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If America’s universities have the responsibility to help inculcate the values crucial to the success of our republic, they are not doing a very good job. One of the many troubling aspects of the January 6th attack on the Capitol was that some of our most highly educated senators worked in the service of lies and the anti-democratic opposition to certification of the 2020 election. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is a graduate of Princeton with a law degree from Harvard. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) is a graduate of Stanford with a law degree from Yale. These two fonts of falsehoods are not that unusual, sadly, in putting their higher educations in the service of demagoguery. 100% of our senators have a bachelor’s degree or a higher level of educational attainment. The percentage of the college-educated leaders in Congress has risen steadily since WW II. Congress, despite being highly educated, has failed to make Congress more effective in looking after the Constitution and the welfare of U.S. citizens.
As Michael J. Sandel laments in The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good, a government festooned with more diplomas has given us: “stagnant wages, financial deregulation, income inequality, the financial crisis of 2008, a bank bailout that did little to help ordinary people, a decaying infrastructure, and the highest incarceration rate in the world.”[i] One might also add: anti-intellectualism and the promotion of lies, xenophobia, and racism. Congress has helped big business to privatize gain and socialize loss. A quick glance at past scandals in the business world makes one shudder at the scope of the moral failures, and the high cost to the public of those failures. Enron, LIBOR, Theranos, the credit-rating agencies, Valeant Pharmaceuticals, and Facebook are only a few of the recent unregenerate players. It compels many to wonder: what values do our schools nurture in their graduates?
Worry about the content of higher education—its soul, its ability to improve the values and comity of America—has been a perennial theme among critics of the right. In God and Man at Yale (1951), William F. Buckley, Jr., accused Yale University of becoming too secular, too Keynesian, too liberal, and too supportive of socialism and self-serving elites. Sound familiar? Seven decades after its publication, Buckley’s book still informs the work of countless conservative critics, websites, Fox news, and think-tanks. The book’s animus is one of the many presiding spirits in battles over our public grade schools and high schools. According to a 2019 Pew Research poll, 59% of Republicans believe that colleges have a negative effect on the United States.[ii] Faith in college as a good escalator to the American Dream has been waning. Faith in teachers and experts generally has declined.
Several trends—financial, political, and demographic—have been reshaping colleges and universities. For alumni, academic professionals, students, and concerned citizens, it’s important to grasp just how many forces give colleges and universities no choice but to adapt and evolve. I have known many academic professionals who believe that deans are the kind of people who have foreheads behind which good ideas go to die. That assessment, of course, is unfair. Leaders of public colleges and universities are often handed excremental sandwiches from state budget cuts, from downturns in the economy, from the changing priorities of high school graduates, or from a combination of all these things. Deans often have no choice but to share those awful sandwiches with their stakeholders on campus. To understand the scope of problems facing academic leaders, let’s look at a few of the awful ingredients on their charcuterie boards.
Seven Trends Changing Higher Education
State Budget Cuts. The Great Recession of 2009 triggered revenue shortfalls among most state treasuries. To balance their budgets, state legislators cut state budgets generally, including budget lines for public colleges and universities. This caused mounting pressures for academic leaders to eliminate or reduce support for departments with low enrollments. To offset the losses of state funding, public colleges increased tuition and fees, which, in turn, made college less hospitable to the poorest high school graduates. In North Carolina, for example, the state’s per-student funding declined by 20% over 2008 levels—a cut of $2,466 per student. By 2016, tuition increased by more than $2,000 in constant dollars, adjusted for inflation.[iii] Contributing to the rising cost of a four-year college degree, state budget cuts have helped the rising cost of college to outpace the rate of inflation for decades now.
Partisan Zealotry for Smaller Government. Some of the state budget cuts were due the Republican gospel that the drive to smaller government and lower taxes is always virtuous, even in good economic years. Since the cost of public education is part of the state’s overall budget, academe was often a victim of state-wide budget cutting, or academe faced flat appropriations, even while the state’s student population was growing. Counties with big universities are reliably blue on electoral maps, and this, too, sometimes draws the resentments of Republican legislators, whose ire must sometimes be moderated by the local business community, who need a more highly educated work force. Whereas state contributions once comprised 75% or more of a public university’s budget, state support contributes less than 30% now. This has been a major contributor to escalating fees and tuitions at our public colleges and universities.
