Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Public Be Damned

by Richard Vedder

Two decades ago, give or take a few years, a spate of books highly critical of higher education appeared: Charles Sykes' ProfScam, Thomas Sowell's Inside Higher Education, Martin Anderson's Imposters in the Temple, and Allan Bloom's best selling The Closing of the American Mind are four examples. These books were critical of the unproductive use of time and resources of faculty, on the alleged political bias of the academy, of the failure to teach important verities about life itself.

In spite of all of this, nothing really changed. The points Sykes made over 20 years ago hold more or less the same today, for example. While the academic muckrakers of the late 20th century had little impact, the muckrakers of the early part of the same century like Upton Sinclair (The Jungle) or Ida Tarbell (History of the Standard Oil Company) measurably impacted policies relating to food, health and anti-trust legislation. Is higher education inoculated against reform?

A new generation comes along, and a new bunch of books critical of academia are starting to appear. Two recently out include Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus' Higher Education? and Mark Taylor's Crisis on Campus. We are told colleges have lost their way, have lost sight of what is important, namely shaping young minds and turning immature adolescents into responsible young adults. The last round of muckraking had a decidedly conservative cast to it, while this one is more conventionally left wing or apolitical. But until there is mass indignation about the behavior of colleges--their obscene costs, their bloated bureaucracies, the scandalously low teaching loads, the tons trivial academic research, the corruption of intercollegiate sports (the University of Alabama has rescheduled classes for November 18 because they were worried classes might be a distraction for the Alabama-Georgia State football game that day), the high salaries of presidents, etc.--little will happen. Reform requires threats of reduced funding from the financiers of higher education.

As previously noted in this space, the pollster Scott Rasmussen perceptively argues that the nation's Political Class (politicians, lobbyists, party operatives, etc.) believe radically different things than the People believe, and given the people's ultimate control over the politicians, this spells big changes soon. One can argue that the Academic Class has radically different perceptions that the public that funds higher education. The public believes state universities have as their top mission the intellectual and leadership development of undergraduate students, while the Academic Class believes that research and graduate education is truly more important.

The public believe university presidents are public servants who should live comfortably but not luxuriously, compensated in part by their job security and the satisfaction derived from leading institutions of importance in furthering the continuation and development of Western Civilization. The Academic Class believes colleges must compete with corporations for top talent and thus pay salaries perhaps double what the public would view as justified.

The public believe faculty should spend a majority of their time teaching, advising students, preparing for classes and other instructional functions, whereas the Academic Class thinks that research deserves first billing, and that students should be limited in their access to professors.

How far can the Academic Class and the People diverge in the way they view higher education? Is a day of reckoning coming to higher education? Nothing happened in response to the academic muckrakers of c. 1990, but will the people of 2010 start demanding tough love towards American colleges and universities, tying funding to true reforms. Stay tuned.


Glen S. McGhee said...

Muckrakers wrote books and magazine articles, like Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens.

Today we have websites and blogs
(like ) and
now even an electronic peer-reviewed journal, Journal of Administrative Antics ( ), in addition to books (some even self published, and available online, like Marion Brady' Florida CC case study at

If I had one contrast to make between the rapid anti-corporatism of the muckrakers, and contemporary higher ed critics, it is that Robber Barons, who were the targets of the muckrakers, had antagonized large populations through their activities -- small companies that they had crushed in their rise to the top of the prestige pyramid, owners thrust into competition with the big-business combinations.

So much so, that the muckrakers had not difficulty communicating the danger that the Robber Barons and corporate combinations were to society as a whole.

The captains of industry fought back, of course, and teamed up with newly legitimated higher ed organizations, becoming generous philanthopists almost overnight.

Today, higher education is seen as a public good, which, according to social psychologists, because it is viewed as a beneficial activity, invokes "affect heuristic," bias that minimizes the perception of actual risk. As we know, institutionalization benefits from numerous psychological biases, including those where the risk associated with familiar situations is underestimated as well.

Robber barons and large corporations were relatively novel, and threatening -- threatening to the entire society. Psychological biases worked in the oppposite direction, exaggerating the perceived risk.

Until higher ed is institutionally de-legitimated, and perceived as a risk and a gamble, these sets of operative biases will continue to work in its favor. In fact, given the decline in job market advantage, and climbing tuition rates, and the increased prevalence of student loan defaults, you would expect a collapse in enrollments. But the reality is that students' unrealistic optimism, in combination with the lack of occupational opportunity, anchors them (and their parents) in a false reality. Sadly, there is no where else to go, but to head off to what Ivar Berg called the "aging vats" of higher ed.

Rebecca said...

Unfortunately for every research university that has the model you describe there are dozens of community colleges and small liberal arts schools where faculty focus on teaching undergrads. Those are the schools that have visibility to the folks who are most likely to shake things up....

RWW said...

Between your commentary and Daniel's commentary, I have to wonder if there is a tenth amendment issue here. Why is the Department of Education involved in state education matters? By having the federal Dept of Education, I suppose states can pass the buck.

And where are the state's legislators on higher education? There must be some economic incentive for the states to look the other way while higher education runs amuck.

I decided to look at Montana's Department of Public Instruction (note: not education, but "instruction"... sort of wierd). Here is one sentence from the flowery rhetoric on the homepage: "When we have strong schools, we will have a strong economy." When people make such sweeping statements without elaboration or substantiation, I tend to think it is bullshit (pardon me).

So I went to the Montana Board of Public Education and under the section, "Some of the things we do include:" and it didn't include "accountability". Then I read their Mission Statement: "The Montana Constitution created and empowered the Board of Public Education to supervise, serve, maintain, and strengthen Montana's system of free quality public elementary and secondary schools. The board exists to promote high academic achievement for all Montana students." Free? Who do they think they are kidding?" Again, another flowery statement that adds up to BS.

Too many people do not care, or do not have a high priority on education and the tax dollars going to education as long as their kids are getting fairly good grades whether K-12 or college.

I think I'm going to pester the state government with questions and see what I come up with.

"Is higher education inoculated against reform?" It sure does seem that way. But I don't believe it can stay that way.