Jonathan Twingley for The Chronicle
By Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus
We’d like to think we’re not naïve. Although our book, Higher Education?, mentioned much that needed fixing, we didn’t expect universal agreement, let alone concerted action. Indeed, anyone who publishes a work that criticizes indifferent teaching, unconscionable costs, abuse of contingent faculty, and the sacrosanct status of tenure ought to expect some pushback.
In the year since the book appeared, we’ve continued to visit campuses and have heard from readers informally. What has struck us is how many issues are off the table, as if there are placards saying, “Not Open for Discussion.” We find this particularly distressing in a scholarly community supposedly devoted to freewheeling inquiry. Most of our critics are fellow academics, some of whom seem to find us guilty by association, since we happen to hold a few views in common with conservative commentators. For the record: Our ideology is rooted more in Paul Goodman than Allan Bloom.
We have brushed off blogs calling us “anti-intellectual,” even one warning us to “stay off drugs.” More typical was, “If tenure is so bad, how did American higher education become a model for excellence in the world?” This last, we found, was the default response to any questioning of the status quo. A more formal analysis complained that we “showed little understanding of the intellectual richness and variety that have made American universities the envy of observers around the world.” That is much like answering critics of health care by citing the Mayo Clinic and its international clientele. Does the clinic’s success mean we can’t mention that millions of uninsured must resort to emergency rooms? We can’t see how the triumphs at Caltech give Michigan State a pass for jamming 587 freshmen into Economics 101.
For the most part, the senior professors and administrators we have spoken with seem quite content with how things are. And those, notably junior faculty, who believe that things have gone wrong tend to stay silent. Even presidents, who often told us privately that our critiques were overdue, stick to bromides in public.
We wrote our book as the country was staggering through a drastic downturn, with some college endowments approaching dips of 30 percent, and students and their families having less wherewithal for college bills. When real people are tightening their belts, we wondered if some of the outlays we cited last year—nonacademic amenities, metastasizing bureaucracies, seven-figure salaries for presidents—would be examined and altered. Sadly, we have found no sign that higher education is any more willing to scrutinize its role and responsibilities than are mortgage-bundling banks. Here is an update on some areas we still find especially troubling: Read more…