Growing Student Debt. In 2010, nationally, student loan debt surpassed consumer credit card debt. This was a monstrous change. The Federal Reserve estimated that Americans owed more than $1.7 trillion in student loans in 2020. Since 2010, student loan debt has increased by 102%.[iv] The high levels of debt among students compel students to make pragmatic, vocational choices for their education and for their hopes for financial success and freedom from debt. A liberal arts education seems more and more like a liability to students who are falling deep into debt, and who have seen job-insecurity in their own families.
A Disruption in the Enrollments of International Students. While state legislators cut public university budgets, or left those budgets stagnant, public universities began to cultivate enrollments of international students. International students pay out-of-state tuition—at a much higher price point than that paid by students who are citizens of a public university’s home state. The Trump era fostered a new belligerence towards foreigners, and the enrollments of international students declined. The inept U.S. management of the pandemic had also dissuaded international students from enrolling here. The numbers of international students dropped by 8% in 2020. From 2018 to 2019, the amount of money international students contributed to the U.S. economy fell by 4.4%, or by $1.8 billion.[v] The loss of all that out-of-state tuition contributed to deficits at some institutions. International enrollments seem be rebounding now, but the deficits of previous years are an enduring burden for some institutions.
Declining Undergraduate Enrollments. Even before the pandemic, university leaders were concerned about demographic trends that foretold a drop in enrollments. The pandemic accelerated and steepened that decline, although some of the biggest flagship universities have fared well. University of Utah and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, both enjoyed especially robust enrollments for the fall of 2021, but most institutions saw declines, especially community colleges. From the Great Recession until 2018, the birthrate in the U.S. declined, and that meant fewer high-school grads going to college. Had birthrates remained at 2007 levels, an additional 6.6 million children would be in our systems of education today. The lower birthrate delivered big losses for higher education.[vi] Institutions that had operated for 100 years or more have failed: St. Gregory’s University, in Oklahoma; Marylhurst University, in Oregon; Green Mountain College, in Vermont; and the College of New Rochelle, in New York.[vii] At many surviving schools, restructuring and budget cuts are inevitable. Undergraduate enrollment generally fell by 4.9% this past fall, but community college enrollment dropped by 9.5%. That’s a decline of 727,000 undergrads in just one year. There’s a 7% decline in students going directly to college after high school. [viii]
A Hard-Knock Economy. The economic disruptions, of course, are not just a source of institutional woe; they are personal heartaches, too. Due to the Great Recession and the pandemic, many students of Generation Z and the Millennials have seen job insecurity in their own families. Half of the oldest members of Gen Z, those 18 to 24 years old, have seen family members lose their jobs, or they have seen their family members forced to accept a pay cut.[ix] The challenging economy has altered the regard that new students have for departments in the liberal arts. The high cost of a four-year education and familial job insecurity limits a prospective student’s plans for college. It makes vocational training and careerist choices more urgent.
Growing Diversity and Activism Among Students. Where one generation may have found universal verities in the study of the arts and humanities, another generation finds systems of oppression that perpetuate racism, sexism, and the exploitation of the poor. Among today’s college students in the U.S., 22% speak a language other than English at home. Their poverty rate is 12.3%. The majority of students are now people of color.[x]Doubting the relevance of some college classes is a perennial problem, perhaps more so now due to the growing diversity of students. What, in the arts and humanities, makes a course of study relevant to a new generation of students? Rolling out the greatest hits from the English literature of Britannia and America fails to attract students as it once did. Whereas BA degrees in English once accounted for 7% of the total BAs conferred across all disciplines, BAs in English are now less than 2% of the total.[xi] Students have “voted with their feet” and turned away from departments of History, Philosophy, French, German, Spanish, and many others in the arts and humanities.
The ABCs of Higher Education
The environment in which colleges operate has changed radically. New generations of students are profoundly different as well. Academe has no choice but to change, especially colleges of the arts and humanities.
