Are American Universities Going the Way of General Motors?

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.