10/08/2012 11:33 am ET Updated Dec 08, 2012

The University at Bay

The universities are in crisis. That is the judgment of the Very Serious People who take upon themselves the responsibility of determining for the rest of us what we should be worrying about -- and why we should be worrying. The track record of those VSP should make us very cautious about their diagnosis and especially about their prescriptive cure. The latter too often is fatal for the condition they misdiagnose. So it is with higher education today.

America's colleges and universities do have problems. The principal one is that they are badly underfunded. Public institutions in particular have had the financial ground cut from under them by states that steadily have slashed the money that sustains them. That accelerating process began forty years ago and is accelerating. To cite one outstanding example, the rightly lauded California system in the 1960s was financed almost entirely by allocations from the state treasury. Indeed, it was a matter of strict policy that private donations were prohibited lest they somehow compromise the public interest character of higher education. Recreational facilities were an exception.

Tuition? There was none. It was free for certified residents of California -- a legal status generously granted. The University of California system was the national gold standard by which most other states measured themselves. (Disclosure: When I was at Berkeley, my semester cost was $62 -- a fee to maintain the Strawberry Canyon outdoor swimming complex paid for by the Haass Family. When I received my PhD, I owed $350 -- enough to buy a used Pontiac convertible). The state of California and the United States at the time were less than half as wealthy as they are today -- nominally anyway.

Did it work? Splendidly, by any reasonable standard. Research output towered over everyone else in general quality. Low cost public higher education was why the United States led the world in the percentage of its citizens enrolled in higher education and the percentage holding degrees. Now the picture has changed dramatically. Public funding has dropped by roughly two-thirds as a fraction of total university expenditures. Annual tuition ranges upwards from $10,000 +. Indirect support from the federal government has plummeted. We stand 23rd in the international league table of university enrollment. As a consequence, more and more students are delaying entering college or foregoing it altogether. Graduation rates slip because students cannot afford to study fulltime. A very large number work -- full- or part-time. This is the alternative to acquiring intolerable levels of debt for which draconian laws provide no release until they are in the grave. And then outsourced debt predator collectors can hound surviving family members. No wonder that so many prefer to sling hamburgers or do other menial work for the munificent wage of $8.25 an hour.

One might think that this economic reality would be the focal point of concern. That is not the case. While it is true that many inveigh against rising tuition, the blame is placed on inefficient degree programs, the retro thinking of educators and the greed of lazy professors. Sound familiar? This is the same line of attack directed against pre-college public education system. The country has been sold a bill of goods that it is incompetent teachers, unaccountable administrators, outdated methods, and ignoring the instrumental purpose of teaching that are the source of what ails us. Those are the reasons cited for why Jack can't read satisfactorily and Jill can't do arithmetic satisfactorily. The facts suggest otherwise. When we discount for the singularly high number of American kids from poor, broken and socially marginal families -- it turns out that Jack and Jill do about as well as anyone else, Singapore and Hong Kong aside (and Finland, the other high achiever, has no charter schools).

Pressures are mounting to deal with the "problem" of higher education by following a similar tack. "Reform" is how it is mislabeled. From Virginia to Texas to Pennsylvania, self-designated "reformers" are using the financial crisis to impose on universities a doctrine that mixes a crude notion of utilitarian training with a bowdlerized version of self reliance. They have made inroads at several of America's outstanding public universities. The University of Virginia barely escaped a coup organized by a Virginia Beach real estate developer who somehow was appointed Rector of the Board of Regents. Her consigliore was a politically wired hedge fund operator. They made their aims explicit: get rid of a president who dragged her heels over introducing business style standards of efficiency to measure faculty productivity; the alteration of curriculum to stress marketable skills; questioning tenure in the name of output maximalization per office/classroom; and jumping into the world of distance learning so as to cut costs and make an extra buck by selling courses to non-UVA students. The agenda, the mentality, the methods are exactly the same across the country.

One of the arrows in the "reformers'" quiver is the claim that tuition has gone up because university authorities have not been tough enough in holding down faculty salaries. This is a canard. Professorial pay has been on a downward slide since the stagflation of the 1970s. It is barely ahead of inflation. Relative to other liberal professions, it has declined by nearly 50%. Staff salaries have suffered a similar fate.

Are public universities performing optimally -- and therefore have no reason to consider any modifications? Of course not. But they are one of the two institutions in the United States that are still working well, the other being the military. They generate excellent, valuable research in the hard sciences and engineering above all. They give undergraduates a broad education in a range of subjects that enable them to lead rounded lives and to act as mature citizens. They impart skills that will enable them to earn a living. Admittedly, generalizations can be overly facile. The University in truth is composed of three quite different parts: the Liberal Arts, Science & Engineering, and the professional schools ranging from public health and education to business. They perform differently; each has its needs and each its shortcomings. The Liberal Arts are perhaps most in need of some innovation especially as to the inclination of too many departments to subject their students to discipline bound teaching by faculty consumed by their own research.

So, yes, professors could teach another course a year without fatally impairing their research activities. They also deserve to be paid a reasonable salary which most in the Liberal Arts do not receive. This is apart from the indentured labor of adjuncts.

However, the campaign to turn the university into an instrument of the business world, guided by business management principles, has nothing to do with worthwhile higher education. It is simply one among several prongs of a comprehensive strategy to return America to the glorious days of yesterday when myth was real and legend was truth. And when the 'right' people called the shots. The rhetoric of 'reform' is used cynically to advance this goal. Sadly, too often uncritical supporters of the Liberal Arts are unwitting accomplices by allowing real issues to be confused with the reactionary agenda. Today's business culture of sharp dealing sees in education not another 'racket' but one more opportunity for profitable rackets that serve selfish pecuniary interests. The aim is 1) to eliminate a potential obstacle to their unconstrained rule of American life (emphasis on the potential given the passivity and introversion of faculty and administrators alike); and 2) to exploit another venue for making a quick buck via charter schools, for-profit universities, squeezing money out of students via loans on onerous terms, grabbing privitization contracts to perform basic services along with the inevitable consulting contracts -- not to speak of the low cost student labor that would be made available by arrangements that would extend degree credit for corporate training and work experience.

What is happening at the university is a microcosm of what is happening in the country generally. That includes the sacrifice of the public for the private and the worship of money as the one true measure of worth. If you are a student working 30 hours a week or incurring debt to get through school, you become acutely aware of the advantages of your fellows whose families are rich enough to support them. This obviously affects career choices and attitudes toward public matters. Hence the logic of their student circumstances adversely affects their lives -- and that of society. They see the world divided between winners and losers; it's one or the other. The cultural trend toward self absorption gets reinforced; they become more calculating in their choice of courses and how much to put into them; and the gap between the stated purpose of non-technical education and reality widens.