It would be an amazing wonder if academic leaders would use the current crises to reform the university as a sower of civic virtues, humane values, cross-cultural understanding, and ethics. Of course, academe can’t prevent the transmogrification of its graduates into demagogues like Rudi Giuliani; but surely academe can cultivate more citizens who wish to promote truthfulness, civility, and our shared welfare. The pedagogical focus of too many institutions is too narrow as they mainly seek to equip students with expertise that will lead to remunerative careers. We live in an age of too much information and too little wisdom. To say universities should do more to foster wisdom and morality is to risk sounding antiquated, cornball, and impractical, even though acceptance of the status quo will only promote the deterioration of our democracy.
Imagine a renaissance in civics and moral philosophy at our colleges and universities—a new set of educational goals and values that seek to produce better citizens who are also more productive workers. Imagine colleges emphasizing a new set of ABCs:
Analytical Skills (quantitative analysis, statistics, media literacy, scientific method, policy development, literary interpretation, historical analysis, moral philosophy, etc.)
Behavioral Skills (ethics, personnel management, negotiation strategies, public speaking, active listening, teamwork, nonverbal communication, conflict resolution, etc.)
Communication Skills, Cross-cultural skills, and Civics (writing, oral speaking, business communication; study of other cultures, races, and religions; languages; the arts; literature, study of American political institutions and their history, etc.)
These ABCs, sadly, may seem like the vapors of a “a goo-goo fantasy,” as George Packer has called it. Most of us who have worked at colleges and universities know that academe is unlikely to rise above the narrow professionalism, specialization, and careerism that its current values promote. I hope that Gen Z students can change this with the help of new Millennial professors and administrators. The task is prodigious. It’s an encouraging sign, however, that students and faculty have mounted some splendid counter-maneuvers to restructuring plans, while many writers have made persuasive cases for the restoration of civics in our high schools and colleges.[xii] A bill called Civics Secure Democracy Act has been making its way through Congress. The bill has bipartisan support, and it would devote $1 billion to the teaching of American history and civics.
In the last century, world wars and the Cold War compelled university leaders to try to educate better citizens, advocates of democracy, who were ready, willing, and able to thwart fascism, communism, and totalitarianism. President Harry S. Truman said, “first and most essential charge upon higher education is that at all levels and in all its fields of specialization, it shall be the carrier of democratic values, ideals, and process.” Moral philosophy—a study of civics, ethics, and community service—was once the capstone course of undergraduate study. Amazingly, this class was often taught by the president of the university.[xiii] Today, it’s easier to imagine a university president as a teacher of Fundraising 101 and Advanced Flackery 405. Higher education has lost the vestigial remnants of the divinity schools from which modern universities have evolved. As if fallen into a blue fog of dementia—higher education has forgotten its original, more high-minded personality. If the modern university serves any divinity, the overlord is Mammon.
The role of big money in academentia was well illustrated by the debacle at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where a major donor, Walter Hussman, Jr., helped to thwart an offer of tenure to journalist and professor Nicole Hannah-Jones. Hussman and other conservative critics had criticized her work for the 1619 Project of The New York Times, even though Hannah-Jones had earned a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Grant for this writing and research on the history of slavery and racism. Hussman had donated $25 million to the university’s journalism school, which bears his name. University leaders, at first, sought to appease Hussman, along with Republican board members and legislators who control the purse strings of North Carolina’s system of public universities. The university’s courtship of money and its deference to partisan politics illustrate how money and politics can corrupt the public university.
Civic-minded reform of the university seems unlikely given academe’s preference for the monetization of everything that can be monetized on campus. The conservative detractors of academe have focused on the ascendancy of identity politics as a corrupting influence, in addition to the godlessness, Keynesian economics, and socialism that Buckley had attacked. Heather Mac Donald’s The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture is a good example of this. Liberal detractors of the university, on the other hand, tend to focus on money-grubbing and the influence of big business as the major corrupting influences. In these critiques, “the Kept University” is the mistress to the Sugar Daddy of big corporate enterprise.[xiv]
In their magisterial book about “the Market-Model University,” Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money, authors James Englell and Anthony Dangerfield catalog “the Three Criteria” that inspire the decision-making of the modern university. Academic success is defined by:
A Promise of Money. The field is popularly linked (even if erroneously) to improved chances of securing an occupation or profession that promises above average lifetime earnings.
