American universities were once the envy of the world. They produced two things that every growing economy requires: breakthrough research and students equipped to go forth and make use of it. Both the teaching and the research missions depended on fact-based debates from people who shared a commitment to scientific inquiry.
Universities have begun to perform both of these critical missions poorly. The quality of research output is very poor in many fields, either because it is uselessly specialized and literally nobody reads it or because the findings cannot be reproduced by independent scholars. The teaching mission has likewise come under scrutiny because even our best universities are turning to overseas students in the face of declining test scores, they have increased costs faster than health care for a generation, and they produce graduates who are too often ignorant of history, mathematics, science, and the King’s English.
The results have not been good. Former Harvard president Derek Bok claimed that 98 percent of articles published in the arts and humanities and 75 percent in the social sciences are never cited by even one other researcher and the average science paper is cited less than twice. Google Scholar notes that 82 percent of humanities papers are never read once. In some fields, including psychology and biotech, the cost of validated research has skyrocketed because scholars have been unable to reproduce the results of a majority of peer-reviewed research. The Journal Science estimates the cost of irreproducible research now exceeds $28 billion annually. These are not results that inspire confidence in the research of modern universities.
Although professional and graduate programs continue to produce competent graduates, the results of most undergraduate educations inspire little confidence with respect to knowledge, capabilities, or values. Forests have fallen to print the research on educational decline. K-12 schools are getting their share of blame, in part because overall teacher quality has fallen. Undergraduate instruction is no better: tenured faculty have heavily subcontracted their teaching responsibilities to adjuncts, who now do 75% of the heavy classroom work for a fraction of the pay.
As they have declined, universities have become a cultural and ideological wasteland that is difficult for most Americans to grasp. Any knowledge-based economy values enormously the research and talent output of its best universities. America’s global competitiveness (meaning our standard of living) depends directly on both.
Without attempting a comprehensive solution, it is important to keep a close eye on two features of university life that tend to restrict change: tenure and academic orthodoxy. American universities became the envy of the world because of a commitment to research, teaching, and learning based on competitive admissions, demanding curriculum, painfully high standards of academic accomplishment, and the emphasis on critical thinking and freely debating issues in every field.
Tenure has a slightly different justification and history for university faculty who conduct research, the great majority who teach, and K-12 faculty. Originally academic tenure was designed to protect the right of faculty to dissent at eighteenth century religious schools. K-12 tenure came to the US 90 years ago when faculty in New Jersey protested the practice firing incumbent faculty to give teaching jobs as patronage to supporters and family members. There has never been a modern public policy justification for tenure among K-12 faculty, nor among college faculty who do no research.
Research faculty defend tenure as allowing them to challenge orthodoxy and publish controversial research findings. This almost never happens however, and a quick glance at faculty incentives reveals the reason. Elite University faculty gain access to the prestigious publications that determine professional success by earning strong reviews from their peers. Peer review, with or without tenure, ensures both conformity and specialization. It makes faculty much less likely to be controversial or unorthodox. So long as academics are peer reviewed, tenure cannot protect them from the adverse effects of controversial views. As a result, scholars will be rewarded for specializing.
Tenure and strong faculty governance makes managing change at a university very difficult. Setting new priorities is virtually impossible. Clark Kerr once concluded that “The call for effectiveness in the use of resources will be perceived by many inside the university world as the best current definition of evil.” He claimed that university faculty rarely “can agree on more than the preservation of the status quo”. Like their distant cousins, physicians, priests, and union organizers, professors often pursue their profession as a calling, not an occupation. They oppose cost-controlling managers out of a conviction that “accountability” or “productivity” are anti-intellectual concepts.
For this reason, many college campuses have difficulty merging an undersubscribed Danish Studies programs or fully utilizing expensive campuses that empty out for three months each summer. By making compliance with management direction voluntary, organizational change at schools and universities becomes almost impossible. It is frequently impossible to remove unproductive faculty or poor teachers — and unnecessarily difficult to remove abusive ones.
Teaching may be worse. In order to avoid the cost of tenured faculty, colleges and universities outsource undergraduate teaching as though it were peripheral to the mission of the institution. Today only a third of college and university faculty are either tenured or eligible to be. Another third are full-time adjuncts (often paid as contractors), and another third are part-time adjuncts – the day laborers of the academy. Many adjunct faculty are inspiring and very effective teachers, but at a pay averaging $3,000 per course or less, and no influence in faculty governance, adjuncts quickly grow to resent the system of feudal privilege at the heart of modern universities.
