By Richard Vedder
Walking across campus this morning, I came upon a friend, Dan Hudson, who is a pharmacist in our student health center. When I asked if the current budget crisis was impacting his operation, he said, "Yes, we are doing more with less." He added, perceptively in my view, that periodic financial crises are good, as they force universities to reevaluate what they are doing. Amen.
Arriving at my office, I read in INSIDE HIGHER ED that new admissions into Ph.D. programs are down, sometimes sharply, at many universities, including such prestigious ones as Harvard, Columbia, Chicago, Northwestern and Emory. Especially hard hit are the humanities.
Again: Amen. For decades, we have been overproducing humanities Ph.Ds. Many of them take 8-10 years to get their degree. They are terribly costly to train. Yet many end up taking jobs out of their fields, for which a lesser education, perhaps a M.B.A. or even a B.A., would suffice.
Critics of the enrollment reductions say they potentially reduce program quality. Below a certain size, it is uneconomic to offer many courses that are desirable for Ph.Ds to have. A history program with 60 students probably will teach medieval history in a graduate seminar, but when the number of students shrinks to 20, hiring a medievalist is uneconomic. It would be a shame if medieval history scholarship simply disappeared from our planet, but it is no huge tragedy, in my way of thinking, if the number of programs offering graduate work in the field falls from 100 to 25, or even to 10. Students can only study so much during three years or so of postgraduate coursework, and if some areas of the human experience are not fully examined, there are still plenty of others for which students can become conversant at a high level.
Meanwhile, the Knight Commission has been meeting to discuss sports reform. My sometime Spellings Commission pal Bob Zemsky despaired, correctly in my judgment, that until the top 40 or so athletic powerhouses are forced to do meaningful change, nothing much is going to happen; he notes that intercollegiate athletic costs have soared in the era since reformists like the Knight Commission and Drake Group have appeared on the scene. He is right. I still think 30-40 university presidents should get together and agree on radical changes, and risk the possibility of being sued by the federal government for violating the anti-trust laws. Is the Obama Administration going to sue universities for trying to contain costs? (I doubt it, but unfortunately, I am far from certain of that).
In any case, recession has brought a temporary respite from the mindless expansion of college buraucracies, the conspicious consumption of overly endowed and underly principled institutions, and other aberrations. Recessions are not all bad.