In the wake of campus protests spreading nationwide—from the University of Missouri, to Princeton, Smith, Ithaca and Claremont McKenna College, to mention the latest—it is tempting for those who have long been arguing for higher-education reform to remark, “We told you so!” For example, columnist George Will goes so far as to declare, “The institutions have brought this on themselves. So, regarding the campuses’ current agonies, schadenfreude is not a guilty pleasure, it is obligatory.”
The difficulty with this understandable reaction is that those who will suffer from the great campus crackup are not merely the intolerance-fomenting Dr. Frankenstein’s in the Academy. We all will be damaged—students, the economy, and, most threatening of all, democratic discourse, which requires robust freedom of speech and debate. Therefore, after correctly pointing to the self-destructiveness of the politicized Academy, it is time to offer a new way by which to save our schools from themselves.
To this end, reformers are aided by the fact that growing public awareness of the rising intolerance on our campuses provides everyday Americans with the “other half” of the higher-education crisis. Polls show that, for years, average Americans have been keen to tuition hyperinflation (average tuitions have jumped 440% nationwide in the past quarter-century) and crushing student-loan debt (which now stands at $1.2 trillion). But higher education’s faulty economics is the less important half of the crisis. The naked imposition of ideology in place of reasoned scholarship, which brings with it campus speech codes and other denials of free speech and debate, has always been the deeper, more virulent danger growing with the ivy on campus.
The suppression of free inquiry at our universities presages similar intolerance in our politics. A recent study of attitudes of current college students finds that, “by a margin of 51 percent to 36 percent, students favor their school having speech codes to regulate speech for students and faculty. Sixty-three percent favor requiring professors to employ ‘trigger warnings’ to alert students to material that might be discomfiting.”
The study also demonstrates that our universities have abdicated their responsibility for teaching American civics. Thus, “one-third of the students polled could not identify the First Amendment as the part of the Constitution that dealt with free speech.” Lacking this basis civic knowledge, it is not surprising that “thirty-five percent said that the First Amendment does not protect ‘hate speech.’”
In light of these findings, who says students don’t listen to their professors? The agenda driving the 1960s campus protests trickled down to the general public, changing our politics and culture forever. So, too, will the current campus chaos transform, if not transmogrify, our politics in the future.
What can be done? How might genuine higher education be resurrected? Those who thought the universities might reform themselves likely have been dissuaded by the events of the past few weeks, which demonstrate that the campus protests today, though directed against various administrators, are not battles over principles. Instead, the protesters are simply echoing the worldview they have been taught in the very universities against which they now rail.
This is a war among fellow ideological travelers. The students are demanding that colleges act fully on the principles that their teachers and administrators largely embrace and teach. This is the deepest reason these hapless higher-ups fold so easily to the demands of an intense but relatively small number of petitioners. These administrators have the nagging feeling that the protesters are merely calling on them to live up to the contemporary university’s highest aspirations.
Nor can we expect reform to come from government. As a recent Federal Reserve Bank study shows, the federal program of subsidized student loans is the single greatest cause of tuition hyperinflation. The study finds that for every dollar increase in Pell Grants, colleges raise tuition an average of 55 cents. For every dollar increase in federally subsidized student loans, colleges raise tuition an average of 65 cents. Recent calls by some politicians to subsidize “free college” will only exacerbate this trend: By shifting the financial burden of college from students to taxpayers—through loan forgiveness and Income-Based Repayment plans—colleges will continue to have no incentive to cut tuition—quite the opposite, in fact.
If we can look to neither universities nor government to reform higher education, where might we turn? Wrestling with this issue several years ago, I attempted to provide one possible roadmap for reform. Now that the Academy’s intellectual suicide mission is becoming public knowledge, I summarize my suggestions here in the hope that we have reached an inflection point in the national debate over higher education.
This roadmap begins with the findings of a nationwide study, titled, “The Financially Sustainable University,” which demonstrates that roughly one-third of American colleges and universities have put themselves in financially unsustainable positions—through overbuilding, overspending, and over-borrowing. For example, average university debt is increasing 12% a year, more than twice the rate of teaching-related expenses. In this crisis may lie an opportunity for reformers with financial backing.
As these schools begin to go bankrupt, those with the means to swoop down and rescue them would have the leverage to erect new regimes in their place. They could reestablish the required core curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences that was the norm for colleges until a half-century ago. At the same time, they could replace life-tenure with multi-year contracts for the majority of faculty, who, with reduced publication requirements, could teach more, thus allowing for lower student-faculty ratios. Lecture courses could consist of watching online video presentations of the best teachers in the country.
These measures would simultaneously increase student-learning outcomes and reduce the cost of education for students and their families. These schools could employ the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or a comparable test, as well as GRE Subject exams, to testify to their students’ progress in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and writing skills, as well as discipline-specific proficiencies. These measurements of output could be broadcast in an effort to encourage prospective students and their parents to look past the questionable superiority of many “elite” schools. Finally, these universities could offer three-year degrees, something that has been practiced in Great Britain for centuries. This too would lower costs and likely spur student interest at a time when student-loan debt exceeds total national credit-card debt.
This sketch of a path not yet taken would doubtless be littered with daunting roadblocks, chief among which would be the regional accrediting bodies, whom critics regard as gatekeepers for the higher-education cartel. But these bodies are likely to lose some leverage as more universities declare bankruptcy. After all, the accredited schools’ dues keep the accrediting bodies alive.
Now that higher education’s war on free speech is making headlines, will those with the financial means to address the crisis be sufficiently roused to fund alternatives to the status quo? If so, the unabashed campus intolerance on display of late could turn out to be the jolt that was needed to restore intellectual freedom and, with it, rigorous education.