09/09/2013 11:00 am ET Updated Nov 09, 2013

The Ivory Tower Teeters

The world of higher education as we have known it has entered the twilight zone. Their contours still recognizable, America's colleges and universities are becoming shades of their past selves. That is especially true of the liberal arts - the spiritual heart of this constellation of institutions. Yes, all elements of the academy are suffering as public monies dry up and students are bearing the heaviest burdens of a sea change in attitudes toward education that downgrades in practice what Americans exalt in the abstract. There are important variations, though, from one sector to another. The hard sciences and engineering retain their distinguishing characteristics and strengths - for the most part. Professional schools such as business and law are the main inheritors of the liberal arts' mantle - along with its cachet, money and claims to intellectual authority. These segments of the university are exposed to the same hazardous conditions as the Liberal Arts but have far more robust immune systems. As the country reverts from the century old model of enlightened humanism, so it is natural that Liberal Arts should be toppled from their position of preeminence. The still open questions are: the terms of their survival as a vestige of their honored past; and the implications for learning.

Slashed budgets are the key to what is happening - whether we think of rising tuition, student indebtedness, bigger classes, lagging faculty salaries, abuse of the star system, or infringement on the autonomy of universities previously run by academics. The last is crucial as schools increasingly fall under the sway of boards dominated by corporate interests, professional administrators dedicated to "utility maximization," reactionary politicians, or - not least - self-declared "reformers" seeking to parley "innovation" into profit and/or prestige. The money crunch's insidious effects on the contemporary university are accompanied by a moral crisis and a crisis of morale. They are at once the consequence of crudely imposed austerity regimes and a major contributor to the feeble resistance that has met it.

Let us just note a few of the headline events and see what we can make of them.

  • Most starkly evident is the power grab by board members with an undisguised agenda to transform higher education into an adjunct of the business world that supplies it with vocationally skilled workers and dutiful consumers - who accept their masters' conservative social philosophy. We have seen this drama unfold at the University of Virginia, the University of Texas, New York University, and - by more subtle means - at a number of other prestigious state universities including the University of California.
  • We have seen the egregious intervention by senior administrators to squelch scandal arising from the concealing of sexual abuse on campus at Swarthmore, Yale, Berkeley, USC, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Notre Dame, Amherst, University of Montana, Ohio State, Marquette, Dartmouth, University of Colorado-Boulder, Occidental College. The pervasive response has been avoidance aimed at maintaining appearances. Crime statistics count - in some places because they could dissuade violence averse foreign students from seeking admission. Heavy reliance on full tuition students from abroad, especially Asia, to expand desperately needed revenues can weigh is in the balance when deciding how to handle matters of sexual abuse. Don't rock the boat is the near universal maxim. Misconduct on the part of university authorities was so obvious as to spark formal investigation by the United States Department of Education in most of these cases.

In Yale's case, university authorities have found six students guilty of "nonconsensual sex" during the first half of 2013 - "nonconsensual sex" being the Ivy League euphemism for rape. It allowed all of them to remain enrolled; four received written reprimands with one required to attend gender sensitivity training. The other five evidently already met Yale's gender sensitivity standards.

Berkeley authorities performed similar housekeeping tasks until outsiders emboldened victims to call upon the state legislature for redress. At a hearing this August before an Assembly committee in Sacramento, victim after victim gave graphic accounts of their humiliation by administrators who didn't even bother to ask for their testimony or to report the results of the so-called "investigations." A senior official who shared responsibility for this abuse attended the sessions where she declared that this was just "awful." The state now will undertake an "audit" of how public institutions process rape and other sexual abuse complaints; results due back next June. (Daily Californian August 12) That's progress - by today's university standards.

USC officials showed us the moral depths to which present day university apparatchiks can sink when campus police told a woman who claimed that she had been rape that in fact the term didn't apply to her since the attacker had not reached an orgasm; and civilian university officials upheld that assertion. (HUFFPOST July 22).

What is going on? To an extent, it is about budgets, revenues and student recruitment. University authorities are eager to keep crime statistics down and gory stories of abuse out of the limelight. They could discourage foreign or out-of-state students from seeking admission. Both classes of students provide income that can make or break university budgets - especially public institutions. Currently, there are close to 800,000 international students enrolled at American universities. They represent 22% of USC's total student body; 11% of Indiana's and Illinois'. A quarter of them are from China and another 20% or so from elsewhere in Asia - cultures where sexual violence at universities is an abhorrent rarity. At USC, where the annual tuition is $22,500, total tuition payments by students from abroad are in the order of $200 million. At Berkeley, where tuition for non-residents is $36,000, its 5,000 foreign students yield up to $175 million. Both these numbers should be reduced somewhat by the amount of scholarship money some receive from university sources or, in the case of graduate students in the sciences, from external project grants

What is the causal connection between this commercial arithmetic and policies toward sexual violence on campus? Unknowable - but it would be naïve to assume that they are not connected in today's money minded environment at our institutions of higher education.

  • We see administrators across the country aggressively recruiting exploitable, and disposable, adjunct professors to teach large classes at low pay and few benefits - a growing practice that serves no one's educational or economic interest except the accountants. We have seen scores of universities enter into exclusive sweetheart deals with private purveyors of student loans who too often exploited captive student borrowers - a boon they received for gifts that included payoffs to officers of the universities.

