by Andrew Gillen
A. Lee Fritschler had a piece a while back on quality in higher ed. In it, he does a pretty good job of reminding those of us (such as myself) that constantly bemoan the low quality of college that we are awfully vague when it comes to defining what quality means. Fair enough. But he then goes on to tell us that various proposals for reforming higher ed would unquestionably reduce quality. My first reaction was one of incomprehension. Saying that you can’t define quality, but that doing X or Y would nonetheless lower quality strikes me as just throwing everything you can find against X and Y and seeing what sticks. While a common form of argument, especially in DC, this is generally not very persuasive.
But I know from reading some of Fritschler’s prior work that he is an informed, astute, articulate, and passionate observer of higher education issues, so I reread the article, and discovered that the argument is a bit more nuanced. A careful rereading reveals that the argument is not that no one can judge quality, but that only experts/practitioners can do so, and that trying to force them to implement “objective” measures of quality would be largely infeasible, and even if accomplished, would have a host of negative consequences such as hindering progress and innovation. This is a much more plausible argument.
But even if correct, I have a sneaking suspicion that if faculty are to be their own judges of quality, then we will be assured that they are all awesome. The straw man counterpoint to this is similar to the old army joke about how to improve accuracy: Shoot first, then call whatever you hit the target.
But suppose you grant the premise: i.e., that only experts/practitioners can judge quality. Wouldn't this place higher education in a situation similar to that of artists? Perhaps that is where they properly belong. Perhaps not. Either way, I have another sneaking suspicion that academics would be very unhappy with the levels of public funding that artists typically receive.
When it comes to judging the quality of art, we are told that we should listen to artists, who are the only legitimate judges of quality. They tell us art is extremely valuable and worthy of public funding, but a skeptical public is not content to just take their word for it. As a result, art has never been generously financed by the public because there is no way to convince the public that it is of high quality.
Higher education has been generously funded by the public in the past because it was widely seen as being of high quality. Rightly or wrongly, public perceptions of the quality of higher ed are being revised downward. If the best that the higher ed establishment can do is to say, “we are the only ones qualified to judge quality, and we can assure you that everything we do is great,” then they are making the same claim artists make and will increasingly receive the same level of public financing. Needless to say, that wouldn’t be good for the industry.
It is in higher ed’s best interest to develop measures of quality that can convince the public that its money is being spent wisely. The alternatives are either to have such measures forced upon them, or to see funding wither away.