A Knowledge of Money. The field itself studies money, whether practically or more theoretically, i.e., fiscal, business, financial, or economic matters and markets.
A Source of Money. The field receives significant external money, i.e., research contracts, federal grants or funding support, or corporate underwriting.[xv]
An academic department that fails to meet at least one of these criteria will usually suffer from the university’s indifference, budget cuts, or termination, no matter how much that department may cultivate creativity, empathy, civic-minded thinking, and an ability to pursue truth amid the daily barrage of misinformation. At the University of Tulsa in 2019, students staged a funeral for all the courses that the university had slated for termination—Philosophy, Religion, Theater, Musical Theater, Music, and Languages—while the university doubled down on STEM and business majors. In 2018, the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, rolled out a restructuring plan included the termination of these majors: American Studies, Art, English, French, Geography, Geoscience, German, History, Social Science, Music Literature, Philosophy, Political Science, Sociology, and Spanish. Meanwhile, it planned to expand programs in these disciplines: Chemical Engineering, Computer Information Systems, Conservation Law Enforcement, Finance, Fire Science, Graphic Design, Management, and Marketing. In 2019, however, UW, Stevens Point, scrapped its restructuring plan due to effective opposition from faculty members all across the state. The professors on all of Wisconsin’s campuses understood that Stevens Point was an intimation of what could happen at their own colleges or universities.
Reforming Higher Education
Each aging generation produces its own perverse nostalgia. It laments that the Golden Age of (fill in the blank) is far behind us—that poetry no longer matters, that the Belle Epoque was the most glamorous of times, that popular music was better in the 1970s, or that America has lost its former greatness. If you were to read all the satirical novels set in academia[xvi] along with all the critiques from the right and the left—from God and Man at Yale to Saving Higher Education in an Age of Money, you would be certain that universities are dying, or that they are destructively crass, or that they are nothing but factories of America-hating radicals. You would wonder how any college can still remain a happy and fruitful place, where students are on the verge of new lives, new knowledge, and new careers. And yet the college does remain a fruitful place, and it will be happier once the pandemic is better controlled. The Golden Age of academe is not in the distant past, but academe has neglected a number of its good qualities—like disinterested inquiry, freedom of speech, civics, and moral philosophy—that would help academe better serve our democracy and the common good. Colleges and universities are resilient institutions for the most part. Students, faculty, alumni, and voters can be engineers for continued effectiveness of these institutions. During the pandemic, academe’s swift transition to online learning proved how agile academe can be in embracing change.
The consensus around the need to teach civics provide an opportunity to improve higher education beyond the mere addition of another course required for a degree. It should be an occasion to improve upon the objectives, goals, and values of each course of study, which can be improved by a better balance of vocational classes and classes in the arts and humanities. Because the cost of a four-year education has become so expensive, because students carry high levels of indebtedness, and because job insecurity is a fact of family life now, the attractiveness of what are deemed more profitable programs of study is here to stay. It would be spectacularly unfair to disparage the new students of Gen Z as crass. For the arts and humanities, the old levels of majors will not return anytime soon. The problem isn’t the students; it’s the economy. The path to economic security is more challenging now, especially for those who are among the first generation of their families to go to college. Academe must respect and serve their preferences and needs. Nonetheless, given the many moral failures in business and politics, academe should also do what it can to inculcate the vales and virtues of better citizens, academe also needs to do more to integrate those high-minded ABCs into majors of all disciplines: analytical skills, behavioral skills, communication skills, cross-cultural skills, and civics. Many of those skills are best taught by classes in the arts and humanities. Campus leaders should revisit the distribution requirements of their colleges. While they seek to train skilled employees, campus leaders need to be more high-minded about what values and virtues their graduates should embody.