Honest and frank consultation is on the endangered list nearly everywhere as administrators insist on their executive prerogatives, faculty insist on their privileges, and students are socialized into the culture of segmentation and passive deference

  • Perhaps the most telling commentary on the current university ethos is the laid-back attitude toward the student debt cum tuition crisis. The stunning rise in student indebtedness over the past generation stems directly from the dual public policies of cutting drastically appropriations to state schools and the federal government's stinginess with student loans. As to the latter, not only has Washington allowed programs such a Pell grants to lapse or be downsized, it also has instituted loan terms that apply exorbitant interest rates. Last year, the government made a profit of63 billion on its student loan programs. Yet president Obama shamelessly threatened to reduce further financing for higher education unless colleges and universities held the line on tuition increases. He publicly admonished them in that scolding voice that he reserves for his liberal supporters. In fact, those increases have been necessary because public funding has nose-dived for over a generation. A point no visible statesman of education made in a public forum. (At the University of California, the percentage of the system's total budget covered through state appropriations has dropped from 88% to 11% since the 1960s).

Congress' approval of the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act in July does little to alleviate the problem. Current rates on Stafford student loans had been slated to double to 7.6%. That has been scaled back to 3.8% through 2015. By contrast, however, rates for new loans will be linked to yields on 10 Treasury notes. They could rise as high as 8.25% or 9.50% for graduate students. Putting that in perspective, students could be paying interest of up to 7% in real terms. Compare that to the 3 - 3.5% paid by holders of home loans. It would be roughly 6 percentage points higher than what their parents will receive from investments in CDs and most bonds. Moreover, these loans will be secured by students' earning power until their death since there is no provision for forgiveness, no statute of limitations, and no right to declare personal bankruptcy. The Treasury estimates total profits from the student loan business of $185 billion over the next decade.

  • The reaction to the student indebtedness crisis provides vivid testimony to the lack of leadership that plagues universities today. Their heads have failed to confront the challenge by calling out those responsible for the parlous state of budgets, the hike in tuition, the drying up of scholarships and the commensurate steep rise in student indebtedness. Efforts to raise public consciousness about the reasons for a generation of students' plight have been as meek as universities' political lobbying - where they exist at all. This attitude translates into financial hardship, delayed graduation and reduced net earnings. In a number of public universities, the most energetic response by administrators has been campaigns urging students to graduate in four years - as if that desired outcome depended simply on individual choices between studying and partying. No amount of freshman handouts emblazoned with "2017" logos will change the depressing arithmetic that the new class faces.
  • President Obama belatedly acknowledged the financial crisis of higher education in a much touted speech on August 21 in the course of his summer bus tour. It was vintage Obama: equal parts high-blown rhetoric, convenient distortion of the issue so as to cast blame on the impotent, and a set of conservative proposals that hold out little hope of changing anything fundamental. At the heart of the analysis was reiteration of the assertion that the universities must be held accountable for rising tuition. He called for a national "audit' to provide a public gauge of each institution's efficiency in terms of costs, tuition, graduation rates, and employment records of alumni. Only glancing reference was made to the variations from school to school in terms of state appropriation levels, endowment, academic record of students, socio-economic background of students, effects of student work schedules, or what constituted gainful employment. The last has become a popular measure of whether a university education is "worth it." Its widespread use is a marker of our times: ignoring work satisfaction, public value, long-term benefits. The President did not make reference to this phenomenon.
  • The Obama proposal for rating schools on affordability and graduation rates studiously avoided the question of how universities were supposed to cut costs. Lower faculty salaries? raise faculty-student ratios? squeeze more out of staff workers? Diversify into predatory banking? Nor did he confront the question of how financially stretched students were supposed to accelerate meeting degree requirements. Borrow more and then make sure to choose lucrative vocations? Work more and cut down on time-consuming habits like sleeping? The President did hold out the hope of more federal aid if schools demonstrated their commitment to making the necessary "reforms." However, the White House is not in a position to ensure that appropriations would be forthcoming. Moreover, the amounts visualized are a relative pittance that could not alter the underlying arithmetic of a college education.

The one practical proposal is to link the new rating system to the way federal financial aid is disbursed, with students attending highly-rated schools receiving larger grants and more affordable student loans. The rating system would be introduced in 2018. In other words, if you go to, or plan to go to a local junior college that doesn't meet the government's expectations, you'll have to pay more to get an education compromised by a cutback in the school's programs. However, you and your parents will have the choice of opting for another school that has met the government's expectations. Of course, a poor family in Jersey City may not have the liberty of sending their daughter to Contra Costa Community college in Northern California. Out-of-state tuition differentials are not part of the package - nor are interest free loans to purchase a condo in El Cerrito

So the President's ringing call for universities to be accountable fails to include holding the Chief Executive accountable for specifying the means for them to meet the objectives he demands. In short, we observe the hocus-pocus of trendy words bandied about - reform, evaluation, ranking - disconnected from tangible reality. The elementary school reform sham redux.

  • Finally, there is the "Mother Of All Panaceas": the fashionable pseudo-solution: MOOC (Mass Open On-line Courses) - internet based, distance learning. It blends the allure of electronic technology with the promise of vast improvements in efficiency. By efficiency is meant doing more with less. Less money, fewer faculty, many fewer full-time faculty, fewer classrooms. More students processed through formalized programs that produce a consistent product. "Modern times" revamps the university. The attraction is irresistible for financially hard-pressed institutions, for state legislatures and boards of regents, for administrators on the make, for aggrandizing universities that will provide the intellectual guidance and content.

The vision is built of unverifiable assumptions, faith in technological alchemy, a reconception of what higher education is meant to do, and a studied disregard for students viewed as something more than commodities. All is cemented by a widespread slight-of-hand that conceals a deal of dishonesty.

The recast university described here will inevitably produce generations of graduates who are - for the most part - self-absorbed careerists, politically passive, and with a dull sense of justice. For the powers that be, this is a welcome outcome - after all, they themselves thereby will have provided the model and the mold.