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.