The decision-making that drives some of the restructuring has been superficial. It is often too narrowly focused on the production of skilled employees, rather than focused on striking a balance between the practice of specialized skills and the practice of intellectual, creative, and moral stewardship for the common good. The restructuring plan at University of Wisconsin, Steven Point, was especially dimwitted, like many plans driven by financial crises. Take, for instance, the plan’s objective to kill the Art Department, except for classes in Graphic Design, even though classes in art and art history enrich any graphic designer’s ability to produce good work for business. The synergies among disciplines of STEM, business, and arts and humanities can be creative, productive, and profound.
Steve Jobs is among the most famous of college dropouts, but in the short while he attended Reed College, he studied calligraphy. The class awakened in him a respect for aesthetics, typography, and good design, which he took with him to Apple. Reflecting Jobs’s love of calligraphy, Apple computers were the first personal computers to be friendly to graphic design because you could apply a variety of different fonts to any text, while the interface of Apple machines was also far more attractive. (Personal computers running Windows had ugly interfaces for decades. What_was_up_with_all_those_ugly_fonts_and_all_that_atrocious_ underscoring_in_early iterations_ of_Windows?) Jobs had dabbled in the liberal arts, and that made him more creative and more successful than just another narrowly trained specialist of computer science.
Just as universities need to seek a balance in their curricula that can help foster the best citizens, the best minds, and the best employees, each academic department in the arts and humanities needs to revisit the objectives and goals of its pedagogy. Many departments of the arts and humanities have begun good campaigns to inform prospective students that their majors can provide strong preparation for many kinds of careers. The website of the Department of History at National University, explains how a major in history is excellent preparation for careers in advertising, marketing, museum curatorship, journalism, politics, and law.[xvii] Many departments of English have offered similar exhibits on the utility of the English major.
But do the professors of all these embattled departments really practice methods of teaching that advance the general utility of their majors? Teachers of undergraduates can sometimes be frustrated professors who would rather be teaching a graduate seminar. The interests of the undergraduate professors can too often skew towards specialized content that is more useful to future professors. Some undergraduate classes in the arts and humanities are too preoccupied with specialized content. Academe excels at promoting research, while it often does a middling job in promoting excellence in teaching.
A professor’s pedagogy, if it really helps to make a class broadly useful, should be more self-aware about the process of learning—the trial an error of testing new ideas, the components of good research, the challenge of persuasive argument, etc. The process of education can provide wisdom and experience that complements and improves the content that the class offers.
The best college professors know they are not just delivering specialized content. They teach students how to think deeply, impartially, and independently. They foster an understanding of other times and other cultures. They nurture writing and public speaking skills. T.K. Barton, a professor who taught at my alma mater, Colorado College, was a splendid example of the effective teacher of the arts and humanities. One of his peers in the Department of History wrote this, in memoriam, about his teaching:
Taking a course with Tom K. meant learning to write better. He conducted a private war against barbarisms, notably the passive voice. He also asked students to read and critique each other’s work, often in marathon sessions at his house that he sweetened with homemade blintzes. He did his part, attacking shoddy thinking with pointed and occasionally acerbic comments, and praising crisp, cogent argument in the same direct way. He supported his students, seeing them through with personal attention.[xviii]
Students, unfamiliar with his legend, were often astounded at how much careful commentary he left on their papers: questions pointing towards inaccuracies, comments on glib erasures of complexities, and protests against dangling participles. Barton did this in a style that was conversational rather than condescending. The novelist and former lawyer for the California Supreme Court, Michael Nava, was one of T.K. Barton’s students. Of Barton’s conversational style, Nava wrote:
I don’t know if calling his style of teaching conversational quite captures what I mean, but it was really effective. Socratic maybe but much gentler than in law school teaching. It did require you to clarify and articulate your thinking but only because he was the very model of clarity and articulation and you wanted to be up to his standard.
When T.K. Barton taught American history in the age of President Jackson, he was not just delivering content about a bygone era. Professor Barton created a process of learning that taught students how to think, how to research, and how to present oneself publicly as a more persuasive writer and speaker. He was also someone who thought his academic discipline was never complete, and that it was best practiced in concert with other academic disciplines. He was someone who helped his college to produce better citizens.
