By Richard Vedder
Dan Thomasson is a writer for the Scripps Howard News Service who very often has some common sense type columns that are food for thought. His most recent one was on higher education, and it was brutal --but a good indication of an increasing attitude amongst the American public.
Thomasson opines "academia always had had a tin ear when it comes to reality. Perhaps a better way of describing the condition is chronic obliviousness. At a time when the nation and the world are reeling from unemployment, frozen salaries...the message being sent by the nation's institutions of higher learning seems not only insensitive but devoid of common sense."
Amen. My thoughts exactly, as any reader of this blog will know. But why? Why are businessmen, many government officials, and families highly sensitive to economic hardships being inflicted by economic downturn, but academics are not? More generally, why do academics live in "an Ivory Tower" where they are clueless or insensitive about the real world?
I think the answer lies in the third party payments that subsidize university operations, along with the independence granted universities by the broader community. In the real world, markets discipline human behavior. If sales and profits fall at XYZ Corp., stock prices fall, stockholders get angry, vultures circle to make an offer to buy the company, bonuses are reduced, etc. The Board of Directors might fire the CEO. Consequences are real and painful.
In higher ed, there are no "profits" or other good bottom line measures of performance. There are seldom bonuses to be cut, no stock options that could become worthless, and no board hounding the CEO (President) to improve performance. Faculty has tenure, an employment arrangement that prompts chronic obliviousness like none other I know. To shield the universities from political interference, we give them remarkable freedom with only a minimum of outside scrutiny or accountability. There is a price for this --increasing insensitivity of universities to real world problems, an arrogance that comes from a lack of checks and balances brought on by competition, etc. For this reason, I think true university reform only will come when there is a radical restructuring on the way universities operate.