The Economist recently asked what it calls a “mischievous” question: Are the vaunted American universities going the way of GM? It’s a serious question, but The Economist’s sense of timing leaves something to be desired, just like when the magazine predicted the housing collapse in San Francisco five years too soon. This time, The Economist is years late.
The American universities, or at least a number of departments within them, became like GM long before GM became like GM.
The policies that brought the demise began decades ago, and there is disparate impact. The “cake” departments are already desiccating. The sciences, mathematics, and engineering, beyond the undergraduate level, are still doing well despite the administrative bloat The Economist justifiably sees as a continuing institutional threat.
My favorite indicator of the problems universities face is a memorandum that circulates in many universities near finals time. In the day of email, it is an actual hard copy on real stationery, complete with the signature of some high-ranking administrator.
It begins with some nonsense about “academic excellence,” something few of us have seen for decades and many would no longer recognize. “Excellence” is the leading shibboleth during campus fund-raising campaigns directed at a gullible public.
Half-way through, the memorandum gets down to business. We are reminded of the university’s strong and unwavering — administrators love using a word and its synonym together — commitment to retention. Retention? Yes, retention. You don’t need a college degree to get the message.
The next paragraph reminds us that while the commitment extends to the entire student body, we should be especially mindful of the various victims groups whose voices have been silenced by institutionalized oppression. We are committed to retention for everyone, but affirmative retention for women and minorities. The remark reminds one of a parody of a liberal newspaper headline: “Meteor Collision to Extinguish all Life on Earth: Women and Minorities to Experience Disparate Impact.”
Somewhere, the memorandum will remind us of the institution’s need to pass so-called “cultural audits.”
No one knows what a cultural audit actually is, but once every so many years some distinguished minority member spends three days on campus and announces that the institution has passed its cultural audit. The campus press and local media then showcase the predictable result.
Part of academic cultural compliance is a bunch of courses in studies programs. These are required courses — no one in their right mind would take them if they weren’t — that were implemented through heavy pressure by the identity-group constituencies. No one ever lobbies for a required course in theoretical physics, advanced statistics, or an enhanced foreign language requirement. The intellectual challenge of studies programs is to keep your mouth shut irrespective of the nonsense being disseminated. If they tell you in black studies that Egypt was a black culture and the pyramids were built through levitation, you write that down in your notes and again on the examination.
Identity politics causes preferential grading, a phenomenon that impacts everyone because students, always psyching out the system, calculate the minimum they need to do to stay ahead of those anchoring the bottom class standard. With tuition costs rising as education quality decreases, students have to work more and more hours outside of school to pay for their educations. Gaming the system is as necessary to academic survival as balancing one’s schedule.
Among the inadvertent boons to gamesmanship has been a well-intentioned and often successful program called “writing across the curriculum,” which encourages the assignment of outside written papers. For students too intellectually challenged to rework material from the Internet, the program often supports a writing laboratory, where volunteers will edit your work to the point where the difference between your work and theirs is lost. To raise the issue of academic integrity is to challenge the entire program. No one does.
The editorial assistance students get is euphemistically called “heavy editing,” and at the graduate level, faculty committees have used the device to promote both their cultural audits and department productivity profiles. In reality, many dissertations are actually rewritten by faculty members to such an extent that it is difficult to attribute the final product to the student, but rest assured, the statistical entry will become part of the department’s successful profile.
With greater demand for statistical outcomes from a pool of students that brings to the educational process lesser intellectual and motivational material and from students who have to work longer hours to meet expenses, education becomes transformed into a bean-counting ritual. We still know how to grant degrees, but in many fields education has become so bureaucratized that we have forgotten what the goal of an education is.
The reason our system of higher education still works in the sciences and engineering is because serious fields draw serious students and because of the importation of a large number of highly motivated foreign students. Go to the buildings where the advanced classes in science and engineering are held and see who is taking them. The number of Asian students so dominated one of the science buildings on my campus that students dubbed it “the Asian bazaar.”
American higher education in the sciences and engineering will continue to thrive as long as we can entice highly motivated foreign students to come here and study in those fields. And, of course, we need to entice them to stay on here and not take their skills back home. More than half of all Silicon Valley start-ups were the results of the creative power of immigrants. Draining the intellectual power of the rest of the world has worked well for us. But when these students find educational and economic opportunities closer to home, there will be a profoundly negative impact on our higher education system. Some of these students might find that having to fulfill a cultural requirement with a class in “the lesser lesbian poets” is a sufficient enough turnoff to think about educational opportunities elsewhere.