In 1988, the UK replaced tenure with a system of academic self-governance based on employment contracts that can be revoked due to redundancy, conduct, or performance. What happened? Not much, except that it became possible to replace faculty who needed replacing. Tenure is a collective action problem of the sort that governments are meant solve. The Internal Revenue Service can refuse tax exempt status to any school that extends to any employee an employment agreement with a duration longer than three years. The logic of this rule is clear: a nonprofit organization earns its tax exempt status by delivering public services, not simply improving the lifetime incomes of those they employ. Likewise, the Department of Education can refuse to authorize the release of federal student loan funds to any school with employment agreements longer than three years, since tenure contributes needlessly to costs that the government is helping finance. Schools with no interest in receiving public subsidies in the form of nonprofit status or student loans would be free to grant tenure all they like.
Academic orthodoxy is more insidious and probably more damaging than tenure. Colleges and universities are the one place in American life where ideas, even nutty ones, should be given free reign. A college campus, above all places in American life, is meant to be a cauldron of intellectual and ideological diversity that produces a healthy ferment of competing ideas and values. On this dimension, the campus nearest me, UC Berkeley, is a scandal. An academic study of the campus faculty recently confirmed what it dryly termed the “one-party campus conjecture”.
“For UC-Berkeley” it concluded, “we found an overall Democrat:Republican ratio of 9.9:1”. Translation: one Republican on the faculty for every 99 Democrats. I seriously wonder if any corporation, church, or even the University of Tehran can top this for ideological homogeneity?
Where, precisely, is the clash of ideas and values that is training our engineers, scientists, designers, and market makers of the future in a faculty of ideological sheep who may preach diversity but practice extreme conformity. This while defending their need for lifetime tenure to protect a right to dissent they tremble to exercise.
Talent, creativity, initiative, academic excellence, and hard work come in a huge variety of packages. Universities however, increasingly judge the packaging, not the demonstrated capacity for creativity, leadership, or academic excellence. Worse, having preached the value of diverse packaging, they impose a stifling ideological conformity not only on faculty, but on student thought as well. The result is the sort of intolerance that led students to riot because a protofascist speaker came to campus. A golden opportunity for heated debate and real education was needlessly lost. The masked, black-hooded protesters who lit fires and trashed stores in protest of an ultraright speaker plainly have no sense of irony – much less respect for diversity.
Faculty have a great deal to answer for. Above them, university leaders are simply not what they used to be (and yes, i am married to a Berkeley Dean, who endorses not a word of this post — but who tolerated ideological diversity better than many). Presidents of the great universities were once extraordinarily influential figure in American public and cultural life. They went on to become national leaders like Woodrow Wilson, a racist pig even by the standards of his time who left Princeton to become governor of New Jersey. Others had global reputations like Dwight Eisenhower, who ran Columbia after saving the world from fascism. Still others played major national roles, like Harvard’s James Bryant Conant who helped ramp up the Manhattan Project or Chicago’s Robert Hutchens who pioneered modern Socratic teaching and founded the briefly influential Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.
These were serious people — individuals not easily swayed by fads or subject to intellectual cowardice. One can only imagine what they would make of the modern university president — a person in the thrall of a campus religion called “diversity” that determines the correctness and acceptability of ideas with the confidence and breadth of Sharia or Biblical law. They would have pointed out that diversity requires division. It requires divisiveness. It requires conflicting points of view. Some of those will come from different life experiences, whether those differences are economic, racial, gender-based, or national. It’s a good thing to have students from poor as well as affluent, black and Latino as well as white and Asian, men (the minority by far) as well as women, Cubans and Germans as well as Americans. It’s also good to have shy students, rural students, and math majors. But all of this diversity only has value if students can give free expression to the viewpoints that arise from their different backgrounds. This means a lot of diverse and conflicting views. An institution that collects diverse people and teaches them to think and speak the same way is not a university; it is a cult.
Real diversity is not free — it imposes costs. It is very difficult and it is expensive — meaning that if you value diversity above all, you will devalue other things, including community. Diversity also requires a generosity of spirit and tolerance not commonly found in eighteen year-olds. Small misunderstandings are magnified and ascribed motives in highly diverse environments. Students who are praised for victimhood, for reacting to “micro-aggressions” are the precise opposite of students prepared to embrace genuine diversity. They will be in for a shock when they hit the workplace.
Fake diversity extracts a real price. Last week, the Dean of Students at Claremont McKenna College resigned in response to massive student protests. Her offense? An online essay by a Latina student who felt that she did not belong at CMC. The Dean reached out thoughtfully, but. as the always-worthwhile Jonathan Haidt reports here, “the response was explosive. Protests, hunger strikers, demands for mandatory faculty sensitivity training, and demands that dean Spellman apologize and resign. Which she did.”
Haidt has become a national leader on the question of campus orthodoxy. His most recent book, and the title of his website where he blogs, is The Righteous Mind. He has an excellent Atlantic article here, a post on micro-aggression here, a WSJ column on race here, and one on true diversity here.
Needless to say, Haidt has his detractors, some of them not terribly cordial. To which my only answer is: thank God he has tenure!