By Richard Vedder
The war between the academic rent-seekers intensifies. Leaks to INSIDE HIGHER ED are occurring (horrors of horrors!!!). Thank God poison gas is outlawed by the Geneva Convention!! There are those who are worried that the calls for accountability and performance standards may actually be heeded!!! The world as we know it is ending!! We are going to move beyond talk into action --and that cannot be permitted!!! The American Council of Learned Societies is in a tizzy. I suspect David Ward ("Ward of the State") of the American Council of Education wished his retirement had already started. I must admit, however, that I am rather enjoying the spectacle of in-fighting within the academy.
I am referring, above, of course, to the nasty battles breaking out lately --sometimes between colleges and accreditors, but in today's discussion, it is a different group at war with one another. Two remarkable women whom I count as friends are Judith Eaton and Carol Geary Schneider, heads of CHEA and AAC&U respectively, both major higher education organizations. They have been working together to implement, in a responsible manner, some accountability standards, picking up on the growing public insistence, first strongly manifested in the Spellings Commission report, that colleges provide useful information of what they do. This information is needed by policymakers but especially by parents and students. People want some notion of how learning and other goals are being met --what are the kids learning? Are they better citizens leaving than when they arrived at college? These leaders are smart enough to know that the usual collegiate approach of "just say no" and have high paid lobbyists tough it out may not work this time --Congress might just impose some nasty mandates. To prevent that, Carol and Judith have been working on an accountability project that, rhetorically at least, has great promise.
Of course, the devil is in the details. I am very worried that before the accountability document is agreed to by the major university players, big time watering down will occur. Any semblance of testing will go, precise and clear standards will give way to mush, etc. The Establishment that leaked the latest AAAC&U/CHEA document to the press will successfully tame leaders like Carol and Judith into submission. But the Establishment is dealing with two savvy, street smart gals, hopefully with Margaret Thatcher-like attributes, fighting for what is right.
These are interesting times. But are they the best of times or the worst of times? Time will tell. In any case, the rhetorical war is rising --my recent CCAP study got 20 comments after hitting the Chronicle, for example. Don't say that the Higher Education community hasn't been warned that society is serious in demanding more from them in the way of tangible evidence on how they are performing. And never forget that the society that confers all sorts of privileges and benefits on higher education can also take them away.