts per dollar spent. We want to have students graduate who are better trained, who know more, who get better jobs, who succeed more in life both vocationally and in other ways. We also want to help extend our understanding of our intellectual, historical, and cultural milieu through research and creative endeavors, consistent with the resources available. We want to be good at an affordable price.
Yet too many schools are defining their goals like OU does, often looking at means (e.g., raising money) rather than ends (having better educated students or more meaningful research). They are adopting strategies (e.g., encouraging small alumni donations) that raise one up in the US News rankings but do nothing to truly improve the quality of the learning experience. Raising money becomes an obsession, getting far more attention than thoughtfully contemplating how the funds will be used to promote learning. Diversity is never talked about in its truly important dimension, namely the need to encourage intellectual discourse and tolerance of alternative perspectives of the world. We are worried about name recognition more than knowledge, about dollars rather than learning, about inputs more than outcomes. The Ohio University vision is the vision of many universities on the make, and it is not a good one for the long run.