3 Reasons Higher Education Is Broken -- and How To Fix It

“Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”

Alas, I can’t accurately attribute that quotation because, appropriately enough, its authorship is disputed.

Another truism of contested paternity holds that the absurdity of the modern world long ago rendered satire impossible.

Conveniently enough, these two sayings go together like keggers and frats. Having cleverly avoided going to college myself, I have it on good authority from the less fortunate that fictional spoofs of academia (Moo, Lucky Jim) are more like grimly amusing documentaries.

Doesn’t Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000) — about an African American professor passing for white who’s falsely accused of racism for calling ghosts “spooks” — sound more like a news story than a novel?

Especially this week.

The depressing saga of Naomi Schaefer Riley demonstrates how hard it’s become to distinguish fact from fiction — or in her case, The Onion from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The latter (supposedly more sober and reputable) publication fired Riley on May 7 merely for blogging about “some of the absurdities appearing in the field of black studies.”

Ron Radosh reported on what happened next:

Noting that there were legitimate problems to address about the plight facing the black community today, Riley argued that they were not being addressed in black studies departments. Instead, she argued, all they want to do is engage in arguments that blame everything on the white man.

The result of Riley’s article — again, her opinion — was an avalanche of protest to the Chronicle’s letters section. The editors told readers that they received “thousands” of protests.

Then, of course, Riley’s dismissal provoked another flurry of commentary, this time — like Radosh’s post — in her defense.

The narrative was irresistible, a veritable Tom Wolfe novel in miniature.

Everything about the story — from the ponderous, pretentious titles of the dissertations Riley mocked, to the unedifying spectacle of black scholars “lynching” a “racist” white writer (whose husband happens to be African American) —  epitomized the stubborn root rot afflicting the groves of academe.

So now seemed like the perfect time to ask Riley —  previously best known as the author of last year’s The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons You Won’t Get the College Education You Pay For — what she thinks are the biggest problems facing higher education today, and whether or not reform is even possible.

# 3 – Research

When I reached Riley by phone, she was remarkably calm, helpful, and in surprisingly good voice, despite having fielded who knows how many calls over the previous 48 hours.

Asked about the main problems plaguing higher education today, she cited a crisis in what constitutes “research.”

She shared a story about one veteran professor who told her that when he’d started teaching 30 years ago, “people brought their research in, in loose leaf binder. Now it’s a whole Xerox box of it.”

Today’s professors are rewarded for conducting research, not for actually teaching, a tiresome task they leave to underpaid, overworked, and under-qualified underlings.

Furthermore, “the number of people reading the results of all this research” is lower than ever before, because no one can possibly keep up with the sheer volume of “findings” — some of which (as she explained in her controversial Chronicle blog post) are of dubious quality and utility.

Riley traced the origins of this predicament to the decision to “apply the standards of hard sciences to the humanities.” Obviously (at least to most people) those standards aren’t universal; the objective discovery of a new drug or animal species can’t be compared to a subjective dissertation on, say, navigational imagery in the poems of Anne Sexton.

Yet that is how today’s research is judged.

Except that, ironically, the humanities  are so politicized that much of this “research” is conducted in the exact reverse order of the scientific method: ideological students and instructors form conclusions first (i.e., “America is racist, fascist and imperialist”) then “prove” their thesis, instead of the other way around.

Worse, every thesis must be completely original, a ridiculous demand that results in the proliferation of absurd, self-indulgent topics on offer in every college course catalog.

(“Buffy studies,” anyone?)

#2 – Money

From endowments to tuition to the student loan system to the dwindling return on one’s educational investment, money lies at the heart of higher education’s malaise, says Riley.

She’s previously cited the work of Mark Taylor in this regard. The chairman of Columbia University’s religion department, Taylor is also the author of Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities.

Writing about Taylor’s findings for the WSJ, Riley observed:

But Mr. Taylor believes that reform is inevitable, because there is indeed a crisis on campus, akin to the one that financial institutions faced when the housing bubble burst.

“The value of college and university assets (i.e., endowments) has plummeted,” he writes. “The schools are overleveraged, liabilities are increasing, liquidity is drying up, fixed costs continue to climb, their product is increasingly unaffordable and of questionable value in the marketplace and income is declining.”

Mr. Taylor’s rhetoric may be overheated, but the gist of his claim is certainly correct. As he notes, Harvard has a formidable endowment, but it is also $5 billion in debt.

Since Taylor’s book came out a few years ago, warnings about the “higher education bubble” have increased exponentially, but concrete solutions or prevention strategies seem scarce on the ground. Perhaps the inevitable is simply too horrifying to contemplate.

And the average American is understandably complacent. After all, as long as the federal government is in charge of the student loan business, says Riley, taxpayers, parents, and students can remain mostly ignorant of the real costs of higher education.

Universities know they can charge whatever they want for tuition — after all, “the government” will happily foot the bill.

Right up until the moment they can’t….

For those unafraid of confronting and possibly averting the looming meltdown, Riley recommends looking at the research performed by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. This free market think tank offers a report called 25 Ways to Reduce the Cost of College, and is dedicated to diminishing what it aptly calls the “stagnant efficiency of higher education” in the United States.

#1 – Tenure

Riley believes that the tenure system is far and away the key flaw in the higher education system.

Eliminating tenure, she believes, would automatically wipe many of these other problems off the white board.

“Teaching is a dynamic profession,” Riley explained, one “that needs to be evaluated on a regular basis. Tenure prevents this from happening.”

Yes, professors will object to student evaluations, citing the mean-spirited reviews found at sites like RateMyProfessors.

However, Riley insists that such evaluations would only make up part of the reformed procedure. She cleverly suggests asking students to grade their professors and classes a few years after graduation, for example. Doing so would allow student opinion to mellow somewhat, and eliminate their fears that critical reviews would impact their own marks.

Riley also suggests replacing tenure with multi-year contracts, thereby increasing opportunities for young adjuncts to move up the career ladder.

But isn’t tenure so ingrained in the system that it would be impossible to abolish?

First of all, Riley doesn’t favor abolishing tenure entirely. Professors with tenure would retain it — after all, they’ve signed contracts to that effect.

However, under her ideal system, tenure would no longer be available to new hires.

She points out that state legislatures theoretically have the power to abolish tenure at state universities, although doing so would require a strong mandate, and stronger stomachs on the part of lawmakers. Private colleges could certainly do so as well.

Riley believes that getting rid of tenure would also inject a much-needed dose of reality into the rarefied world of higher education, by making universities “look like the rest of the American economy.”

“Academics tell me they need tenure or else they could be fired tomorrow,” says Riley.

“But is that really how the rest of the American workforce operates? Is the average worker really living in fear that they could be fired tomorrow?”

“My own circumstances aside…” she added wryly.

Related at PJ Lifestyle: This Is The Way The Higher Education Bubble Ends…