It’s a truism of politics and business that no crisis should be wasted. Each crisis affords managers and leaders with an opportunity to advance reforms that were long overdue. Some of the changes to the study of the arts and humanities will be slow, incremental, while other restructuring will be drastic. Some crises are not always met with the smartest plans of action, as was the case at the University of Wisconsin, Steven Point. It will be up to the faculty, the students, and the students to make sure the changes are made in keeping with the methods and values by which a university serves the common good. Academe needs to do more to make sure that there will be many reincarnations of teachers like T.K. Barton. With such professors, academe can do more to educate good citizens, and our republic will be stronger for it.
[i] Sandel, Michael J., The Tyranny of Merit (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux) 2020. Cited by Jenifer Senior in “95 Percent of Representatives Have a Degree. Look Where That’s Got Us,” The New York Times, 21 December 2020.
[ii] Parker, Kim, The Partisan Divide in Views of Higher Education, 19 August 2019. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2019/08/19/the-growing-partisan-divide-in-views-of-higher-education-2/
[iii] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, SHEF 2015; Illinois State University, Grapevine fiscal year 2016; College Board, Trends in College Pricing 2016.
[iv] Johnson Hess, Abigail, “U.S. Student Debt Has Increased by 100% Over the Past 10 Years,” CNBC, 22 December 2020. Student loan debt was $480 million in 2006; that debt has more than tripled since then. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/12/22/us-student-debt-has-increased-by-more-than-100percent-over-past-10-years.html
[v] “The Number of International Students Is Shrinking,” The Almanac Issue 2021, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 August 2021; p. 10.
[vi] Grawe, Nathan D., “How to Survive the Enrollment Bust,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 22 January 2021. Page 12.
[vii] Colleges that have shut down recently include: 2016—Burlington College; Dowling College; St. Catharine College in Kentucky; Trinity Lutheran College; 2017—Crossroads College; Memphis College of Art; Grace University
Saint Joseph’s College in Indiana (suspended operations); St. Gregory’s University; 2018—Atlantic Union College; Concordia College in Alabama; Marylhurst University; Morthland College; Mount Ida College; Newbury College; 2019—College of New Rochell; Green Mountain College; Marygrove College; Oregon College of Art and Craft; Southern Vermont College; 2020—Marlboro College.
[viii] National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. College Term Enrollment Estimates Report: Spring 2021. https://nscresearchcenter.org
[ix] Parker, Kim, and Igielnik, Ruth, “On the Cusp of Adulthood and Facing an Uncertain Future: What We Know about Gen Z So Far,” 14 May 2020. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/05/14/on-the-cusp-of-adulthood-and-facing-an-uncertain-future-what-we-know-about-gen-z-so-far-2/
[x] “States,” a section of “The Almanac Issue 2021-2022,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 August 2021. Page 81
[xi] For the 2018-19 academic year, 39,246 BA degrees were conferred in English language and literature/letters, among 2,009,498 total of BAs conferred across all disciplines. Even though the general student population is much bigger now, the total number of English majors is smaller. 63,967 BAs in English were conferred in 1972. Both in raw numbers and in the percentages of degrees conferred, the study of English has been a loss leader. Data from “The Almanac Issue 2021-2022,” Chronicle of Higher Education.
[xii] George Packer’s recent essay is a fine account of conservative and liberal efforts to restore civic in education: “Can Civics Save America?” The Atlantic, 15 May 2021.
[xiii] Daniels, Ronald J., “Universities Are Shunning their Responsibility to Democracy,” The Atlantic, 3 October 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/10/universities-cant-dodge-civics/620261/
[xiv] Press, Eyal and Washburn, Jennifer, “The Kept University,” The Atlantic, March 2000.
[xv] James Englell and Anthony Dangerfield, Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press), 2005.
[xvi] Publish and Perish by James Hynes and Straight Man by Richard Russo are academic satires that I recommend most highly for their humor and for their insights into the work and ambitions of academic professionals.
[xvii] “What Can You Do with a Bachelor’s Degree in History,” National University, Department of History, 2021. https://www.nu.edu/resources/what-can-you-do-with-bachelors-in-history/
[xviii] Ashley, Susan, “Farewell to Tom K.” Colorado College, 1997. https://www.coloradocollege.edu/iapps/Bulletin/fall97/tkbarton.html